JUSTIN PATON: You came to Christchurch to talk about the architect Lebbeus Woods, who is not an architect in the sense most people are used to. Could you say a little about Woods and the context he emerged from?
JOSEPH BECKER: Absolutely. To put Woods in proper context it's important to paint a little bit of the picture of his upbringing. He was born in 1940 and grew up as the son of an army engineer in the thick of the Second World War and during the development and evolution of the atomic bomb. His father, Colonel Lebbeus Woods, was responsible for a lot of the infrastructural developments related to the Manhattan Project, so Woods junior, Lebbeus, was around all of these large engineering projects – aeronautics, wind tunnels and fighter jets – and I think that established a design and engineering sensibility in him at a very young age. His father ultimately died of radiation poisoning from the Bikini Atoll atomic tests, and Lebbeus Woods was also affected by a very raw understanding that, through engineering, there could be both the creation of something and destruction and chaos. This probably also led him towards a certain fundamental distrust of governments and institutions – the idea of some heavy hand that was not his. Perhaps with this in mind he studied engineering at Purdue and architecture at Urbana-Champaign where he was exposed to the idea of cybernetics and the science of thinking. He then entered into architectural practice, working for Eero Saarinen and Associates after Saarinen's untimely death and the firm's transfer to Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, and was involved in key projects focusing on architecture's capacity to craft an experiential space for its inhabitants. And all the while he's developing his own voice, his own architectural language, working as a freelance illustrator and architectural renderer, honing his skills and his technical capabilities in clearly rendering an architectural idea.
JP: At that point, though, he was perhaps not so different from many other young practicing architects. What was it that started to set Woods apart from architects as we normally encounter them?
JB: The major difference is that Woods was seemingly never fully interested in actually building his buildings. He was more interested in the idea of architecture for its own sake, and by that I mean architecture that was not for clients, or money, or even for glory, but more focused on underlying philosophical concerns about what architecture is and what it has the potential to become. By separating himself from some of the practical requirements of professional architecture, such as building permits, or the potential design derision of corporate clients, or even from dealing with forces like gravity, he was able to focus on the question of what it means to exist in a world that we can create. What does it mean to exist in an architecture that we can be responsible for? What can we do with that responsibility? This was also at a time, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when the idea of practicing a more conceptual architecture, and not 'selling out' to the capitalist system of building, became a badge of honour. There was a very interesting conversation flowing through academic circuits and publications, with people pushing against the common understanding of what architecture is. And Woods was at the centre of that.
JP: What triggered this push towards conceptual architecture? Was it disenchantment with commercial models?
JB: It was a common feeling at that time that corporate interests were taking over. To have clarity of architectural vision in that social context was difficult, especially if you were trying to execute your ideas through actual buildings. A built version of the architectural idea would not necessarily provide the conceptual rigour that Woods wanted and which he could execute more successfully through a drawing, a model or his writing. His aim was to describe the potential of architecture, rather than creating something three-dimensional and inhabitable that we would commonly consider architecture.
JP: Ceasing to make buildings might strike some observers as a withdrawal or a retreat. With that potential criticism in mind, how did Woods make his ideas known? How did he disseminate them?
JB: It's a good question because, if you consider the idea of architecture as a career, then you know your cachet lies in realising your projects. But Woods was very adept at keeping himself relevant. He taught for many years at Cooper Union's School of Architecture, along with others, and also founded what is called the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture in the 1980s, which he saw as a new model for teaching architecture through conceptual practice. He also lectured internationally, and published his drawings and writings. He undoubtedly practiced architecture even though he never built buildings.
JP: And can you talk a little about the things he did make?
JB: He was extremely talented with the pen and the pencil, and he had such an ability to describe architectural ideas clearly that the drawings and models were capable of standing as artworks in their own right. They have this quality of labour and attention to detail that is seldom found these days in architectural practice.
JP: Is that due to the widespread use of computer-aided design?
JB: Absolutely. The pen and the pencil are very much still tools of the trade, but for sketching. The computer is such an important and functional device that it has essentially trumped the need for somebody to describe a space by hand, or illustrate the essence of a space by hand. So Woods was among the last, and perhaps the best, of a generation of architects who did this, who rendered the potential of a space by hand. There are some who have the technical skills, but the conceptual rigour of Woods's work sets him apart. He wasn't just a renderer, he was the creator and author of these ideas.
JP: When I look at the works, I think of the tradition of fantastic architecture, from Piranesi's Carceri etchings all the way through to the structures seen in science-fiction movies. Was there a fantastic dimension to what Woods was doing? Did sci-fi influence him or the other way around?
JB: This idea of fictional architecture, or even science-fictional architecture, is tricky for me. I wrestle with it in relation to Woods because a common perception of science fiction is that it's there more for amusement or escape than for deep contemplation about how the world works – that it's involved with imagining a world that is impossible. And with Woods, I'm less interested in thinking about the impossibilities than I am in thinking about the possibility of his projects. What if some of these things were realised? What effect would that have on our social perceptions? Our engagement? Even our communications?
JP: Woods had a strong connection with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where you're assistant curator of architecture and design. Can you talk about the major project he realised there?
JB: Woods had a dialogue with Aaron Betsky who in the mid 1990s was the curator of architecture and design at the museum. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay Area and the series of earthquakes in the 1990s that included Kobe and Los Angeles, Betsky commissioned Woods to come to the Bay Area and do a project based on the idea of the earthquake. Woods responded by attempting to take the event of the earthquake and turn it into something that was not necessarily chaos and destruction but a potential creative power. He was looking at the way that we perceive natural disaster as a negative, almost like an affront to humanity and to the evolution of civilisation. And he was challenging that idea and saying that we are looking at these seismic events in a backwards way. What if, instead of being victimised by the earthquake, we used architecture to embrace it, allowing variations within our architectural programmes that are generated by seismic activity? Woods created these amazing panels describing different types of houses or spaces of inhabitation that were all engaging with different aspects of seismic activity.
JP: Thinking of Christchurch and the many discussions here about building, I'm interested to know how the project, called Inhabiting the Quake, was received. What uses did local architects or viewers have for it? Did it have an appreciable effect on the wider conversation?
JB: I think with Woods's proposals, his goal is to plant a seed for other architects, engineers, planners and urban designers to start thinking more broadly and 'outside the box' about the way that we construct buildings, the way we inhabit buildings, even the way we take buildings apart. Because his proposals are very radical we can't really hope to see them realised by other architects yet. But what we can hope for is incremental change. This might begin with a shift of focus from the aesthetic of architecture to more concentration on things like base isolation and allowing certain kinds of flexibilities to begin to inform a building's design.
JP: That word 'inhabit' in Woods's title is fascinating. It seems to suggest that words like 'post-quake' are misnomers – that we are always living in the quake, and that we should never consider that it is behind us. What's your understanding of the phrase?
JB: Yes, it's multilayered. It's the idea of 'inhabiting' not only in space but in time, and it's not only a physical act but a mental one too. He's suggesting that we embrace or acknowledge the fact that we are responsible for the effects of the earthquake. He's calling attention to the fact that the problem isn't that the earthquake, operating independently, destroys the buildings, it's that the buildings have not been built for the earthquake. So he's encouraging us to inhabit the mindset of nature, inhabit the moment of the earthquake and, instead of being passive, to be an active participant in the process.
JP: That reminds me of another work by Woods that you presented in your Christchurch lecture [above], which I think many in the audience took away as a lasting mental image. It was a postcard, is that right?
JB: It's a note from his initial workings for the Inhabiting the Quake project. Woods is looking at the ways seismic actions present themselves and the ways we deal with those actions. He's looking at whether we should resist the earthquake with our architecture, or whether we should try and use or harness it. Or whether we embrace it, and even imagine an architecture that causes minor seismic activity so as to prevent major catastrophic quakes. He's generating these little notes that present a series of possible responses. And the key linguistic tool he uses here is the word 'fault', which is of course the fault line but also the idea of responsibility. So in the image I showed in Christchurch [see overleaf] he says, 'The fault is ours,' which is incredibly poetic. It inverts our traditional understanding of responsibility.
JP: It's terrific – a catchphrase for Christchurch to live by. With Woods's images in your mind's eye, how did the current Christchurch cityscape strike you? You arrived not long after some large tracts of the 'red zone' had been reopened to the public.
JB: It was hugely fascinating to see not only the effect on architecture but also on the physical landscape. As I walked and drove through, two different paths of thought began to intersect. One concerned the incredible dynamism within that landscape, where the ground has dramatically shifted and kind of laid its evidence bare. And then also there was the undeniable feeling of vacancy and emptiness in the city, which has been cleared out not only due to seismic activity but also, to some extent, due to political activity. It's a landscape of orange cones and surveyors and demo crews and within all of this change there is such a wonderful underlying feeling of optimism and potential regarding the built space, the open space, and the city as a whole.
JP: Visitors to the city sometimes confess to feeling guilty for finding it so interesting to look at. Is there a danger of aestheticising disaster? What do you think Woods's position on this question would be?
JB: I think Woods would say there is really no danger in looking at the beautiful aspects of chaos. Out of this kind of destruction can come a kind of creation, a realisation, an inevitable shift in strategy or in perception. I think that, in order for that shift to occur, there needs to be an event. And seeing things distorted or twisted and laid bare can suggest alternative architectural approaches, even if those alternatives are not yet functional. You mentioned Piranesi's Carceri, his views of prisons, and it resonated a bit. They are very dark scenes in which these interweaving pathways are almost towering over you and burying you. But at the same time there is something so compelling about those images that describe a fantastically complex space. Similarly, in the architectural environment that we experience, there is something so captivating about looking at something that is both so huge and such a feat of creative energy, and simultaneously at the brink of coming completely apart.
JP: It has been like that in Christchurch, where we have been constantly exposed, through the sight of demolitions in process, to all this new knowledge about what buildings are made of – all the sinews and structures that are usually hidden inside or within. It would be nice to think that, despite the stress and trauma of demolition, some understanding comes of it.
JB: Given that there is such radical change coming to Christchurch, with so many buildings coming down and presumably new buildings coming up, there is a remarkable opportunity for people to feel directly engaged in the architecture and planning, and to start to feel like the city is again your own.
JP: The temptation is always to ask visiting authorities what they would build in the new Christchurch. But since Woods put the emphasis on unbuildable projects, I'll try a different closing question. Why does architecture need speculative and unbuildable projects to set alongside its real building projects? What might the value of the 'unbuildable' be in a city like Christchurch, currently mired in the practicalities of recovery?
JB: For understandable reasons it's all too easy to fall into the same comfortable patterns of architectural development. But the key takeaway from looking at Woods's work is that a process for any kind of radical change might take a long time, so you have to embrace the potential of subtle and small shifts in perception – in the perception of the geotechnical engineer, of the urban planner, the designer, the architect. People can come in and propose potentially great things like mixed-use densities and pedestrian-centric urban spaces, but in addition I think it benefits everybody involved to stand back and take a serious look and think again about the potential effects of living in an urban environment. Is the architecture challenging those effects? Pushing them? Stimulating them? And in my understanding of Woods, we need that thinking to take place, alongside the work of building, if we're going to move forward in a progressive way.
Joseph Becker is assistant curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He spoke with Justin Paton in October 2013 following a speaking tour of New Zealand in August organised by the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington, and funded by the New Zealand Institute of Architects.
The Lines That Are Left
Of landscape itself as artefact and artifice; as the ground for the inscribing hand of culture and technology; as no clean slate.
— Joanna Paul
The residential Red Zone is mostly green. After each house is demolished, contractors sweep up what is left, cover the section with a layer of soil and plant grass seed. Almost overnight, driveway, yard, porch, garage, shed and house become a little paddock; the border of plants and trees outlining it the only remaining sign that there was once a house there.
Reopening, Redesigning and Returning
When I wrote my foreword for B.182, we were edging closer and closer to reopening; still anticipating this major milestone after almost five years. Having made the vaguely reckless decision to open our doors, come what may, at 10am on 19 December 2015 – a mere week after project completion – we stuck to that deadline.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the February earthquake of 2011 which devastated Christchurch. During that time, we and our city have been through so many different phases.
The hungry gap
We invited artists, academics, city makers, curators, health specialists and gallerists to comment on the challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Aaron Kreisler is Head of the School of Fine Art at the University of Canterbury. He talked to Bulletin about challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Sparks that fly upwards
Curator Felicity Milburn remembers five years and 101 installations in a gallery without walls.
Everything is going to be alright
The cover of Bulletin 181 in September 2015 featured a miscellany of crates in storage, several marked fragile, one weighing 156kg, some with arrows indicating which way up they should be, others instructing the reopener to lay it flat first. Some bear an image of what’s inside. Ralph Hotere’s Malady Panels and Julia Morison’s Tootoo are there, one with a label, the other with an image of the installed piece. As I write this our collections remain in storage. A few new works and some which have been on loan are awaiting return from storage within other institutions.
Dancing on shifting ground
Sophie McKinnon explores art, resilience, change and urban regeneration in China.
In the winter of 2006 I found myself traipsing around the 798 art district in Beijing, in search of someone to talk to about factories morphing into gallery spaces. I was fascinated by the story of a defunct industrial district turned rapidly expanding contemporary art zone. 798 had been the unofficial site of regeneration for Beijing’s art community since 2001. This community had spent over two deca+des plagued by isolation and displacement but seemed finally to be finding a home.
Regional revitalization with art
Rei Maeda, coordinator of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, writes on art’s contribution to the regeneration of a remote rural area of Japan.
Martin Trusttum, project manager for Ōtākaro Art by the River, and founder of temporary gallery space ArtBox, writes on the role of art in Christchurch.
Since late 2006 when I started as director of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, I’ve written several times about our art collections in Bulletin forewords. Given their centrality to our daily work and our reason for being, this is unsurprising. So it’s good news that we’re focusing on collections in this edition of our quarterly journal.
Stakes in the ground
Last, Loneliest, Loveliest is New Zealand's first official presence at the International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, and takes its alliterative title from Rudyard Kipling's poem, 'The Song of the Cities', which gives four lines each to various cities from the British Empire, including Auckland:
Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart–
On us, on us the unswerving season smiles,
Who wonder 'mid our fern why men depart
To seek the Happy Isles!
A technology that allows a building to effectively 'float' on its foundations during an earthquake is about to be applied to the Gallery.
Curator Ken Hall writes about his experience of working with artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes, as part of a small team with other city council staff and Ngāi Tahu arts advisors, on the Transitional Cathedral Square artist project.
The idea of peppering the vestigial city centre with portraits from the collection became part of the Gallery's tenth birthday POPULATE! programme, intended to remind all of us that the collection is, indeed, still here and in good shape.
The latest issue of Photoforum's MoMento journal (issue 14, January 2014) focuses on the work of three photographers with strong ties to Christchurch and their haunting images of this battered city post February 22, 2011.
Street urchins, blue moons and rare visions
Even in a city where surreal scenes have become somewhat routine, the sight of the Isaac Theatre Royal's eight-tonne dome, suspended like a great alien craft, had the power to turn heads and drop jaws. Preserved inside a strange white shroud while the theatre was slowly deconstructed around it was a jewel of Christchurch's decorative arts heritage – a 105 year-old Italianate plaster ceiling featuring a circular painted reverie on the theme of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The dome, along with the rest of the theatre, is currently being restored as part of an ambitious rebuild that is expected to be completed in 2015 at a cost of over $30 million.
Repair work has started on Christchurch Art Gallery, with the re-levelling tender that will relieve stress in the building's foundations having been awarded.
With the removal of the final cordon around the red zone in the central city last weekend, I came in with my family to have a look around the newly reopened areas of the CBD. We stopped to watch the parade of soldiers who were being thanked by the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Christchurch and Kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for their work in controlling the central city red zone and with community welfare in the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake.
Christchurch Art Gallery is ten: highs and lows
In recognition of the anniversary of the move of Christchurch's public art gallery from its former existence as the Robert McDougall in the Botanic Gardens to its new more central city location (now eerily empty), I've been asked by Bulletin's editor to recall some highs and lows of the last ten years. So here goes — and stay with me during this reflection, which takes the place of my usual foreword.
Gregor Kregar: Reflective Lullaby
Justin Paton: As everyone who has seen your works at Christchurch Airport will know, you often make big sculptures with a geometric quality. Gnomes, however large, aren't the first things viewers might expect you to be interested in. What's the appeal of these figures for you?
Gregor Kregar: I'm interested reinterpreting mundane objects, shapes, situations or materials. In my large geometric works I do this by creating complex structures out of basic shapes—triangles, squares, pentagons and hexagons. And with the gnomes I am interested in how something that is usually made out of plastic or concrete and is associated with a low, kitsch aesthetic can be transformed into an arresting monumental sculpture.
It’s our party and we’ll cry if we want to
On 10 May 2013, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu turns ten. Which is fantastic. But it's probably fair to say that there's a bittersweet quality to the celebrations around this particular anniversary, as it also marks two years and eleven weeks of closure for the Gallery, and catches us staring down the barrel of another two years without our home.
It's frustrating. And then some.
However, we're not going to let these little, ahem, inconveniences get in the way of our party. Populate! is our birthday programme, and it's our attempt to bring some unexpected faces and figures back to the depleted central city. Bulletin spoke to the Gallery's senior curator Justin Paton about what he really wants for the tenth birthday, what he finds funny, and what he really doesn't.
English artist Sarah Lucas was installing her show in Two Rooms, Auckland, when the 22 February earthquake struck.
Lunchtime on a shining summer's day and you head for the ruin of Christchurch Cathedral. If you get there by twelve you can usually nab one of the bench seats along the back wall, where sun buckets down through the long-gone roof and warms the stonework behind you.
We recently received this generous gift - from one quakeprone country to another
A Dark and Empty Interior
In B.167 senior curator Justin Paton documented his walk around the perimeter of Christchurch's red zone, and we featured the empty Rolleston plinth outside Canterbury Museum at the end of Worcester Boulevard. In this edition, director Jenny Harper interviews English sculptor Antony Gormley, who successfully animated another vacant central-city plinth—the so-called Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. Gormley filled the plinth with 2,400 people, who occupied it for one hour each, night and day, for 100 days. Here, Jenny asks him about his practice, the value of the figurative tradition and whether he has any advice for Christchurch.
Laying out Foundations
Looking broadly at the topic of local architectural heritage, Reconstruction: conversations on a city had been scheduled to open at the Gallery but will now instead show on outdoor exhibition panels along Worcester Boulevard from 23 June. Supplementing works from the collection with digital images from other collections, curator Ken Hall brings together an arresting art historical tour of the city and its environs.
Cities of Remembrance
Nothing was more fascinating than ruins to me when I was growing up in one of the newest parts of the New World—new, anyway, to extensive buildings and their various forms of lingering collapse and remnant. The native people of California had mostly built ephemeral structures that were readily and regularly replaced and left few traces. Anything old, anything that promised to reach into the past, was magical for me; ruins doubly so for the usual aura of romance and loss that, like death, is most alluring to the young who have not seen much of it yet.
The possibilities for a city in transition will be considered in Re:actions for the city – a new series of public events that we are launching.
Well before the earthquakes, Christchurch had a reputation as a tough town for public art. The city's public spaces are haunted by the ghosts of several major sculptures that never made it to completion. And several local sculptors still carry some psychological scar tissue from their forays into the public realm.
Here and Gone
In the last issue of Bulletin, senior curator Justin Paton wrote about the way the Christchurch earthquakes 'gazumped' the exhibitions on display at the Gallery – overshadowing them and shifting their meanings. In this issue, with the Gallery still closed to the public, he considers the place of art in the wider post-quake city – and discovers a monument in an unlikely place.
Sydenham-based photographer Doc Ross and his camera have been investigating the Christchurch urban environment for the past 14 years.
Reconstruction: Conversations on a City
In acknowledging architectural heritage loss in this city's present and past, this visually rich outdoor exhibition unfolds the ways in which dreams and values have been given form in our built environment.
Sculptural surprises and architectural double-takes by renowned contemporary artists. De-Building is inspired by a moment usually hidden from viewers – when an exhibition ends and the 'de-build' begins. View it online
Miles: A life in architecture
Best known for the Christchurch Town Hall and Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, Sir Miles Warren is the doyen of post-war New Zealand architecture, the first New Zealander to be knighted for services to architecture, an Icon of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, and a leading figure in the arts in Christchurch. The garden at his Governors Bay home, Ohinetahi, beautifully crafted by Miles with his sister Pauline Trengrove and her husband John, has also secured for him a reputation as one of our most remarkable garden designers.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
Over several years I have worked on a Scottish landscape called, immodestly, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, speculating with scientists and others on the fundamental laws and forces behind nature and what they might mean to us. Using growing nature to conjecture on what is basic to the universe is an old practice common to gardeners, but it raises some unlikely questions.