Category Archives: 02 Research

Lebbeus Woods on Libeskind’s Machines

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By the mid-1980s, the reputation of Daniel Libeskind as a leading avant-garde figure in architecture was rapidly rising. This was based on his work as a teacher—he was director and principal teacher at the Cranbrook Academy School of Architecture from 1978 to 1985, establishing it as one of the most creative schools in the world—and on the publication and exhibition of a number of projects that, on their face, seemed to have little to do with architecture. Notable among these were his Memory Machine, Reading Machine, and Writing Machine.

Elaborately constructed and enigmatic in purpose, Libeskind’s machines are striking and sumptuous manifestations of ideas that were, at the time he made them, of obsessive interest to academics, critics and avant-gardists in architecture and out. Principal among these was the idea that architecture must be read, that is, understood, in the same way as a written text.

The chief structural features of written language, grammar and syntax, which organize the ways words are put together into a coherent, meaningful ensemble, clearly relate to architecture. Indeed, so traditional a modernist as Mies van der Rohe was fond of speaking of architecture’s ‘grammar’ and declaring that an understanding of it was essential to design. However, when it comes to the meaning of word constructions—texts—it was believed, by the 70s and 80s, by leading linguistic and literary theorists, that written texts do not have a fixed meaning established by what its author intended to say, but rather multiple meanings that readers have to interpret for themselves by using various cultural codes and references. Peter Eisenman and the circle of architects and critics gathered around him, applied this to architecture, with the consequence that the ‘meaning’ of architecture—symbolically and in terms of human purposes—was in their view not to be found in either the architects’ or their clients’ intentions. In short, form does not follow any a priori function but has autonomous existence that must, in the end, be ‘read’ on its own terms. In short, the meaning of architecture is to be found only in architecture itself.

This is a radical position that has not had an impact on most architects who, like it or not, must follow their clients’, if not their own, desires and intentions. However, it is possible to imagine that the idea of architecture’s autonomy liberated architects to design ever more idiosyncratically expressive forms having little to do with the client-programmed spaces wrapped by them. What began as a radical concept affecting the very core of architecture, is compromised, we might say reduced, to commercially marketable and client-acceptable styles—a fate much the same as idealistic modernism suffered in its time.

In any event, the vogue for a linguistic interpretation of architecture has passed, and the avant-garde has moved on, or at least elsewhere. Libeskind’s machines, inspired by reading and writing and implicitly interpreting texts, as well as memory (treated as text), would be of little interest today if the machines were only didactic illustrations of theory. But they are much more. As objects of design, they have powerful presence, as well as conveying a refined and highly rigorous aesthetic sensibility. As acts of the disciplined imagination of tectonic possibilities—how many parts might be assembled into a compelling whole—they are highly original, exemplary, and instructive. For example, in the diverse, even contrasting ways the same material, such as wood, can be used expressively in the same construction. Or, in the complexity of joints, from fixed to flexible, enabling the total assemblage. Of course, as hand-crafted constructions (a bit too ‘Renaissance’ for comfort, as was Tatlin’s Flying Machine), they are at once nostalgic and visionary, the latter if we believe that technology is not the main issue at stake in architecture.

But the most important legacies of these machines, I believe, are conceptual, and of equal or greater value today as when they were made. Their use of analogy to inform the field of architecture is a potent tool for exploring much-needed new ideas of space and its human purposes than are afforded by the ordinary design process based on history and accepted building typologies. In the past, architects such as Mies found architectural inspiration in works of art (see the post Art to Architecture), while Le Corbusier produced his own paintings and sculptures to work out complex aesthetic problems in his architecture. Libeskind’s machines are in this tradition, though the problems are different. More architects today could benefit from such an analogous method, if they set for themselves problems not already solved. This method, like the machines themselves, opens architecture to a wide range of knowledge coming from different fields of thought and work, which is sorely needed in a time such as the present, characterized by increasing diversity in the human situation.