Radical Reconstruction: an interpretation of the drawings, words and ideas of Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods explores issues that deal with the design of systems in crisis: Where the order of the existing is being confronted by the order of the new.
His designs are politically charged and provocative visions of a possible reality. He is probablybest known for his proposals for San Francisco, Havana, and Sarajevo in the book “Radical Reconstruction” These projects define approaches to the reconstruction of buildings and urban fa
bric damaged by forces of both human and natural origins.
The site Lower Lea Valley: Upon visiting the site, my initial thought was this is an urban wasteland! Derelict warehouses, landfills and scrap yards stretching towards the horizon. The East London site is a threshold: between the boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets. The river Lea carved through the landscape and left an industrial heritage in its wake: it now acts as an urban barrier.
Woods words were used as a backdrop to design a framework that can respond to the area.
By stitching the landscape together, weaving and creating another layer of the city. One allows the unimaginable, unmappable and unstitchable to all exist. This emulates the heterarchies Lebbeus Woods encourages as the mode of the city.
“Design heterarchy of spaces, not hierarchy of space”.
A heterarchy is defined as any pair of items related in two or more differing ways. It has been said that to understand heterarchy one usually requires a willingness to move between unrelated perspectives.
We can now create complex, fluid and multilayered societies, but for this to be possible we have to revert to a city planning, that is complexly layered so that it has the possibility to grow and reshape itself. Old cities grew over time with use and re-use a transformation that stitches and weaves through generations.
This had an impact on the question of how one structure’s a framework based on his ideas.
Any sort of general rules of how to zone the area had to come from a heterarchical connection. Therefore a mapping of the areas past functions, its current uses and future potential was conducted to generate a code of key priorities within the new framework. By using the idea of heterarchical connections between the urban elements determining its position within the scheme it serves to guide the process as it continues
The process of transforming the teachings of Lebbeus Woods into a workable framework was a journey, trying to create a structure out of a system that encourages flux, informed complexity and change.
It required an interpretation of several of the key concept drawings and his words into applicable theories, a process that relied on interpretation and creative processing.
Turning concepts like scarring, freespaces, urban prescriptions and augmentations into an urban framework.
“In spaces voided by destruction new structures can be injected. Complete in themselves, they do not fit exactly into the voids, but exist as spaces within spaces” Lebbeus Woods
“Scarring and scabbing”; not tabula rasa. When a building is broken or an area is damaged, it should be treated with respect and accept that the past and that now it is time to adapt, revitalize and change. We should build for the future. I do not claim that all buildings should be kept or re-transformed; only that, from today the time for building short term is over. A building should and must have the possibility to grow to transform, to change its use and function into another, creating new layers of complexity and urban fabric.
This code is built on robustness and it is embedded with element of change in its very core.
The urban form is changed: old structures and roads are reconstructed to perform new functions where possible. New routes of movement are carved out of the urban tissue while routes lost and broken are now stitched back together creating a new pedestrianized urban landscape.
Parts of the original landscape are left “untreated” to act as glimpses into the past, where the area’s history and evolution can be seen in its scars. Woods concept of “freespaces” was translated to act as “potential space” integrated in any building scheme. The potential space can be injected with a new function (building or use) when the needs of the community become apparent. The new urban therefore exists with a failsafe against mono-use, to allow for a more flexible city structure.
When comes to reaching my final concluding thoughts on all of this, the transformation from framework to master-plan level was not immediately successful I found that to try to control the scheme was ironic, as controlling and shaping something that was intended to be a naturally evolving and flexible response to a system in crisis. The translation from theory to framework and to master plan was the part where I learnt the most. How the ideas and potential outcomes change, from “idealistic” theory to framework, and to realism dealing with control, cost and agencies on a masterplan level.
The ideas that make up this new, urban acting code, in effect slows the urbanization of an area, allowing it to grow and “become” at a more natural pace. This hopefully fights the notion of kit urbanism, and allows us to slowly move towards cities, that grow with the population and the needs of the people that inhabit it. The architecture should act for the people and respond to how they decide to change their conditions of living. It should not act as a defined mode of life, where society adapts to the grid put in place. The architecture becomes an instigator of events, transforming the social fabric as Woods said “Architecture is a political act”
I heard once that architects should be able to imagine the entire lifespan of the building he designs.
As urban designers I think it is important to move beyond the built form and the material world as Lebbeus Woods said “We’ve got to imagine more broadly. We have to have a more comprehensive vision of what the future is.”