Terrible Beauty

December 5, 2011

Essay by architect and educator Lebbeus Woods followed by an interview with him by John Szot.


Lebbeus Woods needs little introduction. Mr. Woods’ work has been a major force in shaping contemporary architecture at both the formal and conceptual levels, and his compelling images of his proposals are unrivaled in their complexity and rich detail. In 2010, Mr. Woods composed a short essay probing “the ineffable” and its relationship to architecture for his blog. Inspired by this entry, John Szot followed up with Mr. Woods via email-his blog entry and the ensuing correspondence are collected here to offer a contemporary window into his work, which seeks to radically reconfigure the relationship between architecture and the society it keeps.

TERRIBLE BEAUTY 2: the ineffable

When was the last time you heard the word “ineffable” in a discussion about architecture? Never? Well, I’m not surprised. Ineffable means “unspeakable”—that which cannot be said—so I can understand why people do not speak of it. And yet, the ineffable is an important concept and even more so a momentous and profoundly disturbing experience when we encounter it, which most of us will, at one time or another, in the unfolding of our lives.

The ineffable is sometimes called ‘the beauty beyond expression,’ having to do with the apprehension of the divine, or with some essence of existence hidden from us in normal situations. The ineffable is revealed only when the curtain of normalcy around us is pulled away and we are confronted with a very different world than we imagined we inhabit. This is often a frightening experience, even terrifying because we’re not sure what to do next, or what to think. A car accident, a tornado, the loss of someone we love and need—traumatic experiences that shake us out of our accustomed, taken-for-granted reality and we are left to struggle for understanding. Only thrill-seekers who enjoy the adrenalin-rush of fear seek out such experiences. The rest of us try to keep things as they are, paying the price of boredom, if necessary, to keep ourselves in the comfort range of the familiar. The ineffable is well out of our comfort range.

For this reason, the ineffable is not a topic, let alone a goal, of architectural design. We can say that in fact design is the enemy of and a defense against the ineffable. As soon as we design, we start to control, to set up the defining boundaries and limits and we squeeze out the ineffable, which is something that emerges when systems fail, when the limits are transgressed, and when things fall apart. We like to set up things so we feel we are in control. Our environment is designed to reassure us that everything is OK. That is what politicians do, telling us “Everything is OK, don’t worry about Iraq, it’s going to be OK—don’t worry about pollution, we are going to take care of it.” Architects are a big part of this game of reassurance. We design endless variations of the normal and the familiar, sometimes dressing it up to look different, but inside—when we inhabit it—we find that we can behave and think normally. Our perception of the world is not affected or changed.

I grow weary when I hear the optimistic talk of architects proclaiming, like salespersons, that architecture will make living easier, more pleasurable, safer, more secure. Our habits—the optimistic talk being one of them—only serve to reassure us that everything is OK, even if it is not. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable; we don’t want to have to move in a way that we are not habitually used to moving. But it is only when we are shaken out of our habits that we are able to change and to grow. What if to make things better, to enable people to cope creatively with the traumas of change, we have to make things more difficult, more risky, less secure? How often have architects dared to do that?

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© Paul Lowe.

A strong sense of the ineffable is seen in the photograph of a group of people obviously in distress. The photograph itself is not a self-conscious artwork, concerned with the limits of photography and the like, but a work of journalism, showing us a piece of a particular event.

What they are looking at is a moment of the destruction of the city where they live, Sarajevo in Bosnia in 1992. They are looking at the places where they have lived that have just been destroyed, by artillery and mortar fire. They are looking at their friends and neighbors shot dead by snipers, lying in the streets. Their sense of reality, their sense of the normality of life has been shattered. Intentional violence has destroyed the familiar for them, what they relied on, how they identified themselves, who they were, what they did every day. Theirs are the faces of the ineffable.

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Bosnia, Sarajevo, 1993. UN soldiers help a wounded woman to safety after a mortar shell exploded. © Paul Lowe.

A wounded woman is being rescued in a street under attack. There is an urgent sense of panic, of terror. In such moments, the ineffable fully breaks out and it is unspeakable. The photograph only makes us aware of its existence, being second-hand. You had to be there as Paul Lowe, a very courageous photographer, whom I met there in ’93, was—to know the ineffable’s full dimensions. “Is this the end? What is life worth, if everything that matters is destroyed?” Blind instinct takes over, and we are far beyond the realm of the habitual and any forms of comfort.

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© Photo by unidentified photographer.

War is an extreme of destructive violence, but so are the “natural” disasters. In New Orleans, the violence of Katrina’s extreme wind and flood destroyed people’s worlds as effectively as war. Normal rooms are absurdly rearranged, becoming parodies of the everyday. Compared with a wholesale destruction of buildings the damage seems small, but the fabric of the everyday is more subtle and fragile than we think. The sofa is still there, but no one can any longer sit or lie on it. The “sanctity of the home” has been violated, and it matters little that it was by accident and not by intention. Some terrible event has occurred and the ineffable has broken through into reality, leaving us with the dread that our existence is really very tenuous and not at all assured.

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© Photo by unidentified photographer.

Painful ironies abound. The new buildings tipped-over by an earthquake in Taiwan fell because architects and engineers left the ground floors as open as possible for shopping malls, weakening them in disregard for the threat from powerful lateral earth forces active in a seismic zone. Who is to blame here—nature, or the architects and engineers? From the viewpoint of the inhabitants caught in this catastrophe, it hardly matters. The ineffable cannot be designed, but design can unintentionally invite it in.

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© Photo by unidentified photographer.

The list goes on. The “urban clearance” of German and Japanese cities designed during World War II by British and American war planners unleashed hell on earth, and also an entire world of ineffability where “the shock of the new” was at once a sound of doom and the prelude to the construction of a post-war world. People affected simply had to “adjust” and “adapt.” Is it necessary to bomb cities flat in order to build them anew? Obviously not. But some form of destruction of the old is necessary, and that produces for many the trauma of change. Is, then, the ineffable also the inevitable?

Before answering, I’ll extend my list of sources of the ineffable by one more: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Until then, America had prided itself on its major cities never having been violently attacked by a foreign enemy. We had never suffered the sort of destruction experienced by Europeans and Asians in World War II, save for some home-grown exceptions like the Civil War (called by historians the first modern war, in part because cities became targets) and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But now, major American cities were attacked, and our whole idea of reality was twisted. The destruction was limited, but the fact that it was caused by foreigners, using American airliners as weapons, qualified the attack as a national calamity. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Loss of so many lives, loss of physical symbols of American power, loss of the sense of invulnerability, loss of innocence, however misplaced it had been, loss of America’s privileged place in the world. A profound sense of loss is the main effect of our experience of the ineffable.

Coming back to the faces photographed in Sarajevo, we might be able to see that they don’t belong to some people somewhere else. They are our faces. These faces portray unspeakable loss, as do the photos of the collapsing towers, and their ruins.

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© U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson.

But there is also something else.

Loss is inevitable in the story of each person. Losing your wallet, losing your job, losing your home, your family, your city—the degree of loss escalates from the inconvenient to the inconceivable, and with it the experience of the ineffable. Loss, however, is necessary in order for us to change, not only in our habits, but also in our understandings and beliefs. As long as we cling comfortably to what we are and know, we cannot learn, or create. If design is to be a creative act, it must take on the most difficult situations in our lives. It must offer more than comfort and reassurance. It must confront the unspeakable—the ineffable—and become a means by which we can transcend it. This means that we—as individuals and as architects—must, as the Existentialist poet Nikos Kazantzakis once put it, “build the affirmative structure of our lives over an abyss of nothingness.” A heroic—probably too heroic—task, it is true. Except for those who have no choice.


Article first published on July 24, 2010 at Reproduced with permission by the author.

JS: Looking back at your major building proposals—for Sarajevo, Berlin, Havana, San Francisco, and New York City—in each case there is an intense form of tension stemming from conflict, be it natural disaster, political turmoil, or otherwise. These conditions set the stage for radical intervention by identifying the ineffable as a pre-existing condition. However, in “Terrible Beauty 2,” you seem to advocate pursuing the ineffable as a legitimate, independent architectural enterprise. Does this mark a shift in the trajectory of your work?

LW: First, it should be noted that I advocate confronting the ineffable when life challenges us with it. I believe that in our era of rapid and often violent changes, architects have a responsibility to face the historically unprecedented problems confronting people everywhere today. Not only that, but they have been entrusted with the social agency for doing so, by virtue of their education, special knowledge and skills, and being legally empower to assume design stewardship over the human environment. If architects don’t take on this job, who will? Politicians? Engineers? Builders? Commercial corporations? They need to help, certainly, but I have always believed that architects, with their commitment to the total situation, should be the leaders in the reconstruction of human landscapes transformed by violence and dominated by the ineffable, and therefore, must take the initiative. That’s what leaders do, not waiting for someone else to do so and then calling them in.

JS: In your essay, you establish a strong case for engaging the ineffable despite the difficulties it may present. Although you have a compelling moral argument for doing so, you also note that the intrinsic nature of the ineffable conflicts with expectations placed on the architect. Would you care to elaborate further on the difference between the values that embrace the ineffable and those that guide the way we approach building design, or is it merely about control?

LW: No, it’s not about control; it’s about the strength and validity of ideas. I base my way of thinking on the presumption that really good architects will have the best ideas for reconstruction, better than other specialists, again, because of their comprehensive understanding of environments and their abilities to give this understanding concrete form. Of course, they don’t do this in isolation, but working with others. That’s what I meant in a recent manifesto of education when I declared that “the era of the collaborative genius must begin.”1 The architect must be the collaborative genius who has the best ideas about how to structure the work process involving others, leading to the designs for reconstruction.

I don’t want to spend the time or space here on elaborating why so few architects have acted decisively as leaders in the continual reconstruction of cities—damaged or not—up to now.2 Rather, I am convinced that we must concentrate our energy on changing architect’s attitudes now and into the future, beginning in the schools of architecture.

JS: Many of the other creative disciplines have for decades explored the kind of trauma and anxiety associated with the ineffable. Some might argue that media, with a deep virtual dimension (like film), are effective (and safe) surrogates for the ineffable experience. What is your position?

LW: Films are fine media for what Freud called ‘sublimating’ dreadful feelings, so their energy can be transformed into something useful, positive, even creative. But the re-channeling of emotional energy often only relieves and diffuses personal suffering, unless it is actively put to creative use. Vicarious experiences and voyeurism can lead to passivity and the acceptance of unacceptable norms far more easily and often than inspiring creative actions for changing them.

The more hopeful outcome of films and other virtual experiences is addressed by Aristotle in his Poetics, that explains his theory of Greek theater. In it, he states that the events and characters we see on the stage create models for our thoughts and actions in the world we actually inhabit. The aesthetical worlds of the theater have, in short, a moral and an ethical dimension in relation to the ineffable—they give us help in how to live our often-difficult lives. In the same way, the imaginary worlds of architectural design—and especially so-called visionary” architecture—offer us similar models for everyday living. We’re free to follow them or not, or to adapt them to our purposes.

JS: Today, one can easily see a connection between the network culture of social media and the heterarchical organizational strategies you described 20 years ago. However, it is debatable whether our buildings have risen to the challenges presented by this use of technology. Your work emphasizes the relationship between buildings and physical phenomena. Do you believe there is a connection between your concept of heterarchical space and the social dynamic of a “wired” society, or does architecture’s preoccupation with the physical world make for an entirely different set of obligations and opportunities?

LW: My work definitely aims to explore the consequences of freedom and choice, often by technological means. In my Berlin Free-Zone project, the center of the city is regenerated not by traditionally hierarchical urban planning methods, but by spontaneous architecture without predetermined purpose and meaning, evolving through the unpredictable exchanges by electronic means of people living there.

Our buildings today are still designed according to outdated models, what Paul Rudolph called “background” and “foreground” types—a few extraordinary “masterpieces” designed by star architects, set against an urban fabric of what Robert Venturi called “the ugly and the ordinary.” It is a hierarchical formula that has worked throughout human history, for example in Europe’s Middle Ages, when the Cathedral was a brilliant jewel set off against the dark and dense texture of a surrounding town built by and for its ordinary inhabitants. It is easy to understand why this model endures—it is familiar and safe—even though the society it supported has passed. What is needed today are new models that give form to the democratic society struggling to emerge from the older autocratic, oligarchic ones that have dominated history for so long. It is a very difficult struggle, because even the concepts of democracy inherited from the past are outmoded and must be reinvented for the present and coming age of technological revolution. The “wired society” and its imperatives for architecture is a good place to begin.

2 In a sense, all cities are “damaged,” in that they are always both decaying and growing. The ineffable lurks everywhere in them, simply waiting to emerge in crises brought on by change.