Self-portrait with Burned Weapon: The wound that does not heal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract / Description of output

Inevitably, in one sense at least, early work arrives late. For it gains its particular meaning and status only when we are directed to it by subsequent “mature” productions, which, by forming an interpretative context for what has come before, place demands upon it. Typically, the “early” is examined for intimations of what will emerge and given importance insofar as it displays these. Indeed, it is difficult to see how work that showed no discernible connections of this kind could be described as “early” at all. Approaches of this sort are implicitly teleological – the value of early work is established on its documentation of the development of the artist who is bound to arise; it is juvenilia whose unnecessary features will wither away to release the work into what it had to become.

But this is not the only way to think. Another would be to set aside organic metaphors of growth and maturation, and look instead for a differential pattern of potentials and possibilities that, while sharing affinities, do not imply a single, inevitable future. This allows us to attend to early work in a different way, opening questions of what it did not – or even “failed to” – become. The title of an early drawing series, Lost and Found (1973), which Lebbeus Woods partially reprised many years later on his online blog, hints at something like this – a more discontinuous process of losing and finding (actions neither arbitrary nor unmotivated, this further complicating the relations between “early” and “late”). Of it, he wrote: “What is interesting – and a little frightening – is that the basic forms and ideas were there from the beginning.”

The aim of this article is to explore some manifestations of the early work of Lebbeus Woods, trying to draw out aspects of the architect’s thought that were – to me, at least – unexpected and different in kind from the usual narratives given. My sources are a limited number of the “black notebooks” that Woods kept in the 1970s. The notebook as an object, an object that was also an idea, clearly held a special meaning for him. Tied to his longstanding sense of itinerancy, the notebooks are portable and mobile, while also offering, as he later said, a home and space of safety. Their regular 11”x 14” format provides a constant that survives the frequently changing addresses written in their inner covers, the tension between the two reaching a height in the inscription for #16: “Lebbeus Woods < No address at present > Call collect (317) 255-7066 if found.” This seems as much a statement of principle or epigram as a declaration of fact. He assumes Xenon (Greek for “stranger”) as a persona, contemplates wandering “the great cities an outcast, a stranger to their multitudes”, and adopts the monogrammatic X – the mark that is the sign of the mark itself, the minimal index of an anonymous presence. Complex artefacts – spaces of drawing and delineation, and of the written elaboration of ideas – the notebooks also join a tradition of spiritual diaries, records of the interior struggles and self-exhortations of their author. In this, they are powerful instruments of auto-construction, in which the self is reflected, explores its identity, dwells on what it could become, but also confronts what it might not.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-21
Number of pages8
JournalArchitectural Design
Issue number2
Early online date5 Mar 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Mar 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Lebbeus Woods
  • drawing
  • experimental architecture
  • W B Yeats
  • self-portraiture
  • sketchbooks
  • Friedrich Nietzsche


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