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Lessons in life: Lebbeus Woods.

Lebbeus Woods, who recently died aged 72 in New York, will be truly missed in the architecture word. I met him just once at a lecture in the Bartlett School of Architecture when studying there in the mid 1990s. The lecture, that he had specially prepared for the occasion, was electrifying. But things were not as they seemed. Woods, with a generosity only later appreciated, gave a lesson full of wit and humour that some students would never forget!

That evening, Wood's fawning, young audience were treated to a series of slides illustrating the development of an idea for an incredible architectural growth protruding from the head of a mundane Modernist building in Mexico City. Then, to audience gasps, he showed a series of slides of the prefabricated protrusion being craned into position atop the building. I seem to recall, it had been cut-open to receive the architectural transplant.

The study group that I was part of, was heading to Mexico City for a six-week field trip, a couple of days after the lecture. Woods had heard about this, and kindly adapted his lecture to whet our appetite. He also provided a few clues, but not an address, of how to find his first built project. The excitement in the bar later that evening was palpable!

Amongst our group, there were divided opinions on the interpretation of clues as to where the building actually was. Search parties criss-crossed Mexico City, and in the process saw many interesting things, and learned much about the place and people. Nobody found his building though.

Eventually, we went to the university and its architecture school where the local students showed and taught us things we had missed. It was there, that we found the photographs of the building Woods had shown us in London. A tremendous storm had ripped through the city and crumpled a giant steel rooftop advertising hoarding that had collapsed over the edge of the building. A post-graduate architecture student had photographed the collapsed structure as it was being cut-loose and lowered safely onto the back of a truck. The student had given the photos to Woods as a critique of his work when he visited Mexico City to lecture. Woods had simply reversed the sequence of the images for his lecture in London... our imaginations had uncritically filled in the gaps!

Laughing about it later, I do not think any of us worked so hard, or learned so much about a place as we did on that trip!

Read the Guardian obituary for Lebbeus Woods.

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