A few weeks ago, I read an article on some site or another about Lebbeus Woods, the visionary architect who died last year. The images of his work that ran with it were striking. Equally striking, though, was the consensus of pretty much everyone in the comments: This isn’t architecture at all. Seeing as only one of Woods’s designs was ever constructed, it’s not hard to see where the detractors were coming from. To Tom Ngo, however, they would be taking a woefully narrow view of the field.
Ngo, a young architect currently based in Toronto, started working on his “Architectural Absurdities” for his master’s thesis, in 2009. “When I was in school, I was getting into a lot of trouble because I was unaware of a lot of the implicit rules within design,” he says. “When I started to figure them out, I realized that the basis for a lot of it was just preference or convention. Eventually, it sort of took over, and I just began to question everything from gravity to scale and it became the starting point for the work I do now.”
Ngo’s simple, charmingly illustrated buildings depart from reality in a number of ways. Some defy perspective, others overlap impossibly. They look like the type of houses M.C. Escher might like to live in (inescapably, forevermore).
But the architect sees them as something more than simple puzzles. In his view, they’re a way to challenge the inherited thinking and presumed logic of his field. “Our preconceptions of what is favorable and by extension beautiful in architecture and design is a problem in and of itself,” he says. “Contemporary art has been able to separate itself from normal conceptions of beauty, but design and architecture is not quite there yet. Perhaps it doesn’t want to be but it should definitely be explored, and I’m hoping the work will begin to delve deeper into those depths.”
Granted, it can be hard to see what, exactly, Ngo is critiquing here. I’m not sure how much you or I can learn from a house on elongated candy cane stilts. But that doesn’t invalidate the work. It may well be the case that these types of projects are most valuable to the architects who work on them–exercises that force their creators to challenge their thinking and push their craft outside the limits of comfort or orthodoxy. Ngo says he drew inspiration from the work of John Hejduk and Daniel Libeskind–renowned architects who also, at various points in their careers, dabbled in the unbuildable.
And still, for some, a career of thoughtful, thought-provoking speculation is enough in and of itself. Speaking at the opening of the Lebbeus Woods retrospective currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the architect Neil Denari made the case for the late master’s contributions to the field succinctly: “Architects do more than build.”