Lebbeus Woods’ successful copyright claim was a rare thing in an industry built on copying, says Rory Olcayto
Lebbeus Woods, who died last week in New York, was that rare thing: an architect who successfully sued over copyright infringement. In March 1996 Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum concluded that Universal Studios had ripped off Woods’ 1987 drawing Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber for scenes in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 time travel thriller 12 Monkeys.
Gilliam admitted he’d seen Woods’ image of an elevated chair in an industrial setting and had discussed it with both the film’s producer and production designer. I remember going to see the film myself and being surprised there was no reference to Woods in the credits. Anyone familiar with his drawings could tell that Gilliam’s set design was a blatant copy.
Others have not been as lucky as Woods. Famously, British architect Gareth Pearce was ridiculed by Mr Justice Jacob in 2001 over his claim that Rem Koolhaas and OMA had copied his 1986 plans for a town hall in London’s Docklands for the Dutch firm’s Rotterdam Kunsthal design. ‘[His claim] has no foundation whatsoever,’ Jacob told the high court, the Guardian reported. ‘It is one of pure fantasy - preposterous fantasy at that. The Kunsthal owes nothing to the claimant.’
At the time Will Alsop, then an AJ columnist, slammed Pearce ‘for seeking notoriety’ despite having the backing of three expert witnesses, including that of dispute resolution stalwart Ian Salisbury. ‘It is my opinion that the design of the Kunsthal was copied from Pearce’s drawings,’ Salisbury said in a 119-page report.
Alsop was incensed by Pearce’s action, which failed to gain support among the profession, because it brought back painful memories. A few years earlier Alsop had received a letter from the RIBA disciplinary board alleging his design for a restaurant on a bridge at the Doncaster Earth Centre was stolen from the work of an unsuccessful candidate for a job in his office. ‘I had never met the creature but it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, even though no legal action followed,’ Alsop wrote. While Woods’ grievance was clear to see, Pearce’s was considerably less so. It was no surprise the law sided with Koolhaas.
In a profession practically built on the art of cribbing, high-profile cases like the Koolhaas-Pearce dispute are rare. According to FAT, duplicating another’s design can even be a cause for celebration. The studio’s Museum of Copying in the Arsenale at this year’s Venice Biennale ‘explores the idea of the architectural copy as an important, positive and often surreal phenomenon’ and posits Palladio’s Villa Rotonda as the movement’s lodestone.
Yet there will always be some who feel the culture of copying goes too far. ‘No one wants to sue a multinational corporation,’ said architect Thomas Shine when filing a copyright suit against David Childs and his practice, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. As Metropolis magazine reported in 2004, ‘Childs saw a design Shine made at Yale in 1999, praised it, then copied it for the Freedom Tower. Childs’ firm concedes the designs “share common elements,” including the “diagrid” structure, but those things “have been industry standards for years”.’
The dispute was resolved two years later, with both Shine’s claim and SOM’s claim for legal costs withdrawn. Perhaps a cash settlement was made. That, at least, was the good fortune of Woods, whose designs, bar a sculpture in China, remain unbuilt. Instead of insisting upon the injunction granted by Judge Cedarbaum, which would have seen 12 Monkeys pulled worldwide, Woods opted for a six figure payout from Universal, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘paper architect’