The architect Steven Holl, who has long blurred the line between architecture and art in his own work, drew up a joint project for Washington, D.C. in the 1980s with iconoclastic artist Vito Acconci.
During a presentation of their proposal to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Acconci began slapping the wall with his hand while delivering a mantralike description of the scheme. “They fired us on the spot,” Holl recalls.
Nonetheless, Holl, 64, has continued his exuberant approach to architecture and continues to collaborate with Acconci and other cutting-edge artists, such as Walter de Maria and Richard Artschwager, while winning an ever-lengthening string of commissions for museums and assorted cultural institutions. The American Institute of Architects awarded him its 2012 Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor.
This past spring, Holl’s plans for the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University were exhibited at Meulensteen gallery in New York. They included a series of watercolors Holl made as conceptual drawings for the project. Similar watercolors that were the genesis of Holl’s other architectural visions fill dozens of gray file cartons neatly arrayed above the desk in his New York office.
“They go all the way back to 1977,” Holl says as he sifts through containers to locate drawings for the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki that was completed in 1998. The architect himself chose the museum’s name, which derives from the Greek word for intersection, because the design consists of two intersecting forms. The selection committee deemed the structure “mysteriously sculpturesque and sensitively innovative.”
Ever since Kiasma first brought Holl international attention, he has been crafting architecture that is as poetic as it is audacious. In the past year, he completed a museum in Nanjing, China, with galleries housed in rectangular tubes poised high in the air atop stilts, and he was hired to do a major addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His design for an extension to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s landmark Glasgow School of Art is under construction, following on the opening of his new Cite de l’Ocean et du Surf museum in Biarritz, France, and an expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
In Biarritz, where he collaborated on the museum design with Brazilian multimedia artist Solange Fabiao, Holl used inventive wave-like forms and a concave exhibition space to give the visitor the experience of being “under the sky/under the sea” and also allow the building blend into the coastline. The Nelson-Atkins Museum extension is fashioned of glowing white glass forms that stand in striking counterpoint to the original 1933 limestone, neo-classical structure. Holl and Walter de Maria worked together to devise the reflecting pool on the museum’s central plaza that contains de Maria’s sculpture One Sun/34 Moons.
In Holl’s view, there are three distinct approaches to designing art museums. “There’s the neutral white box,” he explains. “We see that, if you take that too far, it sucks the light out of art. Then there’s the super expressionist building by the signature architect. But if you take that too far, it totally squashes the art so you can’t have a great feeling for any art experience in a building like that.
“And we believe there is a third way, which is a way where the sense of space where you’re going to experience the art is silent and poetic enough but when you move from one gallery to another you’re energized by the sequence. The building draws you through and doesn’t frustrate the movement. You sense that someone wrote a musical score; that this is the way you flow through these spaces.”
Holl’s designs vary widely in scale, from intimate projects like the hybrid art gallery and residence he just completed for the Daeyang Shipping Company in Seoul, South Korea, to the gargantuan so-called horizontal skyscraper built in Shenzen, China and containing offices, apartments and a hotel. Holl’s clients are just as wide-ranging, and include the financial firm D.E. Shaw & Co. for whom he designed a multi-hued Manhattan trading floor to New York University’s Department of Philosophy whose faculty he provided with work space linked by an ethereal staircase.
The latest buildings, carried out by a 40-member team at his firm Steven Holl Architects with offices in New York and Beijing, stress the sensory experience of moving through a space and encountering changes in perspective, light, texture and color. Such elements are fundamental to architecture, but few practitioners speak as emphatically as Holl about their importance to the finished work.
In doing so, Holl sprinkles his conversation and writings with terms like “phenomenology,” “parallax” and “heuristic.” He invokes literary works as influences – having designed a historical museum for the Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun and the small Franz Kafka Society Center in Prague. At Columbia University, where he is a tenured professor, Holl taught a course called the “Architectonics of Music.” Musical compositions, from Béla Bartók’s string pieces to Gregorian chants, inspire his designs, he says.
“Parallax for me is one of the most important parts of architecture,” the architect says with excitement building in his voice. “That’s the movement of the body and how the space overlaps and changes as the body changes position. So if there’s only one inscription on my tombstone it would be that ‘He cared about parallax.'”
Holl acknowledges that such rhetoric might put off some prospective clients. It certainly represents a distinct contrast to the sober, restrained approach of his colleague Renzo Piano, who has garnered perhaps more major museum commissions than any other architect in decades by deploying elegantly simple rectilinear forms and a soothing personal manner to win over institutional trustees.
“Some clients are totally inspired,” Holl says of reactions to his own designs and his particular manner of conveying them. “People either love it or they hate it because it’s intense. I’m not interested in the weak tea, milquetoast version of whatever architecture is. I’m interested in a certain level of intensity in architecture.”