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Art Is Enough For Steven Holl

Holl’s practice has been quietly defying architecture’s drift toward programmatic and computational excess for 40 years.

Steven Holl profile
The architect Steven Holl stands in his Manhattan corner office. He holds a five-by-seven-inch watercolor pad, the same kind he has used for 40 years. He estimates that his archive, suspended above his desk, contains 30,000 watercolors. Courtesy Yudi Ela

Steven Holl Architects is coming off something of a dry spell. SHA has just won a design competition for a gateway building at University College Dublin, beating out proposals by contemporaries Studio Libeskind and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In the past year alone, the firm has opened buildings in London, Houston, and Richmond, Virginia, with several more on the docket for 2019. Nonetheless, Steven Holl, 70, is glum. “It’s not a great moment,” he says, his fervent, deliberate speech becoming doleful. “There are a lot of bad architects.”

At a time of pluralistic modes of practice, Holl counsels that architects should principally concern themselves with space. Though they may go and root around other disciplines in search of good kindling—Holl has lately availed himself of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s ontological geometries—they should not forget their discipline-bound duties.

“How do you design?” he asks rhetorically. “I think it’s backwards today. It’s all about function and program. Bubble-diagram this, bubble-diagram that. Make some cubes and then put some sloppy curves around it. That’s weak.”

In the four decades since Holl founded his namesake firm, SHA has clung to a master-apprentice model, gradually adding computers, which have brought a kind of iterative efficiency to the workflow. A project progresses from Holl’s initial ideations, always manifesting as watercolor sketches and miasmic trails of pithy marginalia, to the designers on his staff, who attempt to coax habitable spaces out of the esquisse through physical model making. The New York office, which overlooks the glass canyon of Hudson Yards, is strewn with models. The process can be easy, or it can be painful, and it always involves a round of in-house critiques. Following partner and project-head feedback, it may be attenuated, or completely restarted. Finally, a workable solution, a client presentation, a building.

Steven Holl profile
A model of the Taiwan ChinPaoSan Necropolis, due to open in 2019. Like the Ex of In house, the design of the necropolis was derived from geometric explorations involving spheres. Holl became interested in spheres partly through the works of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Courtesy Yudi Ela

In a manner of speaking, this method is collaborative, and variations on it are found at every level of every architectural practice. Yet Holl is convinced that he found the way long ago, drawing on the creatively kinetic but cash-strapped atelier archetypes established by Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto (which were marred by an intractable power dynamic and a cavalier attitude toward standard labor practices). The architects and designers in the SHA office—there are 30 in New York and another 10 in a Beijing outpost—will often tape Holl’s washy tableaux to the bottom of their computer monitors. “As we try to inhabit [the geometry], we have to push,” Holl says, alluding to the choppy waters separating sketch and Rhino model. “It’s only then that you begin to discover what the program’s going to be. It’s the opposite of what people do today.”

Holl often thinks in an epochal register. (“We are at a moment of rethinking architecture,” he says.) He also has a habit of rehashing in person what he has previously expressed in writing. Since 1989’s Anchoring, he has published dozens of little books and pamphlets, each one a receptacle for his itinerant musings on a single, often abstruse theme (Intertwining, Parallax). His signature watercolors and photographs pad these volumes, but the overall mode of conveyance is still words—fungible, self-consciously consequential, lyrical. “Where do ideas come from? The word. You have to write it and draw it. And if you keep working, things kind of coalesce.”

Steven Holl profile
The Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2018) Courtesy Richard Barnes

Such thinking, which undergirds the practice’s devotion to the original idea and accompanying sketch, is fundamentally linked to Holl’s devotion to forms of art. Architecture’s renewal must coincide with a renewed feeling for art, he prescribes. This is the subtext of his latest book, Steven Holl: Seven Houses, published by Rizzoli. Glomming onto the work of Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, he extrapolates to architecture Kandel’s notion that abstract art destabilizes—and so hones—our sensory apparatus. Buildings are experienced in moments, sequentially; this much Holl had already gleaned from his long-cultivated interest in phenomenology. Their fragmentary nature, however, leaves open many more opportunities for contemplation and what psychology calls qualia, or the agglutination of subjective perception. As Holl writes in the new volume, “We bring to [architecture] our own imagination, because we see things in ways in which we can interpret them.”

Forty years of practice have shown him to be daring and flexible, more so than is typically accorded to him. An early foray into Neo-Rationalism spawned a fascination with bar buildings, which led to his idiosyncratic development of stick-figure buildings, then “hybrid” buildings. One could assemble a phrasebook out of the building and urbanistic types Holl seemingly spoke into being, most notably in China, where from 2009 to 2013, his office realized millions of square feet: “linked hybrid,” “horizontal skyscraper,” “driven voids,” “sliced porosity block,” “porous sound spaces,” “tropical porosity.” (His 2013 book Urban Hopes essentially does this.) He is currently preoccupied with Platonic solids—tesseracts, spheres, dodecahedrons—and their potential intercourse. Holl speaks of “geometries touching each other,” but he also theorizes about the occluded interior space that results from these volumetric mergers and intersections.

Steven Holl profile
Holl’s second home in New York’s Hudson Valley has expanded to include a satellite of his architectural office and a gallery called ‘T’ Space. Courtesy Susan Wides

Take the Ex of In house on the architect’s fledgling art campus in New York’s Hudson Valley. Holl designed and built the 918-square-foot house with Dimitra Tsachrelia, an associate at SHA and his wife of two years (and a former student at Columbia GSAPP, where Holl has taught for three decades). The living spaces arose by ramming a set of spheres into a single tesseract, a sort of meta-cube. Elated, he points out the 3D-printed wall sconces, which replicate the nested geometries in miniature. Globes, the second entry in Sloterdijk’s prodigious Spheres trilogy, is positioned on top of a low-lying bookshelf; its cover image, depicting a cube grafted onto a much larger sphere, lays it on thick.

“The shapes become quite complex,” Tsachrelia grants, “but in principle you would be able to explain the geometry with a series of Venn diagrams.” And indeed, in the watercolor cache corresponding to SHA’s design for the visual arts center at Franklin & Marshall College, opening in 2019, there are Venn diagrams. The plan for the building emerges from the sketch in the residual space created by an arbitrary plotting of circles, overlapping in pairs in different directions. An early watercolor for another project, a health center for Shanghai also slated for completion next year, delineates more circles, cut into quadrants like pie charts.

Steven Holl profile
Entrance of the Ex of In guesthouse Courtesy Iwan Baan

“Every project that I’ve been working on in one way or another has a connection to art,” observes Tsachrelia. “It goes down to how you treat the materials, to every level of detail—the guardrails, the door handles. Everything becomes like a small art project.” Holl’s longtime colleague Chris McVoy, who was the first partner named to SHA, underscores the sentiment: “It’s all idea-driven design, and the ideas are questions aimed at finding the maximum latent potential in any given project.” In other words, “to realize an inspiring work of architecture. We think of architecture as an art. Some of our contemporaries don’t.”

But conceptual production is still production, and Holl must retreat from Manhattan to rest and ideate alone, in quiet. He does so, with Tsachrelia and their young daughter, Io, at his second home in Rhinebeck, New York. Since purchasing the property in the mid-’90s, he has gradually populated the grounds with small buildings—a second studio for himself, an enviable hut to spend mornings watercoloring, and ‘T’ Space, the art gallery at Round Lake Road that he runs with Tsachrelia and curator Susan Wides and that has put on 20 exhibitions since its opening in 2010.

Steven Holl profile
A watercolor sketch of the archive that Holl is building on the T2 Reserve, a second parcel of land located near Holl’s second home in the Hudson Valley. The archive will house materials spanning his long career. Courtesy Steven Holl

Holl has extended this arts programming to other corners of the premises. He tapped his network of artists—among them Mike Metz and Richard Artschwager, who has called Holl a “friend in art”—procuring original works and copies to install on-site. To this growing corpus he has added his own sculptures of wood and Lecce stone, generated much like his buildings. Holl’s knack for designating the innominate, for generating a parti through an expressive jumble of words, is particularly suited to sculpture, where the name of a piece may matter as much as the work itself.

Neighboring the complex, across the road, is the T2 Reserve, so styled because Holl purchased the 30-acre property to stop it from being developed. The entrance is marked by Cold Jacket (2016), a facade mock-up that he installed as art for the Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, currently under construction. Here too, the grounds are enhanced by sculptures, and he has plans to add to existing works by Richard Nonas, Oscar Tuazon, and even Tsachrelia, who has been collaborating with her sister Eirini Tsachrelia and Nicholas Karytinos on several pieces.

Steven Holl profile
Space T2, a workspace for an architectural residency program Holl and his wife Dimitra Tsachrelia founded in 2017. Courtesy Susan Wides

Fittingly, the art and nature reserve has also become an architectural incubator. The Space T2, a decrepit hunting shack that Holl overhauled into a studio space, houses five architectural designers through the ‘T’ Space Residency every July. The group sleeps in a nearby cabin, built in 1940 and a “teardown” when Holl bought it at a foreclosed-property auction. He has designed an archive building, set to open in May, that grafts onto one side of the cabin. “The idea is about the brachiating concept,” says Tsachrelia, who finds the archive integral to the continuing mission of ‘T’ Space and the furthering of Holl’s legacy.

But for Holl, ‘T’ Space offers a chance to recapture a bit of the architectural culture of his youth. He idealizes 1970s New York, and the days of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, when “MoMA had an exhibition every month” and a purpose-run architecture bookstore or gallery was always around the corner. “My god, it was so inspiring, and now it’s so not,” he says.

His pessimism is not unfounded: Architectural culture has been both hollowed out and overly freighted with exigencies beyond its control. A reinvestment in practice is surely needed, though perhaps not quite in the way Holl’s method lays out. We might hope for a more equitable future, in which architects, rather than tinkering with value systems of their own making, might contribute to wider social aims. In the meantime, ‘T’ Space has reinvigorated Holl. He begins talking about the landscape, and then the archive building, before returning to art. “We’re in a very different moment. But things can change again.”

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