The Painted Building

For three decades Steven Holl has used watercolors—drawn each morning, before the deadlines kick in—as a springboard toward the creation of architecture.

At the end of a busy hallway outside the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture-and-design gallery, a large flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall offers a rare glimpse inside the imagination of the ethereal Amer­ican architect Steven Holl. The digitized watercolors circulating at three-second intervals were originally painted in five-by-seven-inch sketchbooks early in the morning, before the daily grind of project-driven deadlines. They’re Holl’s initial waking thoughts, halfway between dream and consciousness, kept at a certain distance from purposeful activity. The paintings occasionally veer into representations of space, light, and volumes only to plunge back into playful, sometimes cartoonish, explorations of col­or and composition.

“The problem with architecture is that it’s so pragmatic and demanding—your whole day can be swallowed in technical management,” Holl says. “I don’t try to force myself to do anything. I start in a half-wakened state. It’s a way of dreaming and thinking, of bridging between painting and architecture.”

Among architecture aficionados, Holl’s wat­ercolors are a cult phenomenon. In an age when buildings often appear designed for photographs, and the photographs can be hard to distinguish from digital renderings, it seems almost quaint for the 60-year-old architect to carry a little watercolor kit with him as he flies around the world to meet clients. But for Holl the drawings are a source of inspiration, a method of exploration, and also a practical tool. In 1978, a year after moving to New York, he gave up his obsessively detailed pencil drawings for the more impressionistic and intuitive watercolors. “With the watercolor, in the quickest way, I could shape a volume, cast a shadow, indicate the direction of the sun in a very small format,” he says. “And I could carry these things around because I was always traveling.”

The single-screen installation is composed of selections from the past six years of his sketchbooks, all of which are stored on a shelf above the drafting table in his office. A few years ago, Holl decided to digitally archive the sketchbooks in case of some disaster and hired an assistant to scan them, making it possible to exhibit the watercolors for the first time. “It’s a personal diary that I keep bound in the books,” he says. “I never rip them out, and therefore they’re never exhibited or sold. I’ve done I don’t know how many buildings now, but the very first sketches of every one of them are in those tablets.”

Holl is coming off a spectacularly successful couple of years, having launched his award-winning art school at the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa in 2006 and his critically acclaimed submerged light box, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in ­Kan­sas City, Missouri, last year. But even though the Puget Sound–raised, blue-eyed, gray-blond architect is a star in the field, his work is characterized by a soft glow that only increases in emotional resonance when all the glaring lights are turned off. His persona is more metaphysical poet or hyp­er­active philosopher than buttoned-down self-made man. He could easily be caricatured as a nervous mystic on a mountaintop painting watercolors (in reality he works on the 11th floor of a warehouse overlooking the Hudson River) that he hands off to acolytes who figure out how to make them into real things. He has penned a few books in an effort to articulate a theory, but I doubt his method is reproducible. His voice is absolutely personal, expressed through buildings that are as much landscapes and horizons as rigorously detailed structures.

It’s fascinating to spend time with these idiosyncratic watercolors, which I carried around in my back pocket printed nine to a sheet on 8.5-by-11-inch paper, pulling them out and flipping through them on the train or over lunch, trying to identify the impulses and motivations. At best, a quarter of the pods, bubbles, squiggles, shards, mounds, and rectangular arms look like possible buildings. Each image is scanned to the edge of the spiral binding and marked with a file name identifying the date and, in some cases, the place where it was composed. Some of them, especially those resembling structures, are supplemented by handwritten notes scrawled in capital letters that are in their own way miniature expressions of architecture. A few are signed or initialed, as if Holl were imagining his tiny notebook blown up to the scale of a wall-size painting or a skyscraper. “There’s definitely this overlapping link between painting and architecture going on in my mind,” he says. “Maybe I’m the only one who can get the excitement out of that pro­jection, because I’m thinking of some other thing I can do with it.”

Holl’s watercolors are especially unusual in the arcane world of architectural drawings for being enjoyable as aesthetic objects to the nonspecialist. One of the most pleasing aspects of their form is the tension between the regularity of the five-by-seven-inch format and the diversity of imagery and colors, which variously bring to mind Lissitzky, Malevich, Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger, Hejduk, and de Chirico. They’re in their own way a window onto the almost secret relationship between modern painting and architecture, which as a rule are presented in museums as if they had independently materialized out of thin air in Paris, Weimar, Moscow, or New York and only intersected historically when modern architects began designing contemporary art museums big enough to accommodate large, abstract canvases. Despite their seemingly naive beauty, the watercolors are also essential tools that Holl uses in his everyday practice to communicate ideas in an immediate way. “It’s really not about using an archaic method, because I can do one of these drawings and write the concept on there a lot quicker than I can if I was doing it on a computer. And then I can just scan it and send it.”

Holl has a few dauntingly complex projects opening in China next year, including the Linked Hybrid—a horizontal city in the Beijing sky that contains 750 apartments, a hotel, a movie theater, a school, and stores—and the twisting, bobsledlike Nanjing Museum of Art and Architecture, which hovers in the air on two pedestals and a structural wall. For works that can take more than a decade to complete and involve the labor of thousands of people, it’s amazing to think that the basic concept can be traced back to one man’s dreamlike musings. “To me, it’s like the seed germ of every project,” Holl says. “It’s important to connect what you’re doing to everything going on in the synapses of the brain. It needs to be done by hand to be deeply connected to what you’re feeling internally and to be completely free. When I think about a building like the Nanjing Museum, somehow I sense the feeling of it in those watercolors.”

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