Morning Watercolors: Inside Steven Holl’s Creative Process

For visualizing concepts and pulling all aspects of a project together, the architect is a firm believer in the art of the watercolor.

All of Steven Holl’s buildings begin the same way: with an intuitive brush stroke, usually first thing in the morning. “For me, drawing is a form of thought,” he says. “I start every project with a concept diagram. I used to do pencil drawings. Those took eight hours. Around 1979, I streamlined it to five-by-seven-inch watercolors, because they were easy to fly with.”

Holl likens the morning watercolors to a form of meditation. “I play really great music, I have green tea,” he says. “You can have a thousand problems of a particular project—the area, the height, the setback, all those things—and you put them into your brain, go to sleep, wake up, and draw.”

When he creates a direction he’s pleased with (or stumped by), Holl shares the resulting drawing with the design team. “I’ve sent them by iPhone from an airport in Korea,” he says. Once a concept is established, the process becomes, in Holl’s words, digitally “supercharged.” The leap from watercolor to 3-D computer drawing and model can happen literally overnight—or in the time it takes to fly from Seoul to New York City.

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Digital tools are, of course, essential to the practice of twenty-first-century architecture, but Holl does worry that architects who don’t draw enough are missing out on the vital connection between hand and mind. “We’re losing the sense of craftsmanship for certain things. We’re losing knowledge,” he says. “Listen, I have a fight with people at Columbia [University] who teach drawing. They say they don’t want to teach hand drawing anymore. And I think that’s wrong.”

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