Steven Myron Holl’s work is one of the rare examples of architecture that bears the thumbprint of its architect. More so than many forms of art, architecture is distanced from its author, distorted by an industrial, regulatory, and organizational framework. Steven Holl’s work breaks down that distance and preserves the aura of the initial design.
Steven Holl is a New York architect with a far reaching international practice. Some notable works are The Storefront for Art and Architecture (1993), Kiasma Museum in Helsinki (1998), the Chapel of St Ignatius (1997), Simmons Hall at MIT (2002), the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art (2007), T-Space (2010), Hunter’s Point Library (2019), and the Reach at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (2019). Beyond his cultural and institutional architecture practice, Steven Holl is a diligent participant in the intimate work of advancing architecture’s ideas, curating exhibitions by artists at his gallery T-Space, publishing forty years of the journal Pamphlet Architecture, his own seminal books like Anchoring (1989), Parallax (2000), Idea and Phenomena (2002), and regularly teaching at Columbia University’s Architecture school. Steven Holl’s practice is a rare example of baukunst, the Building Art and gives us an architecture that transcends the built world and into the poetics of another.
Nile Greenberg (Rail): What was your early understanding of architecture? You grew up in Washington State?
Steven Holl: Right. We still have a cabin on Puget Sound, Yukon Harbor, which overlooks the water with a view all the way to Seattle. The first house I designed for my parents is on that same site. We have a small cabin that we go to in the summer. Being from the Pacific Northwest, growing up on the edge of a gigantic body of water, that’s a special way to grow up, and I’ve been returning there my whole life.
Rail: What drew you to architecture?
Holl: Someone asked, “All your buildings seem to have water related to them?” and my answer is that the Earth is 71 percent water, your body is 60 percent water. I grew up on this body of water where we would watch the sunrise. It’s incredible, it’s a very spiritual thing, the reflection of the moon and the feeling of the tides. Here the tide changes, sometimes as much as eleven feet, and it’s four times a day.
Rail: You’re describing this memory the same way you often describe your buildings, right? How did you make the jump to becoming an architect?
Holl: My father owned a sheet metal shop. I worked there from ages fourteen to seventeen putting ductwork together, that’s very complicated geometrically. If you look at some ductwork that has to move from an 8 by 14 to a 20 by 20 and go through a transition in space, you have to lay this all out geometrically and build a piece with 28 gauge galvanized metal. It’s a three dimensional problem and so geometry was part of my job.
I must say I do like galvanized sheet metal. I think it’s very plastic, you can do a lot with it. My first major public building, the Kiasma Museum, is hand-sanded aluminum and rheinzink.
Rail: It’s very interesting that you were working in your father’s sheet metal shop. Andrea Palladio studied with a stonemason quite early and Mies van der Rohe’s father was a stonemason. Sheet metal is such a contemporary post war building block. Were you making paper models of the ductwork?
Holl: No, we’re laying it out right on the Masonite workbench, about seven feet by twenty feet, cut it, run it through the Pittsburgh machine, and pound it together with a sheet metal hammer. You had to do a lot of calculating.
Rail: You have so much respect and influence for theorists, thinkers, artists. When did that kind of connection click for you? What was your understanding of theory and architecture?
Holl: When I first entered the University of Washington as a freshman in 1967, I was enamored by my philosophy teacher, so I started to really read philosophy. He did a whole section on Descartes. I remember thinking that this class was as important as my art class, in terms of architecture. Ever since, I have a huge poetry and philosophy collection. I think there are dimensions of architecture that raise the problem of architecture to the level of thought and philosophy.
I had a great time doing the interior renovation of the New York University Department of Philosophy about fifteen years ago. I was excited to work with philosophers. I presented the design with a table with all these materials: glossy black wood, white painted glass, the entire interior was to be black and white. I cited some passages of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. In the stairwell I’m going to use prismatic film, and you will get the whole rainbow when it’s sunny at the right time of year, coming down, cascading down this stairwell. I finished this long presentation and they wanted to know where the closets were going to be? Where were they going to hang their coats up in the morning? [Laughs].
Rail: One of your contributions has been a reduction in hierarchy between the arts and architecture. You have your publishing projects, or curation projects, your own art practice, your architecture practice, all colliding.
Can you speak about the Storefront for Art and Architecture as being one of your first projects that takes all these different mediums and ideas and brings it into one project?
Holl: That was an invitation from Shirin Neshat and Kyong Park around 1992. They were doing a series of collaborative reconstructions of the Storefront facade at 97 Kenmare Street, and I knew Vito Acconci. We had collaborated before in 1980 on a failed project for art’s walk in Washington, DC. We got together again and worked on Storefront for eight months. It was a hard collaboration because we both had a lot of ideas. We would meet then he would adjust his ideas more like mine and I would adjust my ideas more like his and it was like two guys walking through a revolving door, they just sort of pass, and then we ran out of time. Then we just somehow got it built. It was supposed to be a temporary space, then several years later, they restored it. They decided to keep it.
Jean Nouvel was in town when it opened and he was going around New York to do filming for the French magazine L’architecture d’Aujourd’hui. At the same time, Richard Meier’s Getty Center was just getting published. One critic compared the two and said, here’s an example of how to do the most with the least, and the least with the most.
Rail: Storefront has become as institutional in many ways as Getty. I mean, it’s obviously not funded in the same way. But in the way that it feels part of the city and a part of the neighborhood. It has been a huge success because of its ability to constantly reform itself.
Holl: Absolutely, it’s bottom-up a social, active place and it keeps going on because of the people that are involved. That’s the opposite of a top-down institution like the Getty. There’s a vitality that you cannot imitate, no matter how much money you have or how big your buildings are, you can’t imitate this vitality.
Rail: It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. In the nineties, social works of art emerged. And I think the Storefront takes on social art, as part of its Gesamtkunstwerk.
Snow Show, Oblong Voidspace, 2003. Courtesy Steven Holl.
Holl: Don’t forget the fact that it’s a collaboration between an architect and an artist. There was a lot of that going on at that time. One of the great examples of that was a project called The Snow Show, that was curated by Lance Fung in Finland, where people like Kiki Smith and Lebbeus Woods would collaborate. It was an architect and artist pairing, and their materials were snow and ice. Jene Highstein and I did a project called Oblong Void Space, a huge room made of blocks of ice. When the spring came, it just melted and turned into water. It was a really fantastic moment of architects and artists collaborating together. I think that’s still something that’s under explored.
Rail: For my generation, all the architects are artists. Those collaborations have morphed into architecture practices that holistically resemble an art practice. That kind of freedom and self expression that your practice explored is now part of the whole system. The expectation of being an architect is to be an artist with that kind of freedom. It left me thinking maybe it’s an exciting moment to be an architect. What do you think that relationship is like today?
Holl: Dimitra Tsachrelia and I teach a class at Columbia called “Architecture Apropos Art.” We ask the students to take on someone like Eileen Gray or Lina Bo Bardi, and then analyze the art and architecture they made. Then we ask the students to make something with that knowledge within that kind of language. The students produce beautiful projects working with some established language that connects architecture and art.
Today, we’re overwhelmed with these large corporate offices, three hundred people, five hundred people, one thousand people. You have to remember that at the end, Le Corbusier had six people. At the end Louis Kahn had sixteen people. It’s not a matter of how big an office is. American values of money and bigness prevail. The great works of architecture are never about bigness and money. There’s something really important about architecture that gets skipped when you have those as your main values.
Rail: But in a business way there is a shrinking middle right?
Holl: That’s a problem. And it’s not just architecture, it’s everywhere. In our extremely money-oriented society, it’s everywhere. Bookstores, for example; I’m so happy that William Stout Architectural Books is still going on. When I came to New York, there were four architectural bookstores, there were places that showed architecture drawings. It’s all taken over by forces beyond our control at the moment.
Rail: But it’s good then that you continue publishing.
Holl: Absolutely. Where there’s a will there’s a way, like Storefront.
Rail: Well, let’s talk about will—where there’s a will, there’s a way. I imagine being in your position, having spent your career building, working, having a really successful track record and suddenly being given projects that are given a significant amount of authorship and control and stability and decision making….
Holl: That’s an illusion by the way.
Let me tell you a story of when I first came to New York. Philip Johnson asked me to come to lunch. Before lunch, he’s showing me some project that he’s struggling with. I thought, come on, by this time they should just give him whatever. But no, no, he’s struggling. Then I was on the Progressive Architecture Awards jury in 1991. After they announced the awards, and he didn’t get chosen, I got a phone call from Philip Johnson, “Steven, did you see my project? Why didn’t you choose it?” Can you imagine an 85-year-old calling up a kid who was on the jury? I mean, success is an illusion. Just because you had a good track record and you’re older, the commissions don’t roll in. That’s not what happens. Everything is a fight and a struggle.
Rail: Regardless of my misconception about how things actually are, how does it feel working on a scale that’s quite different from when you started?
Holl: I had great joy when I was a firm of eleven people. When you’re eleven, you’re like a football team, you can meet together, you can huddle, and you can strategize about how to produce a project as excellent as we can. Then I won the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and I needed eleven people just to work on that building, so we became twenty-two. Then I got some work in China, and we became thirty-three. Suddenly, around 2006, I had all these projects and I got to be seventy-seven people. I said, “wait a minute, I don’t like this.” First of all, I’m spending all my brain power worrying about the overhead because it’s so huge. Then I’m starting to think I have to take this work to feed the furnace of overhead. I had to consider taking on work that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t think it could be excellent, so I lowered the office back down. Now we’re twenty-nine people. I don’t believe you need more than ten people to do any size of a building. You take a skyscraper, the whole team could be just ten people. Architecture practices today are bloated, excessive in size. They suck up commissions, like a vacuum cleaner, even little jobs, you know. [Laughs]
Rail: What are you trying to do with your projects now, what are you trying to say?
Holl: Every project is a unique situation. In 1989 when I was selected for this show at MoMA, I thought, “I can’t have a show, I don’t have any built work, I’ve got to write a manifesto.” I was nervous and stressed. I think I was the youngest architect to have a quasi-independent show at MoMA. Emilio Ambasz had one gallery and I had the other gallery.
Then I wrote the manifesto book Anchoring; architecture should be, first and foremost, about each unique site and circumstance. I’ve adhered to that philosophy my whole life. Each site and circumstance are different, and you have to respond to the particular aspects.
For example, when we won the commission to do the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, it’s an entrance to the campus. You come from New York City, you ride the train, you get out of the train, and you go through this gateway to enter the university. It’s part of the typology of the Princeton campus, it has a forum underneath a reflecting pool that today was the place where the class of 2027 had their orientation session. It’s a very positive contribution as a social space, a social condenser, that connects music, theater, all these different aspects of the complex. I’m very proud of that project. It was a struggle, it took ten years, but it keeps giving back.
Now we’re working on an entrance building for the University of Pennsylvania, right on the corner of Chestnut and 33rd Street, a student performing arts center and a key moment on their arrival to campus. Here, we’re taking a different approach than at Princeton.
University of Pennsylvania Model, 2023. Courtesy Steven Holl.
So when you say, “What are you trying to do in general?” it’s specific to each site and circumstance. I still go back to my first manifesto. Then my second manifesto, Questions of Perception, was written with Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Juhani Pallasmaa. There, you have the question of sound, the question of color, the question of perspectival space, the question of the haptic realm, detail and material, how that really affects your experience of architecture. If somebody was going to read two books that I still believe in, it would be that book and Anchoring, because I’m still working with those two texts as the theoretical basis of our work.
Rail: As a recent Domus editor, you were tackling similar ideas as this but in a contemporary lens?
Holl: As editor of Domus, my February issue was revisiting that philosophical basis, trying to establish architecture as an experiential phenomenon, first and foremost. Not as a style, and not as a business. All these elements of the senses are very important. The sound, the smell, the touch, the material, the detail, the light, certainly natural ventilation, light and air. During the pandemic, I gave a series of lectures called “Air / Light / Greenspace.” I’ve always believed that natural light and natural ventilation are key to great experiences of interior architecture.
Rail: I’m curious about your design process, how do you design for air? How do you design for material?
John Hejduk, said that being an architect is very different from a painter. A painter takes the real world and makes an abstraction of it. While an architect has the exact opposite problem, they take an idea or a concept and try to make it real. Hejduk said good architecture is one that through construction maintains any sense of abstraction. How do you manage the distance between that abstraction and reality?
Holl: Eric Kandel, the great neuroscientist, wrote a recent book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. It’s about how important abstraction is in perception. If you do something that’s very literal, you don’t open it up for anybody’s extra perception of it.
I think one of the great things about abstraction is it can have relationships. In our new University of Pennsylvania performing arts center, we will have relationships to the campus and to Frank Furness’s library building. But the building is made of three trapezoids! Now, that’s a very abstract idea.
We went through many designs, there’s maybe fifty different schemes. I worked on this for a year and a half—now we’re in design development, and it’s going forward.
Sometimes you can find an idea right away. When I did the “Y” House in 1997 in upstate New York, I went to the site and made a sketch of a Y. I had this idea that one side would be night above and day below and the other side would be day above and night below, and it all came together in a single day with a single sketch. So there’s no way to know the process. The process has to be open, and you have to have the time to reach a design.
I had an ideal client for the Nail Collector’s House in Essex, New York. Alan Wardle came to my office, he’s a writer, and he says “I don’t have a lot of money, I’ve got about $300,000. I own the site and I want a poetic statement, a poetic utterance.” That was his program. [Laughter]
The Nail Collector’s House is sheathed in cartridge brass. He found this gun casing brass that we could unroll and attach with exposed nails. It’s expressive, economic, and it serves him well. He’s been there for many years, and remains a good friend.
I will bet that a lot of recent New York buildings wouldn’t rise to the definition of architecture, they are only building constructions. You know what Charles Jencks told me? We got in an argument, and I said, “Maybe most of what is realized is just building construction, there’s only ten percent that’s architecture.” And Jencks said, “It’s a lot less than that!”
Rail: What makes the baukunst, right? The “building art”? Definitely one of my criteria for how the Brooklyn Rail looks for architects to talk to.
Holl: Now that’s great. I think the Brooklyn Rail is the place to do that because the architecture magazines will never do that. They rely on all these ads for curtain walls and elevators or whatever. They’re never going to explore the whole truth. However, it’s a problem of the whole magazine world, it’s not their fault that the internet has destroyed magazine culture…
Rail: The power has really shifted.
But I do think the definition of architecture is really important; what I appreciate about your work is you have not stopped asking the question.
Holl: Absolutely. Important.
Rail: Yes. And whereas, I think some people are quite assured of the answer and spend their career answering the question based on the different scenarios. Your work offers us an ongoing experiment in which we can review the results. I think it’s very important for people to see.
Holl: I constantly return to Keats’s “negative capability.” The idea of embracing problems of the moment that you live in, taking in all the aspects in every way. Take them and move forward with the creative act, operating with uncertainty and being able to do really positive, exciting, creative work. I think that “negative capability” is more needed today than any other time in the history of architecture because there’s so many problematic forces. The great poet Keats had the thought in 1817.
In architecture, everything changes. We try to make Net Zero buildings. Here, my office is in an archive that’s geothermally heated and cooled by a single well, five hundred feet deep. It heats and cools the whole building because there’s super insulation with a green roof. All our work has to be as ecologically aspiring as possible, but that’s not architecture, that’s like plumbing and engineering. The poetry of architecture is beyond that. I think that creative statements must rise above, taking in all the negative aspects that we have, and finding something really positive beyond that. That’s what feeds the soul. Like Osip Mandelstam, the great poet, said, “We need poetry like we need bread.”
Rail: That spirit is very clear in everything you do. I had the pleasure of visiting your archive. It’s a continuing project, as more work gets archived the building continues to expand, it’s a brilliant architecturalization for an archive.
Holl: We’re just finishing up a branch right now that we built during the last three months. We’re going to open with an exhibition of Giuliano Fiorenzoli, the great Florentine architect, on October 15.
Rail: Now that you have an archive you can walk into every day, do you have a different feeling about it?
Holl: Before, it was in Greenpoint in a building that I thought could stay there, but the building went through an assessment and we couldn’t keep it. Right before the pandemic, we managed to sell that space and take the small amount of money and build this space.
Then the pandemic hit, and I decided to work from here. We still have our offices in New York and Beijing, but what’s amazing is being able to work in a space that’s geothermally heated and cooled. It was an experiment to run this whole building on one well, but it works. That’s been something positive about the pandemic. Honestly, I don’t really look at the archive. I get pleasure from bringing people through and showing them a model that I made myself in 1980 when I only had one person working in my office and I was the model maker.
Rail: You’re never wandering the hallways looking for what was working or finding new revelations through those work?
Architectural Archive and Research Library Model. Courtesy Steven Holl.
Holl: One thing you realize quite rapidly is that you’re only going to build one in twenty-five designs. I have a lot of competitions that I entered but didn’t make it and I have a lot of failed commissions. So the models are all here and we’re lucky that some things were realized. When you’re an architect starting up, you have to just get up and get back in the game. Once you get a rejection, don’t think about it, move on, keep the model.
A beautiful model is a piece of architecture. I have stories I can tell about these models, where all the working drawings are done and then the client cancels the house. But when you have a beautiful model, even if it wasn’t realized, it’s still a work of architecture.
Rail: I think particularly in your case because light is scaleless, right? A lot of your work relies on the principles that are scaleless like light.
Holl: Models are extremely important today in studying a design because the digital renderings warp proportion. We work with the golden section, ordering and organizing around proportional elements. A model doesn’t lie to you, whereas the distortions in perspective of digital drawings can really lead to some bad design. We are always building models of the current designs. I think that’s very important to study the light, the quality of light inside of a space. James Turrell told me the actual light in space bounces off the source at the square root of the distance to the source, and that is not captured in the computer. To study the different surfaces in a space and how they interact with the light source, it’s much better to model than to try to imitate it in the computer.