Anchored to the art – Steven Holl


1st January, 1970

Anchored to the art – Steven Holl

Despite being one of the most influential practitioners of his generation, Steven Holl has eschewed the path of the globetrotting ‘starchitect’ to focus on a practice still firmly rooted in the arts. Phin Foster meets the AIA-Gold-Medal-winning architect and watercolourist to discuss the benefits of maintaining a small studio, his aspiration to reinvent architecture with every project and why the client isn’t always right.


Ironically, at a time when a select band of architects enjoys unprecedented international celebrity, the architectural discipline has never felt farther removed from our cultural discourse.

Where once architecture sat squarely within the popular arts – and was publicly covered and consumed accordingly – the emergence of ‘starchitects’, supersized studios and signature styles has moved the discipline into the realms of the status symbol, more likely to draw parallels with Louis Vuitton than Leonardo da Vinci.

In what is now a truly global marketplace, is it possible for architects to shun these principles; to continue to see themselves as artists and run their studios accordingly, while still enjoying international success? Perhaps it depends on what you interpret success to look like.

Scale down for success

With nine projects currently under construction and the same number in design development, the picture painted by Steven Holl would not placate shareholders at AECOM or Gensler; but it marks a significant workload for the 68-year-old New-York-based architect, who has always prioritised programme before prolificacy.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy,” Holl exclaims in mock horror. Throw a five-month-old daughter into the mix, and one wonders where he finds the hours in the day. Not that he makes things any easier for himself. At the start of the decade, Steven Holl Architects looked on course to join the ranks of jet-setting international studios benefitting from the explosion of demand for their talents in the East. Then he decided to take a different route.

“Winning Kiasma changed everything,” Holl says of Helsinki’s contemporary art museum, which opened in 1998 and established the architect on the international stage. “At the time, we had six or seven people in the studio, and you can do anything with that number, any kind of building. But then we started winning competitions, so the numbers grew. Suddenly, we were being invited to work in China – something I certainly hadn’t been seeking – and that meant more people.

“One day, I looked up and we were 64. I thought to myself, it’s just not worth all this management. That isn’t my idea of what architecture should be. It’s an art, and I practise it as an art. All these other distractions pull you away from that.”

Holl reflects that he once thought the right size for an office was 11 people – “the same number as a football team. You can huddle round one table; sit down to lunch together” – but ultimately decidedto limit the headcount in his studio to a slightly more generous 44.

“I made that call about five years ago, and it helped pull so many other things into focus,” he says. “Aspiring to be big is a sickness in architecture today; this whole idea that you need to have hundreds of people. It means a move into corporate-culture architecture, where half the things you build, you couldn’t care less about – it’s simply a question of getting the money in and paying the overheads. You accept everything that comes through the door and, even worse, you have to go out and look for work. It’s like a machine.”

He says all of this without sounding in the least reactionary or curmudgeonly. Indeed, Holl insists upon the importance of remaining idealistic, of “making everything you do a piece of architecture”. Such an approach necessitates total personal commitment and extreme selectivity, which is only feasible within the context of a smaller studio. He will not accept commissions for monofunctional buildings and will only take on retail or commercial work if it also affords the opportunity to significantly shape a public space.

Building off the beaten path

Holl speaks of the architect needing to lead the programme and his career is littered with projects in which he has reinterpreted or largely discarded the brief. One example is Chengdu’s Sliced Porosity Block (2012): a mixed-use complex at almost four million square feet, conceived as an alternative to the ‘towers-and-podium’ approach commonly adopted by large-scale developments. Then, there’s the Bloch Building for Nelson Atkins Museum (2007), a project that invited participants to design a contemporary addition to the north of the neoclassical original structure; instead, Holl submitted five glowing ‘lenses’ atop a 165,000ft² underground building that ran to the east of the site’s sculpture garden, creating an entirely new landscape and one of the finest museum extensions of the century thus far.

“It’s about doing the best possible thing in the circumstances within which you find yourself,” he explains. “Sometimes, a client can’t see that, so you help them make the discovery. It’s happened with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston [currently under construction]. The brief asked for a seven-storey parking garage, but we decided to put a layer of parking under the site while doubling the size of the sculpture garden. I also proposed a new school in addition to the requested 200,000ft² museum building. We were up against Snøhetta and Morphosis, who both followed the original brief, and we won with a project that looked quite different.”

Such an approach can be traced back to Holl’s 1988 manifesto, Anchoring, which argued that architecture must be reinvented for every occasion; each project’s design underpinned by an idea that drives it. This has seen Holl eschew a signature style – if he’s synonymous with any visual motif, it’s his watercolour sketches that form the starting point of any new proposal – and each project is unique to its circumstances. It’s a philosophical foundation that the architect has remained true to for the best part of three decades, even as he moved on to commissions of a scale which, at the time of Anchoring’s publication, must have seemed unimaginable.

“The manifesto has held true,” he says. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that when a project comes back alive after it’s been on hold for eight or ten years, I still believe in the original concept. Maybe parametric design was all the rage at the time, but I didn’t care; what I was making was based on what I could feel was a meaningful concept for that site, that programme, that circumstance. It makes me confident that the work will stand the test of time.

“I disagree with a lot of my contemporaries in that regard. It’s not that I don’t like their work, but the tendency is for architects to have a certain style and then everyone wants ‘one of those’. Economically, perhaps that’s a smart way to go but to me, it was never an option.”

A site to behold

Perhaps this explains why Holl has found particular success within the more collaborative cultural and educational spheres. As well as Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, projects currently under construction include an expansion of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a performing arts centre at Princeton University, a community library in Queens and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art.

Holl’s new visual-arts facility for the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History has seen the architect return to the site of a previous work. His 126,000ft² loft-like space replaces an original arts building from 1936, but also sits directly adjacent to Art Building West, a horizontally porous assemblage of glass and Corten steel planes completed by Steven Holl Architects in 2006, and recipient of a RIBA International Award, the American Architecture Award and four awards from the American Institute of Architects.

“I’m extremely proud of the new building, but it was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do,” Holl reveals. “There was a whole series of designs; I filled the office with models. We looked at using Corten, trying to be at home with the original building. But that didn’t seem correct. It was a very difficult process.”

The result is a vertically porous and volumetrically composed white concrete structure, clad in recycled zinc panels on the north-east and north-west sides. The south-east and south-west facades are covered with perforated stainless-steel panels. The rectangular plan is interrupted by six cutaways creating glass-surrounded channel courtyards around the perimeter and a central forum boring down through the centre, crossed with staircases to join the four floors.

A visitor would have no reason to believe that the two buildings, completed a decade apart, are the ventures of the same architect, but, like all of Holl’s best work, both sit naturally within their milieu and speak of the context rather than their creator.

Journey through time

“I like to go back and visit my buildings,” reveals Holl, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of architecture being experienced “in 3D”. “I travel to the Chapel of St Ingnatius (1997) every other year and it still looks great. It’s a wonderful feeling, that spiritual connection of having made something and then seeing how it goes through life.”

But if working in tandem with one’s own buildings can be tough, what of entering into a dialogue with the established masters?

“It’s horrifying,” Holl exclaims. “You can’t imagine the sleepless nights. One cannot try to imitate – it then becomes a travesty of impossible comparison. I started with the problem in Helsinki, with Kiasma. There I was, right up the road from Aalto’s Finlandia Hall, and I couldn’t make a move in my mind that might be construed as imitation, even though I love his work. Then I had Eliel Saarinen to contend with at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 1997. It was a real challenge, three years in design.”

Holl won’t see the problem going away any time soon – his Museum of Fine Arts expansion in Houston faces the only Mies van der Rohe museum in the US. However, his experiences with the Seona Reid Building at the Glasgow School of Art (2014) can only have toughened him up for the challenges ahead. Sitting in the shadow of what many consider the masterpiece of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s career, the thin, translucent materiality of Holl’s addition seeks to forge a symbiotic relation with the century-old structure, while at the same time sitting in direct contrast to it.

It was a project fraught with controversy. British fetishisation of anything old is only matched by its suspicion of anything new, and headline writers were not kind as Holl’s proposal sought the green light. He stresses the need to block out the surrounding trends and fashions in order to focus solely on the project at hand, but was it possible to ignore all that noise?

“To an extent, we had to let it in because we were still trying to get through the various planning agencies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to agree with any of it,” he says. “I believed in that proposal. We skimmed by and eventually prevailed, and I couldn’t be happier with the building. The grand opening was so special: a choir, standing on the stairs, singing a specially written piece of music: Art, art, what is it for, something that has never been there before. A wonderful moment.

He is yet to go back, but plans to do so soon when visiting his Maggie’s Centre at St Bart’s, London, back under construction following a succession of delays. Holl has also played an active role in the fundraising mission to restore Mackintosh’s original building, which suffered severe fire damage in 2014, an event he has called “unbelievably tragic for the history of architecture”.

Such a deep appreciation of the significance of architecture as an art form in its own right is less commonly held than was once the case.

“As architects, we’re always given these programmes, these briefs,” he says. “The idea is that all we are is problem solvers, but that’s not true. Architecture belongs with the highest of the arts and, when you think about the greatest buildings from history, they represent the height of the artistic development of a culture. I love that old Winston Churchill line: ‘First we shape our buildings and then they shape us’.”

As a self-identifying artist, Holl is fundamentally committed to re-establishing that discourse between architecture and its public. And he will do so at his own speed, in a manner that continues to be anchored in programme, function and place.

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