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Interview with Steven Holl

The architect’s studio in Manhattan

June 09, 2004


Vladimir Belogolovsky: Recently you came back from Russia. Was it your first visit there?


Steven Holl: Yes it was. I spent over a week in and around Moscow. I was very fascinated by the layers of history and all the great qualities of that city. I visited the metro system which is one of the most amazing in the world. But also I was quite fascinated by the timidity of the current situation in Moscow. Having just been in China, the week before where I’m building large projects, I’m wondering how Moscow seems a little frozen in terms of cultural works going on. Yet, I met with some young architects there and saw some interesting small projects and there was some energy there.


VB: You are traveling and building all over the world. In terms of architecture what do you think is the most exciting place today?


SH: I think that architecture is a very particular activity and it is particular to the clients that you are working with and not just to the area. Ultimately the client has to want good architecture. When that happens it doesn’t matter where you are. After practicing architecture for 30 years I come to feel more and more that the most important thing in architecture is to have a good client. It is not important to have a huge budget.


VB: Still, the most exciting architecture today is happening in China. Can you comment on your projects there?


SH: I’m making a Museum of Art and Architecture in Nanjing. It is a 30,000 sq. ft. building at China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture, coordinated by Arata Isozaki who invited 25 architects to do 25 projects there. Our museum is one of the main gateways structures there. While I was in Nanjing I was invited by people in Beijing to design eight towers with 800 apartments. It is going to be a new floating residential quarter with its own cinema and shops. These eight 22 storey towers will be connected by bridges at the 20th floor. This is a very interesting project with 21st century living and hybrid programs.


VB: After completing such major projects as museums and residential complexes are you still interested in designing houses?


SH: Yes, absolutely! Currently I have four houses that I’m working on. All are very different. One is called a Planar House in Phoenix, Arizona which just started construction; one tiny house is called Nails collector’s house in Essex, New York; then there is Turbulence House in New Mexico and one house for a brain sergeant in Watermill. For me the joy of architecture comes from a poetic intensity of the construction. It doesn’t have to be big. A house is wonderful because it can be realized in a very short period of time, unlike big projects that go through a lot of bureaucracy. So by working on a house you get almost immediate gratifications of this poetic utterance.


VB: Some architects shy away from designing a house for others and even for themselves to avoid too personal and intimate relationships. For example Peter Eisenman doesn’t like the idea of someone living in his architecture and he himself lives in the apartment designed by a student of his. Daniel Libeskind commissioned his friend to design his apartment. To justify this he said: “You don’t expect a barber to do his own haircut”.


SH: Well, that’s not my position. I live in a house, in that little black wrinkled cube there (pointing to a small cardboard model sitting on a desk). That is my weekend house, one and a half hours drive north from New York. I designed and built it myself in 2001 and totally enjoy it. I believe in phenomenology of architecture, the experiential dimension of architecture. So you can have the intellectual dimension and the ideas and the theories but it is the experiential dimension that is the taste, the food, the joy of all the efforts. I’m totally committed to making and realizing small works with these intensities and I live in one myself.


VB: In other words, if you design and build for others why not doing it for yourself?


SH: Exactly, I still go on making houses even though everybody knows that you loose money on the fee and all of that, but it is such a joy of possibilities of the ideas and experiments.         


VB: How did you become interested in architecture?


SH: When I was four or five years old I began to make things. My brother and father were sculptors. Together we built a number of small structures in our backyard in Bremerton, Washington. I grew up making and building things. It is a great joy to fabricate, to make, to build, to draw and to dream the possibilities.


VB: Who introduced you to architecture?


SH: No one really, when it was time to go to university I said: I’m choosing architecture. That’s what I want to try. So I went to the University of Washington to study architecture. Perhaps my big change was when I went to study architecture to Rome in 1970. That was a great experience and I became dedicated to architecture ever since. I became licensed in 1974 when I was only 25 but I didn’t have any commissions so I went back to school. I went to the Architectural Association in London when Alvin Boyarsky was the dean Zaha Hadid was a student in Rem Koolhaas’ studio.


VB: Your work is very conceptual and theoretical. Why do you think there is a need for theory and philosophy in architecture?


SH: There is a need for theory and philosophy in everything in life. I agree with old philosophers who said that unreflected life is not worth living. We should think about every little thing we do, including energy saving, global warming and politics. I think one of the greatest tragedies of our time is that there is not enough theory and philosophy. There is not enough truly deep thinking and discussion about things that we go out in the world and do thoughtlessly. Architecture for sure needs theory and philosophy because it is a more permanent art.


VB: Bernard Tschumi thinks that forms in architecture are not important but ideas and concepts are. Do you agree?


SH: In 1989 I wrote a text called “Idea and phenomena” which establishes a two-prom position – an idea is a force that drives design. But then the real important part is the phenomenological experience of the spaces, of the textures, of the light and therefore all these things are intertwined. So to say that forms are not important is a little too glib for my taste. But certainly the idea that is driving the design is very important.


VB: You said that architecture is a link between concept and form, right?


SH: Architecture is a link between ideas and tensions, philosophies and hopes and the materiality of the world, the light and the space. Architecture embodies all of that. Architects spend all the time and energy on the design but it is the space and forms that radiate it back and people can feel it. I made a small wine center in Austria, which is tilted towards the old volts and has cuts in the facade, a very simple idea – cork on the inside and concrete on the outside. And ten thousand people come to see this building every month. It is so successful that now we are building a new hotel right next to it to accommodate all the people who come to the center. I think there is such an intensity of this little building that it is appreciated by so many people.     


VB: Is there one single building (historical or modern) that you would recommend for students of architecture to experience in person and why?


SH: I think a visit to Convent of La Tourette by Le Corbusier near Lyon is a crucial piece of education because it embodied so many of his ideas. It still exists and you can rent one of the monk’s cells there and really experience it. Ronchamp, also by Le Corbusier is a great building to experience. In America, I think the Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Racine, Wisconsin is a critical and crucial piece of his work that I really feel strongly about. I’ve been to these buildings many times. They radiate the feeling of great inspiration.


VB: Can you talk about your process of developing a concept for a new project?


SH: It is very simple. I start with images and words and sometimes spaces and I do it with watercolors. If you ask me about any of my designs I can go back in time and show where it started because I’ve been doing my watercolors of the same size for over 20 years. They are organized in these catalogs (stretching his hand to a long shelf of labeled cardboard boxes). Sometimes I explore four or five different directions. Sometimes I sit down and get it the very first time. But sometimes it is very agonizing and even after six months I’m still not sure. So it is a process – words, sentences, concepts written down and images that come together.   


VB: Your architecture is often called phenomenological. Can you explain what is phenomenological architecture and phenomenological experience?


SH: The essence of it lies in the movement of the body through the space and all the phenomena that our senses can experience: the quality of light, the sound, the smell, the acoustics, and the change in the body’s movement. These things are precious to architecture. Film will never take that away from architecture. Music, sculpture, and painting are all two dimensional in that sense. Architecture is one art that to experience it is really to explore its greatest dimension, the phenomenological dimension – 100 percent.


For example, if you go to Kiasma and you walk up the ramp and go through the whole sequence of galleries and you end up at the big gallery at the top it is exhilarating but if I try to show pictures of it you can’t quite get it. It is not quite understandable and it is not the same thing. So the real experiential dimension is at the core of architecture and it has many aspects.


In 1993 I wrote the book called “Questions of perception”. There are eleven chapters – eleven types of phenomenological conditions like meshing of fields. For example, when I’m talking to you I can look outside and see the Hudson River and the helicopter coming up and this boat coming this way. It is important that the experience of having this conversation with you has this dimension. We are not in a dark room, we are not in a closed closet, and we are not on a subway. So all of these things come together to make the experience of the situation in a space. I think it is very important because the architects who only make a drawing on a sheet of paper they need to take in to consideration all these other dimensions. This is very crucial and often forgotten with the drawing activity.


VB: Someone compared your architecture to “a magnifying lens that lets us focus our senses on the fundamental elements.”


SH: I don’t know who said it but I like it. I think that materials and details and surfaces and reflectivity and all these aspects are really very important and they don’t get enough attention. For example the Salk Institute in La Jolla by Louis Kahn has a way of doing just that. It brings you to essential spatial relations that are very special.     


VB: In your design for Kiasma Museum in Helsinki you used the concept of intertwining. Kiasma means intertwining in Greek. Can you explain why you chose to explore this idea and why did you pick this Greek word to name the Museum?


SH: This was a competition project. Our concept was about intertwining between the urban fabric and the landscape, between the arc of the building and the arc of the sun. At the end we were supposed to name our competition boards with the code name so I wanted to call it “Intertwining”, but then I thought of the famous text “The Intertwining, The Chiasma” about intertwining of all the senses by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Chiasma in Greek means intersection of two tracts in the form of the letter X. So we called our project Chiasma. When we won the competition the Museum wanted to use our code for their new name, but in Finish “ch” doesn’t exist so they replaced it with “k” – Kiasma. It is located in the very center of Helsinki at One Kiasma Square.     


VB: In your World Trade Center project with Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey you tried to define a new building type on a massive scale. Can you comment on your ideas of horizontal skyscrapers?


SH: I’ve been working on the idea of horizontal skyscrapers for many years. I have developed several projects that explore this idea. For example, for Berlin Library or for Milan Lombardi center. To me it is important that in the 21st century city there is a possibility of forming spatial conditions not just on the ground plane, but also distinguished by a vertical dimension.


VB: El Lissitzky did his famous horizontal skyscrapers in the 1920’s. Was this project one of your inspirations?


SH: Sure. But don’t forget he did it with Mark Stem. They did it together. 


VB: Is it true that the concept behind the Simmons Hall is an ordinary sponge?


SH: No! The concept is porosity. We looked at different ways at how a building can be porous. Instead of forming a wall we wanted to achieve openness. The easiest metaphor is a sponge. Sea sponge has many different types of holes running into many different directions. But one critic took it too literally and wrote that I was taking a shower with a sponge and came up with the concept. You know, we architects live under the fear of the journalists who typecast and misinterpret what we do. The concept here was porosity.        


VB: Was this building influenced at all by Unite d’Habitation by Le Corbusier in Marseille?


SH: Our building is quite a bit different, but certainly the notion of color we can trace to Corbusier, but our color is actually related to structural energy of the building, the actual structural diagram. Different forces are represented by different colors on the façade.


VB: What is your dream project?


SH: I have a dream project every day!


VB: So what is it today?


SH: Well, my real dream project is the High line (Holl is pointing to the abandoned elevated railroad link, the good part of which is just one block away from his office, right above Penn Station yards). I’ve been working on the possibilities for what I think is an incredibly important piece of New York City for the last 20 years. One day it will become an elevated green strip that moves through the city. It will be a public space that gives you a different point of view. Not just elevated point of view, but also sound and silence. You can’t really hear the city from there. It is so quiet and wonderful!