Interview

Steven Holl

The acclaimed architect talks to Kim Megson about designing with light, his friendship with Zaha Hadid and why he wants to see Trump impeached


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I’ll tell you what makes me angry,” says Steven Holl, his voice crackling with indignation. “Endless glass condominium towers. They’re everywhere: piled up, repetitive, rent-collecting expressions of nothing. It makes me very sad. That’s not what architecture is.”

The question of what architecture could and should be dominates the rest of my interview with a man widely considered to be one of America’s most important architects. As Holl’s anger subsides he shares anecdotes and experiences from a career spanning nearly five decades. He’s always philosophical, often hopeful and occasionally horrified about the development of our buildings and cities in the 21st century.

Listening back to the recording, I’m amazed by the unexpected detours the conversation takes. One moment Holl’s offering a brief history of medieval music notation, the next he’s reminiscing about his early opposition to postmodernism (“No.1 Poultry is the worst building that James Stirling ever did!”) before somehow into a story about going flamenco dancing with an elderly Berthold Lubetkin.

At times, it’s hard to keep up with him.

Amidst the digressions, there’s one topic he returns to again and again: The need for architects to remember “the art of architecture”.

“There’s more to what we do than obediently following orders from people who only care about making money,” he says. “I’m not interested in real estate corp, I’m not a businessman and I’m not trying to build a big organisation, so I don’t have to be obedient. I do only what I think is right and I do only what I think is interesting.”

A history of Holl
In 1977, Holl founded Steven Holl Architects – the firm of 40 people he now leads alongside partners Chris McVoy and Noah Yaffe. Since then, he has worked across the full spectrum of scales and typologies. Shops, houses, hotels and university buildings pepper his CV, alongside museums, libraries, sports arenas and sprawling city masterplans.

Unlike many of his fellow ‘starchitects’ – to use that dreaded term – he doesn’t have an easily identifiable style. It’s hard to conceive, for example, that the tiny Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University and Shenzhen’s 1.3 million sq ft Horizontal Skyscraper – a building as long as the Empire State Building is tall – were designed by the same hand, just over a decade apart. What unites his projects is a fascination with the physicality of spaces; their materiality, their texture and the way people interact with them. It is this dimension to his work that led the architecture critic Robert McCarter to write: “Holl has done more than any other contemporary architect to re-engage modern architecture in the experience of the inhabitant.”

Holl himself tells me that architects shouldn’t carry a design language from one building to the next. “Instead,” he argues, “they need to respond to the site, the circumstance, the climate and the culture, and try to make meaning from that.”

It’s a philosophy he developed as a student at the University of Washington in the late 1960s and as a postgraduate at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where he was taught by Elia Zenghelis and his contemporaries included Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.

The latter became a particularly close friend – so much so that at one stage they even contemplated forming a practice together – and she visited him and his family in New York on 16 March 2016, just two weeks before her death in Miami.

“She came to give my daughter a little Issey Miyake dress,” Holl remembers sadly.

“I have the last photographs of Zaha in my apartment. It was a relationship that went back forty years. It’s a tragic loss. She was a genius.”

Designing for the public
Holl has always started work on new projects in the same way: “Me, alone, my little watercolour pad in front of me, at five thirty in the morning, trying to come up with some concepts.” It’s a creative process he describes as “always a struggle and a mystery”, with his team helping him transform his sometimes abstract ideas on paper into detailed, large-scale models.

His interest in art and the creative process has led to a particular fascination with arts buildings, which he describes as “the most important programme you can do as an architect.” It has become common to see his firm’s name on the shortlist when a competition is held for a new art museum, and his most acclaimed completed projects include the semi-translucent Reid Building at the Glasgow School of Art, the curving Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki and the interconnected glowing volumes of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City – described by The New York TImes as “a work of haunting power.”

“I feel, in a certain sense, that religion and philosophy cannot provide the meaning that we need in our lives today, whereas art can give us a window into our human needs,” he says, with conviction. “The art museum has become a social condenser, a place of gathering, a kind of 21st century cathedral.”

His latest foray into this world is two new facilities for the The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and a broader masterplan for the institution’s 14-acre public campus. Holl has designed a 164,000sq ft (15,200sq m) extension for the museum, due to open in late 2019, and a new 80,000sq ft (7,400sq m) building for the Glassell School of Art, opening in May 2018. Both will link to the site’s existing facilities, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Rafael Moneo, and offer numerous access points to the landmark sculpture garden created by landscape architect Isamu Noguchi.

The museum extension was originally set to be built on the site of a parking lot owned by the church across the street, with the competition brief calling for the addition of a new seven-storey car park. The Glassell School building was to remain exactly as it was.

Holl, though, had other ideas.

“I studied the site, and I decided they shouldn’t be building a car park there, they should just put a layer of parking underground to free up more space. But in order to do that, they would have to tear down the Glassell School. We figured out we could do them a new school building about twice the size. So I took a radical decision in the competition, and I told them, ‘This is how I would do it. It’s not what you asked for, but this way you can double the size of your sculpture garden and it will be bigger than the one in Dallas.’

In the end that’s what got them.”

So convincing was his case that he won the design competition with a unanimous vote from the jury.

“Can you imagine?” he asks me, incredulously. “Suddenly we were designing two major buildings, not one. When something like that happens you really have to step up to the plate. It’s like a freight train going down the track, you just make a little turn and you have a different destination, so you have to deliver.”

Several years on, and he’s proud of how things are taking shape. “The great thing about a place like Houston is there’s enough space to spread out,” he says. “That creates the right kind of circulation. Every time you’re moving around these buildings, you understand where you are, you never get lost and you can regularly see Noguchi’s gardens and the great white oaks outside. Movement is absolutely key to the human experience, and all the best museum experiences are horizontal. In vertical museums, everybody’s always standing by a stupid elevator and there’s something irritating about it because moving through the galleries is not so commodious. With these buildings we had space to breathe, and more opportunities to let the daylight flood in.”

Let there be light
Holl is widely celebrated for the relationships he strikes between structure, material and light. In 2016 he was awarded the Daylight Award in Architecture in recognition of his work to use light “for the benefit of human health, well-being and the environment”, and his approach is clearly illustrated by his most recently-completed projects: a Visual Arts Building for the University of Iowa, the zinc-clad concrete form of which features seven terraced ‘cutout’ light courts, and his little Maggie’s Centre in London for people with cancer and their families, which glows like a lantern at night through its translucent white glass façade.

“I’m often asked what my favourite material is, and I tend to say light because it’s what makes everything else work,” he explains. “What sound is to music, light is to space. It’s been in my blood since I was born. In Puget Sound, where I grew up, when the sun rises you get this incredible glow in the sky. As it emerges over the mountains behind Seattle, the ripples on the waves start to sparkle and gleam. It’s magical. My very earliest memories are all to do with light.”

In 1970, the young Steven Holl took his father on a road trip to Oregon to visit the Mount Angel Abbey Library, designed by Alvar Aalto.

“We were overwhelmed by the way the glowing natural light filled that fan-shaped space, illuminating the monks walking around carrying their books,”

Holl remembers. “My father said, ‘Now I understand why you love architecture so much.’”

Two years later, Holl was living in Rome in an apartment just behind the Pantheon. He visited the former temple every morning, desperate to witness the multitude of differing types of light shining through its dramatic 30ft diameter oculus.

These days, Holl’s team work closely with L’Observatoire International, the lighting design firm established by his friend Hervé Descottes, to run their designs through sophisticated lighting modelling software. Then, for greater accuracy, they build enormous physical models (“the size of my drawing table!”) of individual rooms and place them outside to see how real light floods in.

Going green
Increasingly, Holl is championing solar power, and he claims that “much like with computers, green technology is advancing every six months.”

Projects in the pipeline include a library in Malawi for the Miracle of Africa Foundation that will be entirely powered by solar energy captured by PV panels on its roof.

“We have to get free from our dependence on non-renewable fuels,” Holl says. “We need a new, brighter future where every energy source is renewable. We could have been there already if it wasn’t for corruption in power. We’re facing a crisis of ignorance in high places and we need articulate, intelligent leadership more than ever before.”

Which brings us to the 45th president of the United States, a man Holl has publicly criticised for his environmental and immigration policies, and whose name he refuses to utter during our conversation.

“He’s undoing every positive thing Obama ever did, and that’s really disgusting,” he says, with some vehemence. “Have we ever seen a president do that in history? I think he’s going to be impeached, personally. I don’t think America agrees with what he’s doing. The nature of democracy is being damaged and manipulated. It’s a very fragile thing.”

A pause. “But please don’t make this article all about him. I hate even seeing his name in print.”

The isolationism and America First ideology of Trump infuriates Holl, a self-confessed global citizen, who has an office in Beijing and has designed projects as far afield as France, Finland, South Korea and India.

“I do manage to stay optimistic about the future,” he concedes, “because the Earth is our planet and environmental issues affect us all. There are a lot of intelligent people on the globe. So I’m sure we’ll get through this.”

Later, he adds, “architecture changes the way we live, and your own work as an architect can help bring about positive change in the world.”

He elaborates. “People said to me when I first started to work in China, ‘How can you work there because of the human rights?’ And I said, ‘Change is happening, and what I’m doing is building a gift to future generations. How can you foresee what the government’s going to be 10 years from now?’ You have to look beyond the one-year cycle. It can take eight years from the first sketch until you open the building, at least that’s my average after practising for 40 years. Our stupid president will be long gone when the buildings I am trying to start right now are finished.”

Looking to the future
Holl has a number of projects in development, including a cultural and health centre in Shanghai; an expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.; a new wing for Mumbai City Museum; a transformation of the Gare Du Nord in Paris; and a library at Hunter’s Point, New York. And the commissions keep rolling in.

He’s just won a competition to design a 2 million (200,000sq m) mixed-use development in Moscow on the site of the Tushino air base.

While he can’t say too much about the project at the time of our interview, he reveals that the design concept began with memories of his father.

“He was a captain in the paratroopers, he taught people how to jump and he jumped himself 65 times. So I imagined parachutes coming in the sky, causing circular openings that contain the different programmes, like the library, the spa and the bar.

“I really wasn’t sure whether to enter this competition or not, and I was discussing it in the kitchen with my wife when my daughter, who had yoghurt all over her face, shouted: ‘just do it!’. So I decided to take her advice.” He chuckles at the memory.

Ultimately, Holl says, it is the children of today and tomorrow he is designing for.

“I get so excited when I remember that we are creating buildings for future generations. That’s what inspires me to work. Giorgio Grassi once wrote a book called Architettura: Lingua Morta – ‘architecture is a dead language.’ That’s completely the opposite of what I believe. I think it’s alive, and new inspiration can come from anything, literature, music, paintings, sculptures, film, you name it.

“The next generation of architects has to feel that it’s an open language. I want to see them apply the same great intensity that we had in the work of Le Corbusier, Carlo Scarpa or Pierre Chareau. We have to keep fighting in the spirit of all the great buildings we have made in the past and the great buildings we could still build in the future.

“The importance of this was summed up best by Winston Churchill in one simple sentence: ‘First, we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.’”

In the Pipeline

Five of Steven Holl’s forthcoming cultural projects

Steven Holl
Steven Holl
 / All images courtesy Steven Holl Architects
All images courtesy Steven Holl Architects

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts expansion - Washington D.C.

Construction is well underway on Holl’s 114,000sq ft (10,600sq m) expansion to the national performing arts facility; a “living memorial” to President John F. Kennedy. A new building for rehearsal and events spaces is being added to the south of the existing site, with soaring ceilings and abundant windows set to fill the space with natural light.

The Center’s structures will be embedded within the public gardens, integrating its programme with the landscape and the Potomac River. Members of the public will be able to cross a new pedestrian bridge from the waterfront to the new facility, where they will be able to view performances taking place inside via a simulcast on a large exterior wall display.

Mumbai City Museum North Wing - Mumbai

Holl has designed a 125,000sq ft (11,600sq m) new wing for the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, the city’s oldest. While the hotly-anticipated project is currently on hold, Holl is optimistic it will be completed.

The competition jury responsible for selecting the scheme in 2014 praised the “sculptural and calligraphic qualities” of Holl’s masterplan. The design proposes a simple volume enlivened by deep subtracting cuts, creating dramatic effects of light and shade and bringing in exactly twenty-five lumens of natural light to each gallery. A reflecting pool in a new garden courtyard between the old and new buildings will lie at the heart of the site.

Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center - Shanghai

The design concept for this two-building complex is described by the studio as a merging of “clouds and time,” in reference to philosopher Karl Popper’s 1965 lecture on the evolutionary model of free will, which was titled “Of Clouds and Clocks.”

The buildings will be set in a public landscape, organised in large clock-like circles forming a central public space. A quarter circle pool and fountain will provide rainwater recycling for the complex.

The Cultural Center, built out of white concrete, will hover over a transparent glass base which reveals a café, game and recreation rooms inside. An exhibition area, library and gym will also feature. The Health Center, inspired by the curves of the landscape, will house a pharmacy, consultation and examination rooms, a nursery area and lounges.

Hunters Point Library - New York

Located on a prominent site along the East River against the backdrop of recently built skyscraper condominiums, the design for the 22,000sq ft Queens Library at Hunters Point will stand as a public building and park, bringing community-devoted space to the increasingly privatised Long Island City waterfront.
The concrete structure of the building will be exposed and aluminum painted, giving the exterior a subtle sparkle. Glazed cuts in the façade will create views toward the city, which change as visitors move up a series of bookshelf flanked stairs.

Malawi Library - Lilongwe

This 66,000sq ft (6,100sq m) institution is being funded and developed by the The Miracle for Africa Foundation to provide social and study spaces in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.

The building, which will be created using local stone, bamboo and concrete, will have a wave-like roof fitted with photovoltaic solar panels that power the whole net-zero complex. Inside, the free plan library will have meeting rooms and archives encased in glass for sound isolation and humidity control. A central rain collecting pool will reflect the roof geometry “like a wave field in cloud-like light.” Construction is expected to begin this year. l

Art & Architecture

Steven Holl’s creative process

When starting work on a new building or masterplan design, Steven Holl begins by sketching and painting, usually with watercolours.

Every one of his completed buildings started as an idea brought to life in his sketchbook.

Sometimes highly detailed, but often ambiguous and abstract, Holl’s art provides an illuminating insight into his design journey

Ex of IN House
New York, 2015
Experimental guest house
Ex of IN House New York, 2015 Experimental guest house
Hunters Point Community Library
New York, 2018
Hunters Point Community Library New York, 2018
The Museum of 
Fine Arts, Houston
Houston, 2019
Museum campus expansion
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Houston, 2019 Museum campus expansion
Malawi Library
Lilongwe, 2019
Malawi Library Lilongwe, 2019
Horizontal Skyscraper – Vanke Center
Shenzhen, 2009
Mixed-use: hotel, offices, serviced apartments and public park
Horizontal Skyscraper – Vanke Center Shenzhen, 2009 Mixed-use: hotel, offices, serviced apartments and public park
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
Helsinki, 1998
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsinki, 1998
Tushino district
Moscow, date TBA
Mixed-use residential and leisure quarter
Tushino district Moscow, date TBA Mixed-use residential and leisure quarter
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, 2007
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Kansas City, 2007
Maggie’s Centre Barts
London, 2017
Drop-in centre
Maggie’s Centre Barts London, 2017 Drop-in centre
Chapel of 
St. Ignatius
Seattle, 1997
Catholic church
Chapel of St. Ignatius Seattle, 1997 Catholic church
Institute for Contemporary Art 
Richmond, 2018
Virginia Commonwealth University arts building
Institute for Contemporary Art Richmond, 2018 Virginia Commonwealth University arts building
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Interview: Steven Holl
Steven Holl on Donald Trump, Zaha Hadid and not being obedient