Revealed: Steven Holl's world of watercolours

My projects start 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
– Steven Holl

Steven Holl has revealed to CLADglobal the role that watercolour painting plays in his design process; offering a rare glimpse of some of the artwork he has created over his five-decade-long career.

In a lengthy interview, the architect said he always starts work on new building projects 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.”

He described the process as “always a struggle and a mystery”, with his team helping him transform his sometimes abstract ideas on paper into detailed, large-scale models, which are then gradually brought to reality.

Holl's interest in art and the creative process has led to a particular fascination with arts buildings, which he described as “the most important programme you can do as an architect.” 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, while he recently completed work on the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH).

“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 told CLADglobal. “The art museum has become a social condenser, a place of gathering, a kind of 21st-century cathedral.”

Our full interview with Steven Holl features in the most recent issue of CLADmag, and can be read here.

The watercolours of Steven Holl

Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston

Completed earlier this month, this L-shaped building features a sloping, walkable roofline that runs the length of the structure and connects a wide-stepped amphitheatre at its base and a roof garden above.

Glassell School of Art watercolour

Glassell School of Art

The Institute of Contemporary Art Virginia

Sited at the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in Richmond, Virginia, the newly-completed Institute for Contemporary Art links the University with the surrounding community. With ian inviting double-fronted forum opening to a serene sculpture garden, the 41,000sq ft (3,800sq m) building "provides spatial energy for the most important cutting-edge contemporary art exhibits."

The Institute of Contemporary Art Virginia watercolour

The Institute of Contemporary Art Virginia

Horizontal Skyscraper – Vanke Center Shenzhen

Hovering over a tropical garden, this ‘horizontal skyscraper’ – as long as the Empire State Building is tall – unites office spaces, apartments and a hotel. A conference centre, spa and parking are located under the large green, public landscape. The project was completed in 2009.

Horizontal Skyscraper – Vanke Center Shenzhen, watercolour

Horizontal Skyscraper – Vanke Center Shenzhen,

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Kansas City

Completed in 2007, this museum extension was described by The New York TImes as “a work of haunting power.” Holl added a new building that extends along the eastern edge of the museum campus, and is distinguished by five glass lenses, traversing from the existing building through the Sculpture Park to form new spaces and angles of vision.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Kansas City watercolour

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Kansas City

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsink

The concept of Kiasma, which opened in 1998, involves the building's mass intertwining with the geometry of the city and landscape which are reflected in the shape of the building. Inside, the general character of the rooms, which are almost rectangular with one wall curved, "allows for a silent yet dramatic backdrop for the exhibition of contemporary art."

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsinki watercolour

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsink

Malawi Library

This 66,000sq ft (6,100sq m) institution, currently under construction, is being funded and developed by 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

Malawi Library watercolour

Malawi Library


Holl recently won an international design competition to create this 2 million sq ft (200,000sq m) mixed-use district on a former paratrooper airfield in Moscow. The site, situated near the Moscow River, was for the greater part of the 20th century home to a flying and parachuting school and acted as an aviation parade ground. To reference its history, the winning design places the different amenities in separate volumes, described as a new building typology called ‘Parachute Hybrids’. According to Holl, “these [Parachute Hybrids] combine residential bar and slab structures with supplemental programming suspended in sections above, like parachutes frozen in the sky”. Large circular openings in the towers’ facades give a defining geometric character and will be filled with the health and social spaces.

Tuschimo watercolour


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.

Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center watercolour

Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center

All images courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl  watercolours  Glassell School of Art  Institute of Contemporary Art Virginia  Vanke Center  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art  Kiasma Museum 
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'Parachutes frozen in the sky': Historic airfield inspires Steven Holl's mixed-use Moscow district

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FEATURE: Interview – Steven Holl

Steven Holl has revealed to CLADglobal the role that watercolour painting plays in his design process; offering a rare glimpse of some of the artwork he has created over his five-decade-long career. In a lengthy interview, the architect said he always starts work on new building projects the same way: “Me, alone, my little watercolour pad in front of me, at five thirty in the morning, trying to come up
Steven Holl creates watercolours for each of his designs, which are then transformed into large-scale models and gradually brought to reality / Steven Holl Architects
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