INSIDE Conversation with Architect Series One: Steven Holl

Breaking the rules
Architect Steven Holl's creations defy gravity, convention yet find connection to surrounding landscapes and their communities

Issue: Apr 2010

Mr Steven Holl
Steven Holl, best known for architecture that satisfies the spirit as well as the eye.
Photo courtesy of Mark Heitoff

Architect Steven Holl's creations defy gravity, convention yet find connection to surrounding landscapes and their communities.

He was named America’s Best Architect, for "buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye" by
Time magazine in 2001. Whether it is the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland, Copenhagen Gateway in Denmark, or the Beirut Marina & Town Quay in Lebanon, American architect, water-colourist and author, Steven Holl, is celebrated for his architecture that considers place, time, and the senses of the viewer.

A handshake in the air forms the Copenhagen Gateway in Denmark
A handshake in the air forms the Copenhagen Gateway in Denmark.

Holl's architecture stems from a phenomenological approach; that is a concern for man’s existence
(his emotions, actions responsibilities and thoughts) and his bodily engagement with his surroundings.

His focus is to anchor his buildings to its site, culture, history as well as purpose for its users, bringing meaning to all aspects whether it is in mixed use developments, offices or museums.

The levitating tubes at the Nanjing Museum are both radical and understandable, ethereal yet still monumental
The levitating tubes at the Nanjing Museum are both radical and understandable, ethereal yet still monumental.

He was awarded two 2010 Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter for the Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, China and the Knut Hamsun Center in Hamarøy, Norway.

INSIDE: You are known for an architecture that considers place, time, and the senses of the viewer. You have designed buildings in Asia, America, Europe as well as the Middle East that require mixed uses. Could you tell us how do you achieve this balance in a mixed development where the requirements are varied (residential, commercial, retail), and the senses of your viewers are just as diverse?

HOLL: I believe that architecture needs to be completely anchored in its program and site. Its meaning must be so deeply rooted in the conditions of its inception that it’s unfazed by fashion. My first book Anchoring describes the relation of a building to a site, to its culture, and to its history. If architecture’s original concept can get deeper, rather than broader, it builds a meaning on the site. It fortifies a locus of thoughts and philosophical hopes, or even humour and stories, which are oblivious to whatever style it is. Wherever we work we always try to anchor the architecture to the specific site and programme. For instance, our projects in China are different from each other as they are different from our projects in other cities around the world.

Holl’s drawing studio at the edge of Round Lake
Holl’s drawing studio at the edge of Round Lake.

INSIDE: How do you plan and design buildings for fast-changing urban spaces in growing cities?

HOLL: Working on Chinese projects, for example, we realized that as urbanists and architects we must first think of the urban sections in our cities. The old conditions of linear perspective disappear behind us as modern urban life presents multiple horizons and multiple vanishing points. Especially in dense metropolitan centres as Beijing and Chengdu, the urban section appears to be exponentially more consequential than the plan. The metropolitan density of the 21st century asks for a further spatial affirmation in the vertical and diagonal. Increased spatial energy ─ directly related to a high degree of sectional development ─ allows for fresh new dimensions of living in ever-denser 21st century cities.

INSIDE: What were the considerations and inspirations behind the design of CapitaLand’s Raffles City Chengdu?

Raffles City Chengdu’s architecture reaches out to the public and welcomes a diverse community
Raffles City Chengdu’s architecture reaches out to the public and welcomes a diverse community.

HOLL: In planning Raffles City Chengdu, one of the key challenges was to integrate the project within the existing urban fabric of Chengdu. As a team we were actively looking to create living, vibrant and integrated communities for the general Chengdu public. And we used this project as a forum to bring together diverse groups of people; a forum with the common aim of public awareness and interaction. Indoor and outdoor public spaces, including educational areas such as the three pavilions (Pavilion of Provincial History, High Tech Pavilion, and Du Fu pavilion), are developed as social platforms for various levels of engagement. Therefore the site of Raffles City Chengdu is being planned to maximise open space and provide low scale construction along its main front, facing Ren Min Nan road. This open edge towards the road invites neighbors and people passing by to use the large plaza as a new public space to meet and interact. The public spaces are designed for changing uses during day and evening, and over the varying seasonal conditions.

One of the main concerns during the design process were the essential sun hours we did not want to take away from the surrounding neighborhood by intersecting the urban block. The configuration and sliced geometry of the final design is responsive to intentional mass configuration and a careful study of the sun cut regulations, resulted in this design that allows for abundant daylight to the surrounding residential blocks.

Both CapitaLand and the designers aim for a successful community integration, which we hope will have a positive impact on the city’s economy and quality of life.

INSIDE: You believe in architecture which yields new enthusiasm and new spirit in and of its experiential phenomena. Using Raffles City Chengdu as an example, in what way has that architecture “yielded new enthusiasm and new spirit in and of its experiential phenomena”?

HOLL: Working on Raffles City Chengdu we found that the most exciting architecture – the one that creates vibrant communities - resides at the mid-scale. We feel that urban examples of change, especially at the mid-scale of Raffles City Chengdu, can lead others to hopes and expectations of their own. The open architecture of Raffles City Chengdu can adapt to change and flow. In a large rapidly developing city as Chengdu, a critical fragment as Raffles City Chengdu with inspired experiential elements can be realized to stir up developments. The momentum a project like this generates can drive the master plan or a dynamic change for future urban developments. Larger urban projects of multiple buildings as Raffles City Chengdu provide architecture with a renewed transforming potential. Architecture today may not only affect the way we will live – it can inspire and shape new feelings and meanings.

INSIDE: On a personal note, where is your favourite creative space?

HOLL: I spend most time in my home, which I designed myself, in upstate New York. We completed it in 2001. The cubic wooden structure is attached to a preexisting stone house in the form of a “U”. The two structures connect through an exoskeletal steel "L". The link, like a porch, is a temperate zone with operable glass.

Holl’s sketches help transform his radical, free-feeling thoughts into understandable, well-grounded architectural space
Holl’s sketches help transform his radical, free-feeling thoughts into understandable, well-grounded architectural space.

A solar stack wall in structural glass planks heats the cube in winter and cools via stack effect in summer. PV cell assists the electrical. Steel windows slice through the dark stucco on steel plate blades forming special viewing frames from the interior with unified white plaster head/jamb/sill.

Creative and imaginative work begins in the solitude of the connection of the mind/eye/hand. In my home is a solitary room with a table and a chair which is my functional drawing studio. The wood framed, 80-square foot space, sits on four legs at the edge of Round Lake. The north and south elevations are glass in cedar frames. The sides are black tar paper with wooden battens. There is a one-by-four foot window at the floor facing east toward the sunrise. There is no plumbing, no electricity, and no insulation.

Holl’s top view sketch of his home and private space
Holl’s top view sketch of his home and private space.

INSIDE: Someone once commented that: “Steven Holl’s strength lies in his ability to create buildings that are both radical and understandable, ethereal yet still monumental. His levitating tubes and light-flooded interiors may feel transcendent, but they maintain a well-grounded sense of architectural space.” How do make your buildings radical yet understandable?

HOLL: When I draw and paint, I connect the subjective and the objective; it’s a way of open-thinking and free-feeling, and it’s unpredictable. I don’t make any restrictions except using a small sketchpad. In order to get closer to a dream-like perspective, I like to make these little drawings and paintings at dawn before breakfast. Sometimes, if I’m thinking about a building project, these sketches open up experimental paths to be tested in the studio. There is a joy in this way of beginning; it’s inspiring and light, and I feel it’s in my blood. I open my eyes. It’s a new unpredictable day; I have a yearning, and it’s unappeasable sometimes.

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