Deeply rooted in the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Steven Holl’s architectural philosophy is centered on human experience, materiality, and a thorough engagement with the site or context. But more than his experiments with space and material, he is best known for his mastery over what is perhaps his favorite material, or medium: natural light.
His design for the Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa, seen here through the lens of photographer Aaron Dougherty, is one of his projects that best explores these concerns. Clad in weathering zinc and stainless steel, the four-story building houses studios, teaching spaces, galleries and faculty offices for all visual arts departments—from Ceramics, Jewelry Design and Sculpture, to Printmaking, Painting, Video Art, and 3D Design.
Designed to encourage social interaction and interdisciplinary collaboration, the building is vertically porous, making use of large open floor plates, glass partitions, and spacious staircases serving as social condensers.
Holl’s clever harnessing of light through the “7 cuts” and square apertures keeps the interior well-lit, leaving little need for the use of artificial light during the day. “It’s like walking through sponge”, describes Chris McVoy, one of the firm’s partners. At night, the southern façade, covered with a stainless steel perforated screen which renders the windows invisible during the day, sports glowing squares of various sizes when the building is lit from the inside—a sight best described by Holl as “fuzzy Mark Rothkos”.
The architect’s work abounds with references from music, philosophy, painting, and literature. Earlier in 2006, Holl designed Arts Building West, inspired by Picasso’s guitar sculpture. Together, both buildings now form the Art Quads at the University of Iowa.