Steven Holl: “I am interested in Architecture that Speaks to the Soul”

New York City now has three buildings by Steven Holl – Higgins Hall Insertion at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (2005), Campbell Sports Center for Columbia University in Upper Manhattan (2013), and Hunters Point Community Library in Long Island City, Queens that will open its doors to the public on September 24th. The event coincides with publishing Holl’s new book Compression with the Library’s abstracted image on its cover; it is the fifth volume of the architect’s written manifesto, 30-years-in-the-making series by Princeton Architectural Press. The new building, the size of the nearby landmarked Pepsi-Cola red neon sign, is a robust concrete parallelogram distinguished by softly outlined multi-story glazed cut-outs. It sits prominently on a new public promenade just feet away from the East River, directly across the United Nations complex in Midtown Manhattan and the southern tip of the Roosevelt Island with its Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park memorial by Louis Kahn. The new building is at once an iconic reference point, visible from Manhattan’s East Side and the ferries, and although it took nine years to finish, its completion is a positive sign of New York’s commitment to public projects being designed by our best architects.

Steven Holl: “I am interested in Architecture that Speaks to the Soul” - More Images+ 9

Holl’s new building is consistent with his most representative pieces, long recognized for their artistry and ability to bring joy to all senses. It is a quiet work, nevertheless. There are no heroic cantilevers, no spherical forms, no colors, not even a reflective pool of water, which succumbed to the unfortunate value engineering in the design process, as did the original aluminum-clad skin, replaced with silvery paint. Yet, the building stands its ground. It is memorable, stubborn, even tough-looking structure that can only be understood by exploring its cave-like, singular interior of several interconnected levels of open bookstacks that offer working space, casual browsing, and stunning views over Manhattan. The best part is the tree-height roof terrace with stepped seating. In anticipation of the library’s opening, I met with Holl who currently has nine projects under construction – from Ireland, Taiwan, and Africa to all across the US – at his New York office for an intimate conversation about the architect’s aspirations and intentions. A small portion of our interview is transcribed below exclusively for ArchDaily readers.

Hunters Point Library © Steve Holl Architects
Hunters Point Library © Steven Holl Architects

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once said that buildings take an enormous amount of time and energy and that it is important for an architect to reflect on what you do as a practitioner. Could you talk about the key intentions of your work and how would you explain what you do to a lay person? 

Steven Holl: First and foremost, I am an idealist! What are the main points of my idealism? Number one – I believe that drawing is a form of thought. Number two – a limited concept drives the design, limited because I would not use it for another one of my projects. That is what my first book, Anchoring is all about. Every project is different because it has a different site, circumstances, climate, culture. And it is different because the concept that drives the design is always different (we know many architects who carry their ideas from one site to the next). Number three – natural light is a primary space-shaping material. It is a psychological force that is essential in architecture. Number four – the haptic realm of materials and details as a phenomenological aim. The way spaces are made and what they are made of; it is all about how we experience architecture. Number five – ecological innovation – from the urban scale to the small house. For example, our Linked Hybrid project in Beijing had the biggest geothermal wells installation in the history of China that heats and cools that enormous project. Number six – structure makes up for a quarter of the total cost of the building. Therefore, it should be integral to the design ideas. For example, in the case of the Queens Library, the structure is the form. When you look at the building you are looking at the structure – concrete exoskeleton. And the last one is apropos art, the expressive link and interpretation of painting, sculpture, music, and poetry, they are all connected.

Campbell Sports Center © Iwan Baan. ImageCampbell Sports Center

VB: Your projects start with images and words that you express in your contemplative watercolors. These metaphors and concepts trigger your projects. Here is the list of a few of them: anchoring, intersection, interlocking, intertwining, hybrid, hinge, suspension, mini utopia, porosity, light loop, a thing within a thing, music score, seven light bottles in a stone box, Guitar painting by Picasso, and so on. You never repeat these ideas. What I am interested in is where do these ideas come from and who inspired you for this methodology?

SH: I worked for many years as a university professor developing my own strategies that I would use as an architect in my practice. I am very passionate about my designs and in whatever I do. Before I was an architect, I was a surfer and I had the fastest car in Bremerton, Washington, a 1957 Chevy with 327 cubic-inch V8, 3-speed manual transmission. And I could beat a brand-new Mustang coming off the showroom floor, and I did it by winning at a street race! Whatever I do I am passionate about it and I will take my passion as far as I can. So, in 1966, I decided to study architecture. I had inclinations toward building things, which I did in my backyard with my father and brother since I was little. Then I went to the University of Washington in Seattle where I studied philosophy and the work of many great architects. My History of Architecture professor Hermann G. Pundt told me, “There should be more in a building than when you look at it.” Just think about it – for how many buildings that’s true today? I think of that statement when I work on every one of my buildings. 

Campbell Sports Center © Iwan Baan

It took years for me to develop my position. As a teacher, I believe that ideas are the most important things in architecture, not buildings that get built. My first book was Anchoring with Berlin Library on the cover, my most important project that was never built. Then came Intertwining with Cranbrook Institute of Science diagram on the cover, which was about intertwining old and new; that project was built. Then came House: Black Swan Theory, a book on houses, followed by Urbanisms: Working with Doubt with Horizontal skyscraper in Shenzhen on the cover. This book is on my urban projects and it talks about such ideas as densification and eradicating suburban sprawl. And the latest book, Compression with the Queens Library on the cover, just came out. It caps out five volumes and presents the work of the last twelve years. So, these five little books, all by Princeton Architectural Press, constitute the last 30 years of my work. If I was asked to put together my greatest hits, many of them would be those projects that never got built – Berlin Library from 1988. Another project would be Palazzo Del Cinema in Venice from 1990. It is all about the ideas. The built works give more credence to the ideas. Then it becomes clear that unique ideas which some would consider extreme, could be realized and enrich the world.

Campbell Sports Center © Steven Holl Architects

VB: You said that when you work on creating something you try to bring all kinds of subjective forces. Could you talk about the role of subjectivity in your work? I am interested in this because now so many young architects praise themselves for being collaborative, objective, responsive, specific, pragmatic, circumstantial...

SH: I think this is a mistake. You know, Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, had to work individually. There is a book Quiet by Susan Cain, which is about introversion. The reason you need silence and reflection during the creative time and not the business of voices is that creativity is all about intuition. James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA, double helix after one of them had a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. That did not come from a pragmatic approach. It was an inspirational moment, a dream. Of course, architecture is about collaboration, but to have a true creative breakthrough idea you need a deep connection to intuition that fuses subjectivity with pragmatism.

Linked Hybrid © Shu He

VB: You often talk about the need for abstraction. Why is that? 

SH: In his 2016 book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Columbia University professor, Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, argues that the brain needs abstraction. The internal mechanisms with which we see and experience visual and physical phenomena, depend on a bottom-up approach, meaning building up from elements of abstraction, coming up to terms with something that we analyze and to make sense of it. The opposite, top-down approach of given figuration stifles our imagination. A form of a cupola is an example of top-down thinking. In other words, we already know what it is. We have multiple references to what a cupola is. It is not abstract enough, as the meaning of the thing is a given, and therefore our mind is not working on figuring it out.  

Linked Hybrid Campbell Sports Center © Steven Holl Architects

VB: In your abstracted buildings, you avoid giving us familiarities to something that we already know, right? You want us to figure them out based on unfamiliar elements, is that so? 

SH: I think light, space, material, color, details, those are elements in themselves. And the power of abstraction is that we can make things in a new way. We can make new meanings, new entities. We don’t need references. 

Linked Hybrid © Shu He

VB: New is great, but don’t you think that there came a point in architecture, and this was very recently, I would argue in 2012, when architects got tired of making new things all the time. Architecture became oversaturated with new ideas and forms, and many started asking this question – so what if there is another shape?

SH: Not if the building is more on the inside than looking at it. Maybe by 2012 images online gave us so much pressure that so many could not see beyond them. But we need to relate images to the content. I am interested in architecture that speaks to the soul.  

Pratt Institute © David Sundberg-Esto

VB: Speaks to the soul through your own way of inventing space, your own way of getting to the soul. Which I appreciate and I think that’s what architecture should be doing. But I am referring to the 2012 Common Ground Venice Biennale by David Chipperfield, after which architects started looking for their common ground and to find it, inevitably, they had to start aligning themselves. This led to a kind of convergence of ideas and by 2016, I believe, the common ground was found, unfortunately.  

SH: Corporate architecture?

VB: For sure, it is a part of it. More to the point, it is problem-solving, pragmatics, emphasis on social and ecological aspects. But also, more and more distancing from anything personal, artistic, and driven by a single author.

SH: Pragmatics is just building construction, production. Architecture is art. What you are describing is a sad story. I believe that architecture can change the way we live. It can change a person. It can change the world.

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "Steven Holl: “I am interested in Architecture that Speaks to the Soul”" 21 Sep 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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Hunters Point Library © Steven Holl Architects


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