A Project Comes from the Mind, the Heart, the Hand

architect Steven Holl
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Alan Kostrenčić, Maroje Mrduljaš

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Interviewed in Zagreb, October 26th 2008


The work of Steven Holl, one of America's most prominent contemporary architects, is unique for its partnership of conceptual research and evolutionary practice that support each other. Indeed, Holl's theoretical projects and realizations are characteristic preciesly for the consistency and continuous expansion of his areas of interest. Holl's position reflects his association with the academic milieu, while in practical sense he demostrates a high level of principle and vitality. He deals with a broad range of topics: from poetic family houses to neo-avant-garde utopian projects of gigantic scale. Linking phenomenology with a subtle sensitivity for the experiental properties of architecture, Holl gradually developed a recognizable style that is self-referential, but always unique in regard to the specifics of individual tasks.


ORIS: Until the late 1980s, you didn’t build much, but you worked intensively on many projects. Most of your ideas and concepts were already developed by that time. For example, hybrid buildings, the exploration of perception and perspective. Could you recall this time, the 1970s and 80s?


Holl: I had a very slow start. I was a teacher, a professor of architecture and I was also making projects and competitions, making visions and drawings. I had no money. I slept on a plywood shelf over the entranceway to my office. People didn’t know I lived there because I could only afford this office space. It was a very economic time in New York. It was a cube of space, 21 feet on the side, and it cost me only $275 a month. For the first ten years, I was just making projects and visions that actually helped me start. One of the dangers today is that there is so much work. The young architects start so soon that they run out of gas and out of ideas, so they start repeating themselves. It was very hard, but I’m grateful that I had this long period of making ideas. The hybrid building was a Pamphlet Architecture in 1985, and we talked about how buildings in the modern city should have many types of functions. You should strive to mix all the functions of urban life in a project and create an urban space. The most radical version of that which we won in a competition is a horizontal skyscraper floating over a tropical landscape. I would have never come to these ideas if I hadn’t worked all those years quietly on my own. At that time, I remember, there was a very important project called the Porta Vittoria (XVII Triennale, Milan) in 1986. I was working against all the rational architects in Europe. They were only working from typology and morphology. I said I was going to make that project without either of those, so I had to find some new way. That’s when I started to look to the phenomenological. This book Idea and Phenomena actually comes from that period. That was a very important moment in my life, because this book brings together all those thoughts. I’m always working from a unique idea that’s about the site and the circumstance of the building. These are the questions of the perception of the different conditions that are universal in a way. That phenomenological position was concretized in that book. I have this way of working which allows me new territory, a new project, because I have to have a new idea for the site and the circumstances, but then there’s this fundamental basis around which things are developed. It’s interesting, but it took a long time. Now it gives me some momentum to build on.


ORIS: If we take a brief look at your biography, you studied at Washington University but in the mid-70s you came to AA where many advanced concepts for the next 30 years were defined. You developed your own position and you made a very important difference between the contemporary and the new. The need to invent a new style every Monday, it is not your thing.


Holl: Mies said that. On the other side, I try to invent a new project for each site and circumstances. I’m against the continuity of Mies. We saw the tragedies of what happens with the trickle down of bad copies of a style. It doesn’t fit in different cities. Different cities have a different atmosphere, different spirit, different texture, different light, a different climate. This is the worst case of what happened to modern architecture that people began to build things without thinking where they were. They start to think of some way, of some system, and then they forget about the uniqueness of the site. I felt very strongly, I still do, that this kind of a position is going on. Now we have what you would call the ‘high style architects’ who have their language. A building can be in Spain or in Los Angeles or in Frankfurt, it’s the same building, it’s the same style. This is a problem, I think, but the public is going in the other direction, they want the brand. This is an interesting problem, but my position is opposite to that. I always felt this would not be a path to getting very much work.


ORIS: The site and the local circumstances are important starting point. Perhaps we can speak of it more specifically. For example, the motif of one of your latest projects, Loisium in Langenlois, Austria, is the underground wine cellars in the clay soil. The motif here is the transformation in the built object.


Holl: The beautiful structure of those old vaults, the idea was trying to make this the beginning point of the project, and it also relates in the section in the landscape. The vaults are under the ground, the first building is in the ground, tilted towards the vault, and the second building is over the ground. There is a section that connects all three things. It gave a framework, also. When you’re in the hotel, the vineyards come right up to the glass, and you feel like you’re in some kind of a special place. And then the wine cellar itself, you want to be closer to the vaults, so the building tilts. Actually, my wife Solange Fabião, who is an artist, is the one that tilted the building. I can have an idea, but other people can help me make it a better idea. In other words, I don’t believe I’m doing this work alone. I’m collaborating, everyone is collaborating with me. We get a direction going, then other people help make it better. In that project, I like the section through the site and the relation of the three things. If I had my choice, I’d do every detail. In some houses, I make light fixtures. I also feel that you make a contribution when the scale gets larger. If you can give everything a conceptual order and make a relationship, it is something positive to contribute.


ORIS: Perhaps a few more remarks about Loisium. You transformed the horizontality of those wine cellars to the verticality of these cuttings in the walls. The conventional wine cellars are underground and dark, but you get the light into the house with this transformation.


Holl: The hotel was more difficult because there at first I started with the shape of the vaults for the hotel, the whole hotel was floating, but that was too expensive. I had a big struggle doing the hotel; I think we went through maybe 50 models, 50 designs. Even after we had the concept we knew we wanted to be over the ground, and we knew we wanted to make a relationship in section, and make some relation to the vaults. But because of the difficulty in making that relation, there was a big struggle. It’s built, but the pressure of the schedule forces the project to be built before you’re ready. I’ve been there, stayed there and it’s very successful. It’s so successful that the French government has called that client because they want to build a hotel in a special site in Alsace, and the client called me if I could do another project. So, I’m making another project with the same client, but a totally different project. In the new project, I’ll be using arborescent structures. That’s the concept, because it’s full of these big, black trees on the hillside. There is a kind of a flowering tree where a flower comes directly off the branches. This is the concept of this building, a very different concept, but it’s the same program. It’s in black wood and red and iron.


ORIS: To go back to the issue of hybrids and hybridization: I think that many architects experiment with the notion of hybrid regarding the program, but you also introduced hybrids of not only typologies but built forms and construction, like for example in the Bridge of Houses.


Holl: In the last project, Vanke Center, which is a horizontal skyscraper hovering above the ground, 20 meters above the ground, it’s also a hybrid construction. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s a cable stay bridge work combined with a concrete frame, so there are no trusses. It’s spanning 50 meters between the cores. The Chinese engineer, Dr. Xiao Congzhen, came with this idea, and this is a real hybrid construction. Cable stay mixed with a rigid concrete frame. For a building, it’s a very rare technique. That building is living, working, recreation; it’s all hybrid – different kinds of functions – offices, hotel, condominiums. It’s a hybrid program and a hybrid structure.


ORIS: Exactly, because hybridization is not just about compacting programs in some mixture. You mentioned collaboration with the Chinese engineer, but your first famous collaboration was with Vito Acconci.


Holl: The Storefront for Art and Architecture. They just restored and reopened it. It’s all perfect again. It was supposed to be a temporary work, for 6 months, and it stayed since 1993. It was made out of materials that were just disintegrating, so the board of Storefront took a vote and they gave $150,000 to rebuild the whole thing, and now it’s reopened. If you go to New York, you’ll see, it looks brand new.


ORIS: Actually, this project introduced the concept of hinged space which was developed in Fukuoka housing.


Holl: I was designing the hinged space in Fukuoka in 1989 and 1990, and it was built in 1991. Storefront was two years later.


ORIS: But the concept of hinged space is also about the transformation of space, about the possibility of spatial complexity.


Holl: Yes, and the interesting thing is that Vito Acconci and I could never agree on what this project would be, so he had many different kinds of designs, and I had many, so we ran out of time. It was like a revolving door. He would come to my office and he’d have a design, and I’d have another design. Finally, the hinged space won the battle. Vito added the rotation around the horizontal axis; I was only spinning around the vertical axis.


ORIS: How did you start the collaboration with Vito Acconci?


Holl: I collaborated with Vito before, and Storefront asked for the collaboration.


ORIS: You also collaborated with Walter de Maria and Dan Graham.


Holl: Dan Graham did a piece for the MIT building, the Simmons Hall, and Walter de Maria did the front forecourt of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, One Sun/34 Moons, which is a beautiful, serene landscape of an entrance to the museum complex.


ORIS: You collaborate with artists. Is it because it allows you to examine your concepts and ideas through the interpretation of the artists?


Holl: In the case of Walter, we had won the competition and we had the idea of water, a pond, a pool over the parking space that was going to be underground, with these lights that were going to go down. Walter’s piece is called One Sun/34 Moons, and it’s as if you took a slice out of the top of a 500ft sphere. It is 500ft in diameter. This is solid gold leaf on bronze. He then moved the moons around and added one or two. These were already in our competition. This is a total work of art that cannot be changed, it’s a part of the collection of the museum and they can’t come and put some Botero here. I’m very happy that it’s all Walter de Maria’s piece of artwork, but the collaboration is much more dynamic, there are many things coming both ways and back and forth.


ORIS: Do you see yourself as a part of the New York art scene?


Holl: I’ve been working in New York for more than 30 years, so I imagine I have to be somehow connected there. That’s where I drew most of my drawings. But the work that I’m doing, I have many sites in Europe and China, but only three things in New York.


ORIS: Dietmar Steiner said that you are in fact a European architect. Is it perhaps stressed through your concern and interest in different branches of history, science, art. Yet, Kenneth Frampton says that Steven Holl is very American architect, so there are different opinions on this issue.


Holl: I don’t know what America is, I think it’s a myth. It’s problematic today, because we really want the Democrats to win. The rest of the world is just holding their breath for some more fair government. [The interview was held just before the Democrats’ victory.] My grandfather was born in Tonsberg, Norway, and my dad is a full-blooded Norwegian, so I think we should all be world citizens. I don’t believe in nationalism. The 20th century had a terrible experience with nationalism, so we should be much more cognizant of the planet as a total thing that we all share. We should all work to stop the deforestation of the Amazon and Brazil, for example. When they burn 800 acres in the month of September, this is a very big tragedy. Talking about the problem of the global warming and the atmosphere and this burning of the trees is actually what we need. It has a huge impact on us and I think we have to be international citizens, all of us. I’m very pro thinking of the planet and very against the nationalistic position, even to the point where I question the provincial position of the architect. I think it was alright in the 19th and 20th centuries, but I think when you travel around and you think about the world and, by the way, we all watch international television, we read international news, the magazines are international, so our minds need to be international, we need to be international in our thinking and in everything we do.


ORIS: Do you think that in architecture a new formal language must be developed in relation to this ecological concern?


Holl: No, I believe architecture is much more important than the plumbing in it. You don’t need to wear your plumbing on the sleeve. This is like not having any other ideas and trying to be political about it.


ORIS: I was thinking about Glenn Murcutt. His architecture, its shape and morphology comes from his concern about the ecological point of view, of not using climatization but making it in a natural way, even in extreme climate situations.


Holl: At the scale of a house, it is easier to do that, on smaller projects. But when the project is an urban project, it’s very difficult, you must respond to urban forces and shaping of space and urban space and many other forces. Then again it’s particular to the site circumstance and the nature of the problem.


ORIS: Then it becomes a matter of perception also. In the introduction to the book Questions of Perception, you mention that you went to a symposium in Helsinki in order to discuss the concepts of phenomenology with the philosophers. Actually, you got a very good response because they actually confirmed some of your thoughts and ideas.


Holl: I confessed to them that I misused their thinking, I use it only as a tool as an architect, a sloppy misuse of very sophisticated writings, and then they were very supportive, they were speaking like it was very interesting to them, that there could be a kind of working application of some of these ideas. That’s very exciting to them.


ORIS: Husserl would say: ‘Return to the things themselves.’ Maybe they were referring to your concern about the materiality and about the sensual qualities of space. I think an important part of your attitude towards architecture is the method of design, because you are constantly using sketches, drawings, aquarelles, never using computer models, almost never.


Holl: We use computer models, but I believe the beginning of a project is an analog thing that comes from the mind, the heart, the hand. These things are together. Then you can use the computer and supercharge and go on. The computer doesn’t think. It doesn’t have an idea. The danger in trying to have an idea only with a computer as a tool is that you’re already shaping the thought. It’s not so clear. I think you can, but you must be aware of it. There are some programs where you try to make a round shape, they make it like a pumpkin. This is in the computer program. If you try to freely draw a sketch of some thought and you’re working in this program, they’re going to come out of what’s been written in the program already. This is just a detail, but if you want to have it completely open, you have to start with just your mind.


ORIS: Umberto Eco said that the tool that you use for writing significantly affects the structure of the writing. The tool affects to some extent the intellectual outcome of an artistic work.


Holl: And also the way we communicate. When we’re here today, we’re looking at each other’s eyes, and if you have only conversations on the e-mail and text messages, you change the way of communication. You don’t see the eye. This is something very significant we have to face. It’s actually changing the brain pattern. This is the question we have to face. I have this work in China, and every day in my office I have to answer all these questions through e-mail. So I have one hundred e-mails or so. It takes me an hour and a half just to answer all the questions. There’s something missing even in the communication with your staff. Sometimes I just call them so we hear our voices on the phone, and now we have Skype, so we’re looking at each other, having the meeting on Skype. I think it’s better than e-mail. E-mail is so dry.


ORIS: I was deeply impressed by your explorations of architectural notation presented in Parallax (Princeton Architectural Press, N.Y. 2000). This is something highly original and also related to the concept of architecture itself. You used a sophisticated system of coding of different angles in which light enters the space and also the coding of shapes. Through combination of these elements you have introduced the element of time.


Holl: That’s only one project, I wouldn’t take that as a system moving it from another project. That was a particular project that we experimented with as a kind of a dance score, that light could move through a space like dance moves through a space.


ORIS: In the Stretto House you were using the movements of a Bartók piece for the diagram of the house. Architecture can often be perceived as a piece of music, but when the public listens to music, they don’t need to know how to read musical notation. How is this with architecture? Do people need to know something about it in order to enjoy it?


Holl: I often said that as architects, we are like composers. We need an idea to produce all the drawings and to make the decisions; an idea is the force that drives the design. But a person walking in, they can experience the phenomenon of light, the textures and space. Actually, if they want to find out about it, maybe they can sense that there’s an idea driving the design. I think the real measure is the user. It could be a five-year-old child coming into the space that can sense something, and then later on, you don’t need to know that Stravinsky’s score was based on St. Mark Basilica’s three domes in Venice. There’s one piece of music that’s structured in three parts and it’s based on that. You can appreciate that music and hear it a hundred times and not know that, but once you know it, that gives you a new piece of information.


ORIS: How did your interest in phenomenology actually start?


Holl: I was trying to escape typology and morphology. I was on a train, going to a conference and I was sitting with a philosopher who was an expert on Merleau-Ponty and I began to read everything about his work, because I think it is much closer to architecture than Husserl. He is too abstract for me. I needed something more immediate, more about the body moving through space, so Merleau-Ponty was a better person to read and to think about how that could be a position.


ORIS: Is there any connection with the art scene in America? There was the Light and Space movement, with which you had connections.


Holl: I worked with Dan Graham and James Turrell. Turrell was really a part of that. He was the main figure, and I’ve done models with Turrell. Robert Irwin was there in that period. But you know what’s strange? Now there’s a repeat – Olafur Eliasson, and he acts as if he does not know about the others. It’s really interesting how we have these cycles, and the young people are looking at it as if it was brand new, but it’s not. Not at all. It’s amazing to me that everyone is saying, ‘Oh, this is really new, this is radical.’ It’s not new, it’s just very creatively repackaged.


ORIS: Right now, it seems that your practice is expanding, you build more.


Holl: Actually, I’m making it smaller. It had to get big because of the big projects in China, I don’t want a big office. I think it’s just too much management. So I’m coming down from 50 and I’m going lower. I think this economic crisis is probably a good thing in some ways, because people can have more time to think and reflect and do their work more carefully.


ORIS: Do you think that reflection is crucial for achieving this sincerity and existential concern which makes architecture a part of culture.


Holl: I think that the more reflection and thought that goes in prior to a building, the more can be embodied in a building, can be embodied in a space, in the materials and the light. That’s always a challenge to do that. It needs to be in relation to a place and in relation to a culture. This is more and more difficult today because some sights and circumstances don’t have groundings. They’re very wide open, very difficult, not culturally embedded. You almost have to imagine new scenarios, which is exciting.


ORIS: But you still feel this need for anchoring?


Holl: That was a fortunate manifesto. The first thing I had was this very premature show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989. I’d hardly built anything. I had a crisis. I said, ‘I’m not going just to put my drawings on the wall, I’ll have to write a manifesto. What can I say?’ And that was my word. It was interesting. It was impulsive, but I would say it’s still my work. I feel very good that I was not writing about something that couldn’t hold through thirty years of projects because I’d have to keep changing, change my story. That’s wrong, but it makes you believe less in the work if someone keeps changing.


ORIS: So this exhibition was actually a forced opportunity to elaborate your program.


Holl: If you look at that text, I think it’s some 500 words. Four years ago, we tried to start a magazine called 32BNY, Beijing/New York, it was 32 pages and it was 32 square centimeters, and no text was to be more than 500 words because we said if you have something meaningful to say, you can say it in 500 words. This is against the New York intellectual school that writes thousands of pages and you can’t understand one thing that they’re saying.


ORIS: Is your goal in teaching to make important the whole relation to the history of art, to stress the intellectual continuity? Pallasmaa quoted his teacher Blomstedt that it is most important for an architect to sense the human situation as more important than formal or morphological situations.


Holl: I worked with Pallasmaa, I think he’s a great teacher, he’s a very important writer, also one early in the world of phenomenology, writing about it very, very closely. In fact, we did a book, Questions of Perception together, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Juhani and I. We were working on Kiasma, the competition. There’s a picture of us standing in my office. That was on March 26, 1993. At that time, I had not won the competition yet. We turned it in, but I did not know I was going to win. I had no idea I would be working in Finland at this time.  There’s a long history with Pallasmaa and his thinking. He helped me with Kiasma. That was the project that changed my life.


ORIS: It was your first major building.


Holl: Before that time I had two or three people; after that time I always had six, seven, eight people. And there were 516 entries in that competition. And it was anonymous.


ORIS: In your project for the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, the competition you unfortunately lost, you designed impressive inner spaces which should be related to the prehistoric caves there, but looking at it, I think about the Endless House. There is also something you make in Loisium, you made an homage to Kiesler.


Holl: Right, but in reality there was a cave that was a given in that project. It had a very strange shape that every architect in the competition had to put inside his building somewhere. What we did was we made that shape and gave birth to this odd thing. There was a kind of an urban block and there’s a very odd organic shape in here. I think Kiesler was a genius, he was a great architect and a visionary. The Endless House was in 1955, it was a great moment in architectural history.


ORIS: But still, in the MIT dormitory, you have these vertical caves.


Holl: That’s different, that’s about porosity. It’s like a sponge, it’s porous in all directions. So we wanted to make it porous this way to connect the light and all the public spaces coming down through the building. We connect the light from the top and then the dormitory has, every of the ten houses has its public space, and we’re connecting these.


ORIS: When someone looks at your buildings, you don’t see any compromises.


Holl: I’m more critical of my own. I think in the project in China, Linked Hybrid, it is very difficult. There are 750 apartments, so we made these model apartments perfect, where we designed fixtures, the lights, every single thing, and then they copied them. Some other architect is copying versions of this, so it’s like, when you make a Xerox, and you make a Xerox of a Xerox, and so on, it becomes a very grainy version of whatever it was you were thinking in the first place.


ORIS: Low-resolution architecture.


Holl: When it’s copied, yes. But the original is there. There’s a couple of them that are perfect, so if someone wants, they can see what it was supposed to be.


ORIS: Pérez-Gómez says in an essay that beauty matters. In a text about you, there’s a very beautiful definition. He says: ‘Holl offers us the alternative of a poetic vision of life, architecture as framework for the human capacity to accept our own condition.’ This is close to perhaps a heroic modernistic attitude to make world a better place to live through architecture.


Holl: I’m an optimist. Like for example, in Linked Hybrid in Beijing, where we’re forming a public space that’s open to everyone, it’s open to the whole city, and it has a condition. We’re taking the forces at play in modern Beijing, where there are enormous projects being made by developers to sell apartments. So we take that, a somewhat negative force and then we try to give it a shape that’s a positive force for the future of everyone, not just living there but in the city, and that’s really shaping a life, and shaping the future life, and it’s all geothermally heated and cooled. Not just the shape, but the mechanics of it. This is the largest geothermally heated and cooled project at that moment we started in all of China. There are some bigger ones now, but 660 wells a hundred meters deep, that means no cooling towers, no fossil fuels being burned, and the radiant heat in the floor and radiant cooling in the ceiling, all built into the structure, and all recycled water. Beijing has a crisis of water, so we recycled all the water, so the big pond in the center of the project, that’s all recycled water. We have plenty of water, because when you recycle you realize that 720 apartments use a lot of water. There’s so much water, we can water the green roofs and the garden landscape and fill that pond and flush the toilets. Certainly, if I didn’t succeed on getting those details in the apartments, what I’m doing is much more important on the big scale of shaping the future of the life. I think the postmodern days were very cynical. They said the modern movement was wrong, many things very wrong. I was always slightly against giving up on the idea that architecture is not a consequence of the social life, the fabric of the city, all these dimensions. It certainly is, and it shapes the way we live. First we shape our buildings and then they shape us. It’s true. So I really think that kept me from falling into the cynicism of postmodernism because I believe it and I’ve seen it happen. That’s also one of the reasons I said when I had the chance to do something larger, if I could make it social space, I could try to do it, rather then to be precious about it. There’s a kind of dimension today that we call the Swiss Preciousness, where they will only do two projects and make it very, very precious. I question that as a kind of example for students, because we have such forces that we should be shaping. And if we can make something better, of course in design and beauty, but also in the mechanics, if you can make geothermal or alternative energy systems, you really make a big contribution for the future. I’m not making that as an emblem, windmills on the roof or something like that, no, that’s not the expression. But the core inside is deep. It’s like your lungs, the food you eat, it’s a part of life.