Steven Holl has risen to become one of the most celebrated and well-respected architects working today. His architectural work is widely recognized and covers extensive ground ranging from the museums, educational facilities, residences, retail design, office design, public utilities, and master planning. But unlike the indistinguishable corporate work or ego driven monstrosities that litter the physical and cultural landscape, each of Steven’s structures rises above any predictable style, and are instead inspired by a unique contextual awareness. His ability to masterfully blend space and light in subtle forms has turned him into a central figure in the discussion of contemporary sustainable design. It also comes as no surprise that his work has garnered him wide acclaim not only from critics, but most notably, from his contemporaries.
On this rare occasion, Steven was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of our questions regarding his style, green design, and even a little something about his childhood. Read ahead for our seven questions with Steven Holl.
INHABITAT: How would you describe your signature style? As we all know, we’re in the era of the ‘iconic building’ and the ‘starchitect’. However facile this might be, the designs of public institutions are often offered to the biggest names, and the most ‘iconic’ architects. How do you feel about this trend, and how do you work in a system like this and continue to create thoughtful, meaningful architecture, when so many developers are looking for ‘the next Bilbao’?
Steven: 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 metaphysical origins. If architecture’s original concept can go deeper, rather than broader, it builds a meaning on the site. It fortifies a locus of thoughts and philosophical hopes, or even humor and stories, which are oblivious to whatever style it is.
INHABITAT: Are you concerned about environmental and social sustainability in your buildings? If so, what role does green building play into your work?
Steven: The 21st century presents us with one third of the earth already developed, much of it in sprawling waste. A fundamental change of attitude, a re-visioning of values must take place. We emphasize sustainable building and site development as fundamental to innovative and imaginative design.
In Shenzhen China, a city that went from 8,000 to a population of over 12 million, natural landscape has been rapidly obliterated. New strategies for cultivation of urban vegetation are crucial to maintain a balance of flora and fauna as well as natural aquifers and general climatic balance. Advanced structural technologies and construction techniques open up the potential for new flying architectures, horizontal skyscrapers and public function bridges developing new urban layers. Our multifunctional “horizontal skyscraper” in Shenzhen, China won the architectural competition due to the maximizing of public landscape while rising to the 35m height limit and maximizing distant ocean views from the living/working spaces. Due to sophisticated combinations of “cable-stay” bridge technology merged with a high strength concrete frame there are no trusses in this floating skyscraper. The lush tropical landscape below is be open to the public and will contain restaurants and cafés in vegetated mounds bracketed with pools and walkways.
INHABITAT: What do you feel is the greatest challenge when it comes to designing for environmental sustainability?
Steven: The space, the geometry, the light of an architecture in great proportions must remain the core aim, while engineering aims for zero carbon, ultra-green architecture. But this balance between the poetry of architecture and its green engineering is crucial.
INHABITAT: Many of your fans would say that you design your buildings with a strong focus on both user experience and natural light, is this correct? Can you tell us more about this?
Steven: Space is oblivion without light. A building speaks through the silence of perception orchestrated by light. Luminosity is as integral to its spatial experience as porosity is integral to urban experience.
For our Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma the most important building material was light. Of the twenty-five galleries which make up the main function of the museum all have a slice of natural light. The behavior of light guided many decisions. The low angle of the Helsinki sun – never reaching above 51 degrees – helps give sectional form to the curved “light catching” aspect of the architecture. Changes in natural lighting conditions are left visible – so passing clouds bring shadow – brightness varies as the interior experience varies.
We conceive of the space, light and concept of a work from the very beginning. Often in concept watercolors the aspects of light are there in the first sketch, integral to the concept of the architecture, unique to the site and place. The infinite possibilities of light have been evident from the beginning of architecture and will continue into the future. The revelations of new spaces, like interwoven languages, dissolve and reappear in light. In magnificent spaces, light changes and appears to describe form.
INHABITAT: Can you tell us about the house you grew up in?
Steven: In the small town where I grew up, I wasn’t exposed to architecture. Things that we (my brother the sculptor and painter James Holl and I) did that were related to architecture were to build tree houses. We made clubhouses, sometimes two stories, three stories, complicated constructions and when I was seven or eight years old we had as many as three different buildings under construction at the same time: a two-story tree house, a three-story free-standing club house and an underground club house; which I remember had logs for a roof with old carpets laid on top. Earth and grass were put over the carpets. A children’s ‘mythological landscape’, it was like a small city with all these different constructions that we made. In my mind I was already an architect by 1959.
INHABITAT: Who inspires you?
Steven: I interviewed and was tentatively hired to work in the studio of Louis Kahn. However, he died in March 1974, just before I was to move from San Francisco to Philadelphia. His works and philosophy were very inspiring, as is the work of Le Corbusier. It seems to me inspiration is contagious. I remember a text by Louis Kahn entitled, “How was I doing, Le Corbusier?” Kahn held him up as a measure of inspiration.
INHABITAT: What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work? What do you want to be remembered for?
Steven: I want to live by inspiration and concretize inspiration in space and light. Architecture can be a gift left for others to enjoy – architecture together with landscape can form a special reality – a special place, a place that is alive – inspires alive.