Steven Holl Fuses Light and Geometry in His Latest Houses
A new book from Rizzoli highlights this Pritzer Prize-ready architect.
Photograph by Susan Wides courtesy of Rizzoli.
Good architects are inspired by everything that surrounds them, by nature and the arts. Steven Holl: Seven Houses (Rizzoli New York) explores the residential work of an architect who has immersed himself in the study of art and philosophy, creating buildings that express the spirit of place and are infused with natural light. The Kiasma art museum in Helsinki is a tightly coiled complex of top lit galleries linked by ramps. In his extension to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, light boxes emerge from a grassy slope, playing off the stately mass of the old building. Holl has made transformative additions to colleges in New York City and has worked on a huge scale in China, creating the Linked Hybrids complex as a multilevel urban node at the edge of Beijing.
All of these buildings challenge conventional ideas, and grew out of models and watercolor sketches. Small projects feed into large. “Each house is an experiment and an opportunity to do something meaningful,” says Holl. His new book leads off with the Ex of In guest cottage, located on a 28-acre tract of woodlands that the architect bought to save it from development, a short walk from the house he built for himself near Rhinebeck, New York. The name is shorthand for Exploration of Inner Space and it is composed of interlocking wooden spheres, which frame vistas and seem to enlarge the spaces within this 918-square feet structure. The exterior has a gleaming white skin of recycled glass. Ex of In has no bedrooms but sleeps five, and you can rent it through Airbnb.
Holl is inspired by the luminist painters of the nineteenth century, and the way they captured the radiant light of the Hudson Valley. He has subtitled his book “Luminist Architecture” and, in an introductory essay, he discusses the psychological impact of light on the occupants of contemporary buildings. That has been a recurring theme in his work, ever since he completed the Chapel of St. Ignatius in his native Seattle 21 years ago. A sculpture path links the Ex of In to a summer studio used by Holl’s nonprofit arts foundation. It began as a hunting shack and was transformed by the addition of seven turrets, which bathe the white-painted plywood interior in light. The Planar Villa and its guest house are realized on a much grander scale, but they share the architect’s concern with energy conservation, relying on geothermal wells for heating and cooling, and burrowing into the earth for insulation.
Clients helped to shape these houses. A writer asked Holl for “a poetic utterance” in his country retreat, and the architect gave him a brass-clad tower that occupies the site of a former nail factory beside Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Square window openings represent the 24 chapters of Homer’s Odyssey. Artist Richard Tuttle asked for a guest house that resembled an Airstream trailer; Holl responded to the remote mesa site in New Mexico with the Turbulence House, prefabricated from aluminum sections and hollowed out at the center to channel the prevailing winds. Y.K. Chung, who heads the Daeyang Shipping Company in Seoul, asked for a guest house that would double as a gallery, and gave the architect a free hand. After discarding 20 models, Holl at the last minute created a watercolor based on a musical score, depicting a planar house that appears to float on water.
In his text and an interview with Philip Jodidio, Holl deplores the banality of McMansions, with their mimicry of historical styles, standardized plans, and dark and oppressive interiors. “We should create architectural works that would be astonishing to anyone from the nineteenth century,” he writes. “We have the technology today to build ‘net zero’ buildings powered by renewable sources and free of the problems of fossil fuels; a new twenty-first century architecture should be in complete harmony with our fragile landscape.” Each of the houses shown here are polemics that challenge the cult of extravagance, a Tesla versus an Escalade. Holl’s buildings lead you on a voyage of discovery, as one space flows into the next and a surprise lurks around every corner. The Ex of In is compressed yet expansive; the architect describes it as womblike, and it’s easy imagine the excitement of waking here on a winter morning and gazing out on a snowy landscape from one’s snug perch.
Holl has shown the way over the past four decades. One wonders how much longer it will take the Pritzker Prize jury to wake up and award him its laureate.