Master of Metaphor

On the Architecture of Steven Holl

Juhani Pallasmaa 

Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China (2008-2012)

Steven Holl is undoubtedly one of the most significant architects of our time. Throughout his forty-five year career he has relentlessly kept developing new spatial and formal ideas, driven by verbally and visually formulated metaphors, which function as mental condensations of architectural ideas. It seems that exactly his use of metaphoric concepts as design tools enables him to keep continuously expanding his field of ideas. “The greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor, which is the one thing that cannot be learned from others, and it is also a sign of genius,” Aristotle argued. More recently, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff have shown convincingly how fundamentally human thought and understanding are grounded in metaphor. Holl’s concepts and metaphors project a poetic suggestion and contain a provocative charge, such as ‘horizontal skyscraper,’ ‘sliced porosity,’ ‘driven voids of light,’ ‘circuit connections,’ ‘porous sound masses,’ or ‘luminous canopy.”

Sometimes Holl’s guiding metaphors arise from rather surprising sources. The Knut Hamsun Museum in Lofoten, Norway, is an architectural portrait of the politically troubled Norwegian Nobel laureate writer, and some of his design themes actually arise directly from episodes in the writer’s best known novel, Hunger (1890), whereas the layout of the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark is the image of a man’s shirt thrown on the ground, echoing the fact that a shirt factory formerly occupied the site. Yet Holl’s architecture has a poetic, haptic, and sensuous materiality and atmosphere, which make his formally and radically differing innovations recognizable as his works. I got to know several of Holl’s unbuilt and rather theoretical early projects when I saw his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1989, and was so impressed by the poetic air and haptic materiality of the exhibited projects and objects that I was convinced that I was looking at the early work of a significant architect.

Yet, even today Steven Holl’s architecture divides the opinions of critics and colleagues surprisingly sharply. On the one hand, he has received several of the most prestigious international architectural awards, and during the past two decades he has exerted a huge influence on architecture schools all around the world, but on the other hand, he has not been awarded the Pritzker Prize. Partly, he may be suffering from the same hesitation that Eero Saarinen did in his time; for many critics, Holl moves from one set of formal expressions to the next one too fast, without aspiring to create a predictable and repeatable formal approach, vocabulary, or style.

His critics do not seem to see or acknowledge that this architect is primarily concerned with a method of fusing rigorous cerebral thinking with embodied, intuitive, and poetic feeling, with the help of metaphors that are capable of uniting conceptual, linguistic, and plastic sensibilities. And instead of defining a specific personal style, he aims at opening up the prevailing obsession with categoric thinking and style. In his design work and writings, he has especially emphasized the experiential and haptic realm, the embodied essence of architecture, and the significance of light and materiality. A narrowly professionalist view still seems to prevail in the architectural profession, and Holl’s deep interests in philosophy, poetry, arts, and the sciences, as well as his literary explorations into his own design intentions, seem to be still met with suspicion by many practitioners and educators alike. Holl is one of the early and devoted supporters of the experientially oriented phenomenological approach, as well as of the integration of ideas in the visual arts, literature, poetry, music, and also the various sciences. Even in today’s exploded reality of information and knowledge, a wide, open, and unbiased interest in the multiplicity of things related to human existence and consciousness is looked at with distinct suspicion.

Steven Holl is surely one of the most widely published architects of the past decade. The latest monograph, Steven Holl (Phaidon, 2015), is written by Professor Robert Mc- Carter of Washington University in St. Louis, who is one of the most knowledgeable, perceptive, and productive of architectural historians and critics today. He has written extensively on the first generation of masters of modernity, including Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as on the second generation, including Marcel Breuer, Louis I. Kahn, Alvar Aalto, and the slightly younger modernists Carlo Scarpa and Aldo van Eyck. He has also written monographs on Herman Hertzberger and Brian MacKay-Lyons of Nova Scotia.

McCarter has known Steven Holl for thirty years and even taught with him. The writer’s thorough knowledge of Holl’s life, thinking, and works as well as his collaborations is evident in the density of facts, observations, views, and interpretations found in the book, not to mention a general sense of intimacy.

Formative Influences

The book narrates the life, education, and professional career of Steven Holl with numerous interesting details and quotes from the architect himself. Appropriately, the story begins with his teachers, studies, and early travels. It is striking that Holl speaks almost exclusively of influences from historical architecture and architects, not of contemporary architecture. The most important teachers for Holl at the University of Washington in Seattle were the architectural historian Hermann Pundt, of German origin and a specialist on Friedrich Schinkel, and Richard Haag, the landscape architect who taught that in order to design a landscape, one has to actually “be the site.” Moreover, to me Steven Holl has gratefully reminisced on Pundt’s method of teaching architectural history solely through the works of Filippo Brunelleschi, Friedrich Schinkel, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. “It was a very particular, very focused education – I didn’t know who Le Corbusier was until after I graduated.” Another very important formative experience was his participation in the newly established, semester-long program in Rome organized by Professor Astra Zarina, the first woman ever to win the Rome Prize in architecture from the American Academy in Rome. 

Every single morning in Rome, Holl went to the Pantheon to watch the sunlight entering the magnificent space. This could have ignited Holl’s career-long routine of painting small size watercolors (12.5 x 17.0 cm.) in the morning, and must have had its influence in sensitizing his imagination and the interplay of visual and embodied imagery. His morning sketches usually study spatial perceptions and material experiences in general, or concrete ideas for concurrent projects. The total number of Holl’s watercolors is in the astounding category of 20,000. “For me the original sketch must start with an analogue process intimately connecting mind-hand-eye. I feel this is the only way to be completely connected to the subtleties and qualities of the role intuition plays in conception. In the initial drawing, I feel a direct connection to spiritual meaning and the fusion of idea and space conception.”

Thinking of Steven Holl’s early influences, his experiences working in the office of Lawrence Halprin, the significant landscape architect who developed specific systems of ‘scoring’ to express the experiential continua of spatial and environmental experiences, must have also made an impact. Halprin’s scores are related to Holl’s metaphors, and they both bring musical scores to mind. However, while Halprin’s scores are notations to mediate sequential experiences, Holl uses metaphors as drivers in his design process. Another incident of great consequence was Holl’s appointment into a fulltime, tenure-track position at Columbia University by James Polshek in the year 1981, although Holl had executed only two minor buildings by that time.

Besides his intense design practice, Steven Holl has been actively engaged in writing throughout his career. His list of writings is remarkable, from the Pamphlet Architecture publication (begun in 1977 in collaboration with William Stout) to a series of thematically focused studies, such as Anchoring (1989), Questions of Perception (1994), Intertwining (1996), Parallax (2000), Luminosity / Porosity (2006), Black Swan Theory (2007), Urbanism: Working with Doubt (2009), and Urban Hopes (2014).

The Mixed Aesthetic

Yet another reason why Steven Holl’s works are not accepted by everybody could well be that he does not aim at a rational and linear logic, apparent simplicity, or the standard sleek architectural aesthetic, but instead seeks juxtapositions, fused and hybrid ideas, or a multi-polar logic. He seems to be always working with a ‘linked’ or ‘sliding’ reasoning, in which phenomena unnoticeably turn into alternative ideas or even opposites. As Alvar Aalto (Steven Holl received the Alvar Aalto Medal in 1998) once concluded: “In every case [of creative work] opposites must be reconciled […]. This harmony cannot be achieved by any other means than art.”

Early modern architecture developed side by side with the arts, but during the past few decades architecture has increasingly turned into a self-sufficient and technocratic discipline. An especially meaningful aspect of Steven Holl’s work is his use of ideas and images usually connected with the arts (one of his greatest influences in life has been Paul Klee, who also played the violin), and especially from music. The Stretto House in Dallas, Texas, is based on the stretto structure of Béla Bartók’s Music for String, Percussion and Celesta (1936). For his art gallery in Seoul, South Korea (2008- 2012), Holl drew inspiration from a never-performed composition of Itván Anhelt, entitled Symphony of Modules (1967). On the other hand, his Sarphatisstraat Offices Addition in Amsterdam (1996-2000) is based on the Menger Sponge concept and the music notation elements of Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field, composed for cello and piano (1981).

Steven Holl condenses his approach succinctly: “The work can have a kind of overall integrity and presence of feeling of space, light, material, and detail, which gives it an absolute emotional and moving experiential quality. That’s something that should always remain a goal.”  

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