'Steven Holl: Making Architecture’ explores the architect’s process and practice

In an interview with STIR, American architect Steven Holl discusses making architecture through 17 recent projects within the framework of this travelling exhibition.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Feb 25, 2021

With a career that spans four decades, Steven Holl's oeuvre of architectural projects traverses various scales, contexts and functions. His ability to craft contextually sensitive spaces originates from his fidelity to working with a core concept. This concept then “acts as a thread connecting disparate parts with exact intention”, becoming the primary programmatic and functional essence of his work. A recent exhibition, titled Steven Holl: Making Architecture, curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine, offers an elaborate insight into the distinctive process of making architecture through a selected group of recent projects. Looking at 40 years of work, the exhibition is organised in three sections — Thinking, Building, and Reflecting.

In an interview with STIR, Steven Holl discusses making architecture through an exploration of his process, and practice within the framework of this exhibition.

Steven Holl: Making Architecture offers an elaborate insight into the distinctive process of making architecture through a series of recent projects | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
Steven Holl: Making Architecture offers an elaborate insight into the distinctive process of making architecture through a series of recent projects Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

The section ‘Thinking’ captures how watercolour drawings, small exploratory models and material fragments lead to idea generation and form the foundation of each project. A note by the curator Stritzler-Levine mentions: “He considers this process the “thinking-making couple” of architecture. Holl creates watercolour drawings at every stage of making a building from conceptualization to realization.”

Edited excerpts from the interview…

Devanshi Shah (DS): Could you talk us through your process of translating 'thinking' into drawing?

Steven Holl (SH): I generate my thoughts through painting. When I draw and paint, I connect the subjective and the objective. It’s a way of open thinking and free-feeling, and it’s unpredictable. I don’t make any restrictions except using a 5”x7” watercolour pad. In order to get closer to a dream-like subjectivity, I like to make these little drawings and paintings at dawn before breakfast. Sometimes, if I am thinking about a building project, these subjective studies open experimental paths to be tested in the studio in rough sketch models. There is a joy in this way of beginning. It’s inspiring and light.

Installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

DS: How did watercolours become your medium of expression? Are the paintings/ hand drawings an expression of the structures mass, planning or an extrapolation of spatial experience?

SH: I used to do pencil drawings, which took many hours. Around 1979, I streamlined it to five-by-seven-inch watercolours. With the watercolour, in the quickest way, I can shape a volume, cast a shadow, indicate the direction of the sun in a very small format. And I can carry the pads of watercolour paper and the paint around because I am always travelling.

The works in Making Architecture are divided into three sections - Thinking, Building, and Reflecting | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
The works in Making Architecture are divided into three sections - Thinking, Building, and Reflecting Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

DS: The exhibition talks about your work being informed by both colour and music, could you elaborate on what music this would be?

SH: Music, like architecture, is an immersive experience—it surrounds you. One can turn away from a painting or a work of sculpture, while music and architecture engulf the body in space. The experience of architecture—the overlapping perspectives—are the equivalent of spatial acoustics in light. If you have a piece of music, you have the score, you have the rhythm, you have some kind of polyphony, you have some kind of a structure, then there is sound that executes and brings it all to life. Otherwise, it is just an abstraction. The same applies to architecture. You have the spatial conception, the conceptual strategy, but none of that is really alive until you infuse it with light.

While not all of our projects are informed by a specific piece of music, several examples do have specific references, such as the Daeyang House and Gallery in Seoul, Korea. Its geometry is inspired by a 1967 sketch for a music score by the composer Istvan Anhalt, Symphony of Modules, discovered in a book by John Cage, titled Notations. The Stretto House was inspired by the overlapping stretto in Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The façade of the Maggie’s Centre in London references “neume notation”, of music of the 13th century.

Steven Holl: Making Architecture is organised by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation and curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
Steven Holl: Making Architecture is organised by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation and curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

DS: Could you elaborate on how you use the term 'psychological space'?

SH: In my book Urbanisms (2009) there is a section on “psychological space”, a term I first used as a student at the School of Architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967. I remember my conservative professors were offended, but they still passed me… That was a psychological encounter already.

The exhibition Steven Holl: Making Architecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
The exhibition Steven Holl: Making Architecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

The section titled 'Building' reveals the process of making architecture through models, sculpture, and in photographs taken during the actual construction process. The curator’s note describes it saying, “Despite their broad geographic range, extending across four continents, and their programmatic diversity from healthcare facilities to libraries, art centres and museums, each of them involves the thinking-making coupling of well-functioning architecture”.

DS: How would you describe the process of translating your "thinking" or drawings into a building?

SH: As the initial inspiration of a work is a fusion of the analogue processes of the brain, mind, and hand, I feel the first drawings are crucial in the design process. The creative potential of each work is expanded via these analogue beginnings. Memory in the brain is embedded in the neural circuits that carry out computations whereas computers separate the computations and the memory. Computers must act in a separate way and one step at a time. After the initial concept sketches, we utilise the fastest and highest resolution computer drawings as well as physical models and 3D printed model studies to develop the project.

DS: How did you choose which projects would be displayed?

SH: Nina Strizler-Levine, curator and former director of the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, curated the original exhibition and chose the projects. Her perspective text is in the exhibition catalogue.

The installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
The installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

DS: What parts of the design process and the design outcome were important to include for each project?

SH: Making Architecture focuses on the ideas driving the designs, not the final buildings. In this way it allows the process to connect to intentions.

DS: Did the displayed items vary based on each project? Could you talk up through one of the projects presented and how you went about choosing the display?

SH: Nina Strizler-Levine, the curator, chose the items in a way that varies with each project. I believe she was interested in the range and variations.

The exhibition Steven Holl: Making Architecture offers insight into the experimental and commissioned project | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
The exhibition Steven Holl: Making Architecture offers insight into the experimental and commissioned project Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

The last section 'Reflecting' presents Holl’s ideas through a selection of digital films, his writings, and writings about him.

DS: Which medium do you believe has best served as a tool for reflecting on your work?

SH: The written word, together with a watercolour sketch, for me is the key tool for reflecting on the potential for architecture.

Installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl: Making Architecture | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of Steven Holl: Making Architecture Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by Will Michels

Steven Holl: Making Architecture is organised by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation and curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine. The exhibition originated at Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, NY. The Glassell School of Art was the third Steven Holl Architects-design venue to host the exhibition, following the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, China, and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington.

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