David Hotson approaches his architecture as a work of art

Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews New York architect David Hotson who explores the interior figural void as an intensely subjective present-tense reality.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Dec 29, 2022

New York architect David Hotson is known for his spatially complex houses, loft residences, penthouse apartments, and galleries. His recently completed Church of Saint Sarkis in Carrollton, Texas, has attracted much attention for the exterior grade high-resolution digital printing on its façade and the luminous, sculptural quality of its interior space. The architect's adventurous SkyHouse penthouse, completed in Manhattan in 2014, was cited in the press as the best apartment project of that decade.

Hotson was born in 1959 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. When David was four, his family of six moved into a primitive three-room cabin with cast iron wood-burning stoves for heating and cooking and a single water faucet in the kitchen on 85 acres of land in a gulch near Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, at the foot of Pike’s Peak. A couple of years later his father started construction of a new house next to the cabin. Watching it go up, playing on the construction site, and interacting with the builders was a foundational experience, and a commitment to working as an architect formed very early. In 1970, the family moved to Canada. He applied to study architecture at the University of Waterloo near Toronto. After obtaining his bachelor of environmental design, Hotson went on to Yale where he earned a master of architecture in 1987.

Choir loft of the Saint Sarkis Church |David Hotson | STIRworld
Choir loft of the Saint Sarkis Church Image: Dror Baldinger

He founded David Hotson Architect in New York City in 1991. Early works include collaborations with Yale classmate Maya Lin and such celebrated international masters as Santiago Calatrava, Ricardo Legorreta, Sir David Adjaye, and other architects from The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and the United States who asked Hotson to be their architect of record. His current residential and cultural projects are in New York, the Hudson Valley, Vermont, Texas, and the Caribbean. In the interview that follows, we discussed the architect’s fundamental preoccupation with shaping and delineating figural voids, the optical character of perspective space, his focus on engaging the moving point of view, his experience studying and collaborating with Lin, and why he thinks absence is architecture’s most essential material.

  • Stairway to the choir loft of Saint Sarkis Church |David Hotson | STIRworld
    Stairway to the choir loft of Saint Sarkis Church Image: Dror Baldinger
  • Saint Sarkis Church indirect light cove |David Hotson | STIRworld
    Saint Sarkis Church indirect light cove Image: Courtesy of David Hotson Architect

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Could you talk about your education? Are there any interesting memories that you could share?

David Hotson: I earned my pre-professional bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Waterloo in Southern Ontario. Waterloo had a follow-up two-year bachelor of architecture program that began with a semester in Rome but, having grown up outside of the East Coast educational culture I was interested in seeing what a prominent American graduate program would be like, so I decided to make a single application to Yale, a place I had never been or ever known anyone who had attended. In January I assembled a single portfolio, working through the night to complete it, and then set off from Canada on the day of the deadline to hand deliver it in New Haven. I went there on the way to my final work semester in Boston, driving an old 1963 Ford Falcon that I had picked up while working in an architect’s office in Florida. A blizzard blew in as I was heading across western New York and I didn’t arrive in New Haven until midnight. I pulled up on a random side street—it turned out to be in front of the Sterling Memorial Library—climbed into the back seat and fell asleep in the snowstorm. In the morning I emerged from the back of my frozen car and waded through the snowdrifts to find Paul Rudolph-designed famed Art and Architecture Building and hand-delivered my portfolio. It was graciously accepted once I had described my trek down from Canada. It was early evidence of a tendency to pour attention into a project in an exaggeratedly single-minded way and push the deadline to a bit of an extreme, a tendency which, for better or worse, lingers to this day.

Park Avenue Townhouse music room |David Hotson | STIRworld
Park Avenue Townhouse music room Image: Mikiko Kikuyama
Park Avenue Townhouse stair overlooking music room |David Hotson | STIRworld
Park Avenue Townhouse stair overlooking music room Image: Eduard Hueber

VB: One of your clients described your architecture as a work of art. Could you talk about some of the most critical intentions behind it?

DH: I endeavour to approach architecture as a work of art, as the art of manipulating the medium of architectural space. I see architecture as the art of shaping the figural void, shaping a delineated figure of empty space for a visitor to step into and experience. So many architects are focused on shaping material sculptural objects rather than immaterial architectural voids, making sculptural forms that can be apprehended comprehensively, possessed in an instantaneous image, and observed from the outside. But I conceive architecture as the inverse of sculpture. Sculpture shapes a figural object, a figure of matter surrounded by empty space. Architecture to me is the inverse—the shaping of a figural void, a figure of empty space surrounded by matter. I am preoccupied with creating the figure of emptiness that must be experienced subjectively.

Our entire culture is obsessed with images, with objects that can be comprehended all at once, with objects that can be possessed as objective wholes. Architectural space is very different—you step into it and from that moment you cannot possess it as a totality. You cannot reduce it to a single objective image. This experience of space is an intensely subjective reality; it is generated by an individual point of view, and the point of view is the essence of identity, of the subjective. Architecture as interiority, as perspectival space is created within this epicentre of identity that we each carry with us. I believe that architectural space can be manipulated to directly engage this epicentre of identity, to awaken awareness in the present, and to awaken awareness of itself. There is vast unexplored potential in treating architecture as the art of the figural void. We have barely begun this boundless exploration.

Woolworth Penthouse stairwell fissure |David Hotson | STIRworld
Woolworth Penthouse stairwell fissure Image: Courtesy of David Hotson Architect

VB: Reading and listening to how you describe your architecture some words and phrases reoccur. Here is a list of some of them: intersecting voids, subjective volume, spatial sculpture, the complexity of paths, suspension in discovery, disorientation, and distortion, and you just used such phrases as figural void and the figure of emptiness. What other words would you use to describe your work and the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?

DH: I would add the words immersive and experiential. My goal is to shape space to engage the singular apex of perception of the visitor suspended in the subjective present of experience. It is about awakening the individual to the miracle of their own subjective awareness. This preoccupation was a primary motivation in the design of the SkyHouse project, the four-story penthouse composed of a series of intersecting voids, with oblique views channelled through them into the cityscape beyond, momentarily framing landmarks in the surrounding cityscape, with polished stainless edges that create optical ambiguities. All that suspends the viewer in a perceptual puzzle, which gently overwhelms and immerses you in endlessly complex physicality that’s difficult to comprehend. As you move through it, different layers of space move at different speeds, vistas open, and you feel the empty volumes through which you are moving as the primary medium of design. I have been working toward this for a long time and for me this penthouse is the beginning of treating architecture as a spatial work of art suspended over the city existing as an immersive subjective reality within the perspectival perception of the visitor.

  • SkyHouse penthouse stairwell from the attic |David Hotson | STIRworld
    SkyHouse penthouse stairwell from the attic Image: Eric Laignel
  • The stairwell of the SkyHouse penthouse |David Hotson | STIRworld
    The stairwell of the SkyHouse penthouse Image: Eric Laignel

VB: You have said, “Absence is the essential material of architecture and that the shaping of space, the clear delineation of the volumes of space, is the most fundamental task of the architect.” Could you elaborate? 

DH: I find it remarkable that so few architects pursue this direction. Contemporary architecture appear to be preoccupied with exterior sculptural form, creating enormous sculptures gesturing with one another. You step inside these formally complex sculpture-like buildings and cannot find a spatial payoff from all this attention-driven form-making. Architects have turned the essential medium of architecture inside out, creating elaborate, expensive, inefficient sculptures and leaving them out in the rain. The fundamental focus should be on the medium that is unique to the art of architecture, which is the delineated void, the figure of architectural space. The unique medium of architecture is only revealed when you step across the threshold into an enveloping figural volume of space. The exterior of the building like Hagia Sophia is simply the mountain of matter that needed to be piled up to create the immaterial figure of space within. And by making space primary the exterior can have efficiency and responsibility in terms of resources and energy that gesticulating form-making architecture often pays lip service to but then utterly ignores.

Contemporary architects are also stuck in the mid-century period, copying designs from Neutra that emerged in an era of limitless energy, and are based on the notion of erasing the separation between inside and outside, breaking the box, and letting interior space escape into the exterior. Contemporary architects point to environmental issues but cannot resist the imagery of the full-height glass wall that eliminates the division between interior and exterior of extravagant formal complexity that is complex to build and weatherproof. I am working on an approach that re-engages the figure of delineated interior space as the primary medium of architecture, re-engaging the volume of the room that was broken open during the modernist period.

Doorway to Cafesjian Museum Rooftop with framed view of Mount Ararat |David Hotson | STIRworld
Doorway to Cafesjian Museum Rooftop with framed view of Mount Ararat Image: Courtesy of David Hotson Architect

VB: You designed projects in association with other well-known architects. How did these associations come about?

DH: I arrived in New York with no family connections and no professional network other than a handful of architecture school classmates. But this handful of classmates included Maya Lin. While still an undergraduate at Yale she had won the national competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and was already a celebrated visionary when we started graduate school and was attracting commissions as the Memorial was completed to wide acclaim. We had been friends at Yale with no professional network and had submitted a proposal to co-edit Perspecta, the Yale Architectural School Journal. I got my professional licence a few years after graduating and opened an office where a large portion of my early work involved serving as the architect of record for a series of Maya’s early projects. Then some other architects started contacting me. I did a townhouse for Santiago Calatrava on Park Avenue. I worked with David Adjaye on his first commission in the United States, constructing studios and living spaces for the artists Lorna Simpson and Jim Casebere in Brooklyn. When, after deliberating for a half-century, Switzerland decided to join the United Nations, the Swiss renovated the suite of offices behind the main rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly Building, I worked as the architect of record with the Swiss office Bruckner and Brundler. We did an apartment with Ricardo Legorreta at 15 Central Park West, a multi-story condominium building with Winka Dubbeldam, and other projects with architects from Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and Venezuela. It has given me a lot of exposure to how world-class architects work. In recent years I have moved away from that practice, as I am interested in developing my own design vision.

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