The original watercolours of Steven Holl’s library in Long Island City, Queens, were first sketched exactly nine years ago. Now that his building is finally open, it is quite apparent that the long wait was all worth it. Along with other libraries, museums, police precincts, fire stations, and senior centers in New York, the new structure is a beneficiary of the Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence programme, created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2004. The result is a real gem. More than that, it is the most rewarding, truly public space in New York City, period.
Just think about it: Calatrava’s Oculus and Grand Central Station, surely are more monumental and spectacular, but they are entirely internal and overwhelmed by commerce. Fulton Center, despite all the efforts is largely utilitarian and fast-paced. MoMA, Guggenheim, and the new Whitney impose their own high teste order and charge exorbitant entrance fees. The New York Public Library Main Branch is a tourist trap. And the newly restored Ford Foundation garden on 42nd Street is the city’s best kept secret. What other great civic spaces do we have that we are genuinely proud of?
The new library, on the other hand, is immediately fascinating and gratifying space, an engaging path that rises casually through terraced bookstacks overlooking Manhattan’s skyline. Pick any reason to come here – read a popular magazine, browse through books, watch a DVD, check emails, or bring a date. The truth is that this place is for everyone and you don’t need any excuse at all to come here. It is a wonderful place to enjoy watching people, boats, clouds, or helicopters and seaplanes taking off from the East River.
The matchbox-like structure that stands on its long edge and orients itself precisely along north-south axis sits on its own landscaped block and is misaligned with all other street grid obeying buildings around it. The form is deceptive, both in its simplicity and scale. It is the scale that’s particularly hard to grasp. Dwarfed by 30-40-story residential towers, the building seems tiny, when in fact, happens to be quite spacious, as soon as one enters it. Then you suddenly realise that the space you are in is entirely different from what one may possibly imagine from outside. The building’s aluminum-painted concrete shell constitutes a load-bearing structure that effectively supports five tall column-less floors, predominantly clad in bamboo. Each floor is distinguished by a different configuration; they form around a continuous, cave-like multi-level atrium. Abstract glazed exterior cutouts are purposely mismatched with the adjacent floor platforms and openings to create numerous incidental overlaps and gaps that make the whole space delightfully intricate, particularly on a sunny day, when shadows constantly activate it.
Perhaps not the ideal setting for reading a thick fiction book but perfect for learning how to be observant, curious, and inspired about so many things that the building, like a giant magnifying glass, brings everything closer into our focus. The following is my conversation with Holl that took place shortly before the library’s opening. Yet, instead of discussing the new building specifically, we talked about the role of subjectivity, individuality, intuition, abstraction, creativity, and idealism in Holl’s work, as well as why creative architects must resist being obedient.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You said that when you work on creating something you try to bring all kinds of subjective forces. Could you talk about the role of subjectivity in your work? I am interested in this because now so many young architects praise themselves for being collaborative, objective, responsive, specific, pragmatic, circumstantial...
Steven Holl (SH): I think this is a mistake. You know, Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, had to work individually. There is a book Quiet by Susan Cain, which is about introversion. The reason you need silence and reflection during the creative time and not the business of voices is that creativity is all about intuition. James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA, double helix, after one of them had a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. That did not come from a pragmatic approach. It was an inspirational moment, a dream. Of course, architecture is about collaboration, but to have a true creative breakthrough idea you need a deep connection to intuition that fuses subjectivity with pragmatism.
VB: Some architects claim that ideas come to them in dreams. Have you experienced such visions?
SH: That’s why I start working on my watercolours as soon as I wake up every morning, for about 45 minutes to an hour. I am very consistent about that. I have a complete collection of my initial watercolour sketches on 5-inch by 7-inch pads that I started in 1977. I start painting when I am barely awake. It is all about intuition. I do these watercolours when I travel as well. So, I can snap a picture of a concept with my phone and send to my team for them to work on their computers.
VB: You often talk about the need for abstraction. Why is that?
SH: In his 2016 book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Columbia University professor, Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, argues that the brain needs abstraction. The internal mechanisms with which we see and experience visual and physical phenomena, depend on a bottom-up approach, meaning building up from elements of abstraction, coming up to terms with something that we analyse and to make sense of it. The opposite, top-down approach of given figuration stifles our imagination. A form of a cupola is an example of the top-down thinking. In other words, we already know what it is. We have multiple references to what a cupola is. It is not abstract enough, as the meaning of the thing is a given, and therefore our mind is not working on figuring it out.
VB: In your abstracted buildings, you avoid giving us familiar forms and signs, right? You want us to figure things out, so everyone has a different interpretation.
SH: I think light, space, material, colour, details, those are elements in themselves. And the power of abstraction is that we can make things in a new way. We can make new meanings, new entities. We don’t need references.
VB: Tell me this – in the beginning of your career, you designed such speculative projects as Houses on the High Line and the Bronx Gymnasium Bridge without having clients. Why do you think architects have this inherent urge to do projects without clients?
SH: Because if you have any idealism you must express it. If I were a painter and I had ideas and ideals about painting, I would want to get to the canvas and work on it. So, if you are a young architect, living in a cold water flat, sleeping on a plywood bed, as I was, and you don’t have any commissions, you make designs for things that you believe in. Maybe they are more important than anything I have built since, because they are pure. When the last freight car of frozen turkey left the High Line in 1979, and I lived right next to it, I got up on that abandoned space. To me it was poetic and inviting to propose a project. I wanted to turn it into a public promenade with green space and housing for a variety of people who live in New York. Now we have the greenery and public space there but who can afford to live there? Anyway, its built and I use it to walk to work every morning. It is a great public infrastructure and I am proud to be the first person to see what it should be, a public promenade.
VB: I like asking architects to elaborate their own quotes from past interviews. I picked a few of yours. Can we go over them?
VB: “The essence of a work of architecture is an organic link between concept and form.”
SH: I still believe that it is an idea that should drive any design. Somehow the form follows, not the other way around. The Queens Library is a vertical building to accommodate a rising promenade that moves through the bookstacks with spectacular city views through the cutouts. The site is big enough for that building to be a single-story structure. And everyone agreed with me that the building had to have a vertical presence.
VB: “A site is a metaphysical link to what a building could be.”
SH: Absolutely, when I worked on the design of the Martha’s Vineyard house, my first freestanding house, I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where the author describes an Indian tribe that would build dwellings out of a whale skeleton on their island. The Indians would pull such huge skeleton to dry land and stretch skins over it, transforming it into a house. I designed the house as an exoskeleton structure, elevated over the landscape. This house was recently enlarged and remodelled on the inside. But from the outside it is still recognisable. So, it is no longer my house, but the idea is still there. And maybe the ideas are more important than the buildings themselves.
VB: “Light is a material.”
SH: Light is my favourite material. Natural light is free. It organises space and I always try to take advantage of it, especially when it reflects and dances in the water. It happens in many of my projects, including my own house in Rhinebeck, New York.
VB: “Unpredictability is at the centre of creative work.”
SH: Every morning I never programme what it is I am going to draw. I just start. I rely on my intuition entirely. When something starts to emerge, I write a sentence to try to describe what it is.
VB: “You must be the opposite of obedient.”
SH: You have to be creative. Every major competition that we won, we won because we disobeyed the rules. In the competition for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston ,we were told to put a parking garage building next to the main building, but we proposed to put it underground. Being obedient is a sin; you learn that in a corporate culture, which is all about saying “Yes” to everyone and all the time.
VB: And finally, “A good work is always a struggle.”
SH: “Good things are never easy, they are as difficult as they are rare.” That’s Spinosa.
VB: To describe architecture, you often use such words as beauty and joy. What other single-term words would you use to describe your work or the kind of work that you would like to achieve?
SH: Inspirational. Mysterious. Poetic.