A Dreamer Who Is Fuzzy About the Details

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – March 20, 1989

A Dreamer Who Is Fuzzy About the Details

With a new show at MOMA, Steven Holl’s influence grows

 

When curators at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art were preparing the current exhibit of the work of Steven Holl, the architect did not just settle back and wallow in the flattery of the high Establishment. Instead, Holl — who is opinionated, uncompromising and, concerning architectural details, fussy to the point of fanaticism — turned opinionated, uncompromising and fussy.

He demanded that MOMA mount only black-and-white photographs of his work because he believes color photos encourage an appreciation of the merely picturesque in architecture. He insisted that some of the walls of the gallery be covered with rough plaster, like many of Holl’s own interiors. And he demanded that certain salient details — a basswood-and-airplane silk screen from a Manhattan apartment, for instance — be built right into the exhibit’s walls. Fortunately, the museum indulged him: the result (on display together with a handsome exhibit of Emilio Ambasz buildings) is the liveliest MOMA architectural show in years and palpable evidence that Holl, at 41, is one of the most influential younger architects in America today.

 Since he has completed only a dozen architectural works, Holl is best known for the dinner plates and candlesticks he designed for the upscale marketers Swid Powell. But in his buildings he has found a way out of architecture’s tired to-and-fro between caricature modernism (the neurotic Rubik’s Cubes of the deconstructivists) and caricature classicism (the pretty confections of the postmodernists). His best work combines virtues of 1920s European rigor and 1980s American charm, of Gropius and Graves. His designs tend toward the ascetic, and he is determined to invent, not simply revive old styles.

 Yet Holl does not compulsively reject history. His basic forms are familiar. He makes roofs that are variously hipped, pyramidal and barrel-vaulted. He is drawn to earthen materials — stucco, concrete, sandblasted glass, stone — and virtuoso artisanship. Holl is either a modern architect with recherche tastes or an old-fashioned architect with modern instincts.

 While he calls himself a modernist, Holl has conscientiously learned backward-looking lessons about building scale. “Buildings in general are too big,” he says. “I’m happy doing houses and buildings a bit bigger than houses.” The two largest projects Holl has designed, a planned addition to the University of Minnesota/Twin Cities School of Architecture and a West Berlin library extension, would each be only about a tenth as big as a modest skyscraper.

 Apart from his philosophical disinclination to build behemoths, it is hard to imagine Holl producing anything so large that he could not personally fret over every detail. The walls he designed for one apartment, for instance, tilt for arcane aesthetic reasons at precisely 4 degrees. Given the chance, Holl designs not just a building but also its custom chairs, custom lighting fixtures, custom rugs, custom windows and custom door handles. His signature gesture, geometric figures imprinted onto everything from windows to tableware in a kind of new-age homage to Johannes Kepler, can seem the impulse of a meticulous craftsman, not a large-scale form giver.

 His small buildings do not disappoint. They are lyrical, thoughtful and like no others. The down-to-earth materials are juxtaposed thrillingly with luxe: a pool house and sculpture studio in suburban New York is a cube of stucco- covered concrete block, but inside are deep green marble counters and a honed white marble floor. For a handsome safe-deposit facility in New Jersey, Holl made the facade a grave, quasi-industrial grid, but on the inside were elegant wall sconces and depictions of the nine planets.

 Holl’s big break could come next month if he gets the go-ahead to build his design for the new West Berlin library. It looks to be a handsome, modernist masterwork, more complicated by far than anything Holl has built. The new complex is to be a collage of bridge, tower, ramps and asymmetrical boxes that surround and gracefully subsume the existing library. The three-story-high wall of Holl’s main reading room would be a grand, Kandinskyesque mosaic that the architect compares to stained glass in Gothic cathedrals, thick sheets of clear and amber glass crisscrossed at wild angles by a scribbly latticework of steel mullions (no cool, formulaic rectilinearity for Holl). The children’s wing is to be sheathed entirely in translucent glass.

 At Seaside, the architecturally innovative community in the Florida panhandle, finishing touches are just being put on Holl’s retail-office- residential complex, the town’s biggest, strangest building. There are eight apartments, five of them identically Mod duplexes facing west (for sunset-loving partyers) and three quirky units facing east for less sociable residents — in Holl’s scheme, a poet, a musician and a mathematician. As ever, every detail is an opportunity to fiddle: in the mathematician’s rooms, the winding staircase is subtly warped.

 Holl runs his nine-person office in Manhattan like a monastery. And he can be prickly. Although Seaside is his greatest patron so far, Holl disparages the town’s architectural code, which calls for old-fashioned roofs and windows. “Why legislate window proportions and roof slopes?” he snaps. And he only grudgingly acknowledges the work that has given him his widest visibility, the Swid Powell objects. “It’s too much about selling,” Holl says, “and not enough about ideas and hopes and dreams.” Coming from lesser architects, such a pronouncement could seem disingenuous. But Holl’s work, built and unbuilt, is exceptionally dense with original ideas, salutary hopes and fetching dreams. He practices what he preaches.