Holl Gets Gold Medal for Prickly Designs at Columbia, Shenzhen

Tap for Slideshow
Photographer: Mark Heitoff/Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

Architect Steven Holl in his studio in New York. The American Institute of Architects awarded Holl the 2012 Gold Medal, its highest honor.

Close
Photographer: Mark Heitoff/Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

Architect Steven Holl in his studio in New York. The American Institute of Architects awarded Holl the 2012 Gold Medal, its highest honor. Close

Architect Steven Holl in his studio in New York. The American Institute of Architects awarded Holl the 2012 Gold... Read More

Source: Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

Campbell Sports Center, a gateway building for Columbia University's Baker Field athletic complex in New York. Mixing fitness and academic facilities, the building invites neighbors and spectators alike into the waterfront site and its activities. It is designed by Steven Holl. Close

Campbell Sports Center, a gateway building for Columbia University's Baker Field athletic complex in New York. Mixing... Read More

Source: Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

An architectural rendering of the Queens Library, a public library about to begin construction on the edge of the East River in New York City. The fluid flow of spaces within is reflected in the diagonal windows cut into the exterior by architect Steven Holl. Close

An architectural rendering of the Queens Library, a public library about to begin construction on the edge of the... Read More

Photographer: Iwan Baan/Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

The Cite de L'Ocean et du Surf museum in Biarritz, France, considers the value of the ocean and its edge in environmental, cultural and ecological terms. The museum was completed 2011 by Steven Holl, who has just won the Gold Medal of the American Institute of architects. Close

The Cite de L'Ocean et du Surf museum in Biarritz, France, considers the value of the ocean and its edge in... Read More

Photographer: Iwan Baan/Steven Holl Architects via Bloomberg

The exterior of the Vanke Center by Steven Holl architects. Completed in 2009, it includes office space, apartments, a hotel and an underground conference center. The project was conceived as a "horizontal skyscraper" to free the undulating ground for public space. Close

The exterior of the Vanke Center by Steven Holl architects. Completed in 2009, it includes office space, apartments,... Read More

Photographer: Roland Halbe/The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art via Bloomberg

The exterior of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. New York architect Steven Holl's $200 million Bloch addition to the museum opened on June 9, 2007. Close

The exterior of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. New York architect Steven... Read More

Photographer: Roland Halbe. Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art via Bloomberg

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Light in this wing comes in by way of an open "Flutter T" wall, left, and the exterior glass wall of "Lens 3," above. Close

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Light in this wing comes in by way of an open "Flutter T"... Read More

In an early project at Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius, Steven Holl conceived what he called “seven bottles of light in a stone box.”

Fortunately, he wasn’t shown the door.

His design lets bands of colored daylight glow on curved surfaces of rough or smooth plaster. It’s a humble and sublimely spiritual place.

Holl, 64, has celebrated projects all over Europe, and in Seattle, Kansas City, and Iowa. He has conquered China with two extraordinary commercial projects.

Last week, the American Institute of Architects announced that he would receive the 2012 Gold Medal, the highest honor the organization bestows.

“It’s still kind of shocking,” Holl said in a telephone interview. “I think it came about because we are willing to take risks.”

You don’t just walk through a Holl building. You embark on a dreamlike journey. Stairs and ramps curve or vanish into a mysterious distance, where some unseen light beckons you onward to new discoveries.

For his brilliant addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, Holl alternated art-lighted exhibition spaces with vestibules bathed in daylight. It’s like strolling into a sun-dappled clearing after emerging from a forest.

Just enough sun seeps into the galleries to bring the art works to life, but not so much as to harm them.

His prickly beauty insists on its allure. I sometimes feel I must pull up a chair and sit down and appreciate it for a while. That insistent quality can put people off.

Poetic Rooms

Holl gets up every morning and lets his prodigious imagination fill little notebooks with watercolors that range from wonderfully poetic rooms with clouds floating overhead to monstrously distorted body parts entangled in each other.

Occasionally that fertile mind gets the best of him. For a dormitory at MIT, Holl developed exquisite lounges to encourage students to gather. Instead of ceilings, he extended the spaces vertically into sinuously twisting chimneys that rise through the roof. They bring celestial light of baroque theatricality on students scanning Facebook three floors down.

They’re wildly overproduced. The lounges are too small and Holl’s gridded, overbearing exterior makes dorm rooms feel like cages.

An architect that takes such risks too often scares off clients. His archives are stuffed with beautiful unbuilt work.

For those who can handle the Holl challenge, the results can be transforming.

Bridges Leap

In designing the Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China, Holl talked the real-estate development client into combining a planned complex of buildings into a single structure he likens to a skyscraper tipped on its side.

Wings branch off the building, bent and faceted to evoke human fingers. They soar horizontally in long bridgelike structures across a soft undulating landscape.

Delicate glass-walled sky bridges athletically leap from one 20th floor to another in a ring of eight residential towers in Beijing called Linked Hybrid.

Though he has had his office in New York City and taught at Columbia University for almost 40 years, the city is averse to Holl-style innovation.

One of his most beloved works (in this case with artist Vito Acconci) is a wide, whimsically jigsaw-puzzled door for the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a tiny downtown exhibition space.

Glowing Pavilion

He renovated the 1890 building occupied by New York University’s philosophy department with a bulging and swaying stairway perforated with effervescing soap-bubble shapes. They throw points of light around with abandon. He built a glowing pavilion in translucent glass to connect two buildings at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

More is to come at last. The Campbell Sports Center, a 48,000-square-foot fitness facility, is under construction by Columbia University at Baker Field on Manhattan’s northern tip. A zigzagging exterior stair animates this gateway building that stands hard up against an elevated subway line.

For a library about to be built on the East River in Queens, Holl designed study terraces that step up the building, opening onto stunning city and water panoramas. He stacks the terraces with books to reinforce the primacy of the printed page.

It’s a characteristic mix of the cerebral and the sensuous.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net. http://web.me.com/jscanlonrussell

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.