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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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