Architecture According to Holl

Steven Holl may be known for his innovative use of materials, but his award-winning designs have deliberately avoided a signature style

Light pours through the windows of a conference room in the sleek, industrial-chic offices of architect Steven Holl, located in a former warehouse on the western edge of Manhattan. He has finished talking about his list of "wonders of the world"—buildings such as Rockefeller Center in New York; the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wis.; and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., that have most inspired his work—and has moved on to describe the work itself.

Perhaps it's the sunlight, but Holl's intense blue eyes seem to match his bright cerulean shirt as he focuses on a large glass bottle of Pellegrino, a coffee cup, and a stainless-steel creamer on the table—props he is moving around as he animatedly describes a complex he's completing in Shenzhen, China. An ambitious project, it is an eco-friendly "horizontal skyscraper," as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and encompassing a hotel, condominiums, and corporate offices.

"The project has three parts, but they don't quite equate or work together," Holl says, still moving the objects. "So I said, let's just put them all together and make one long building. And because Shenzhen is tropical, I thought, shade is nice." The idea of creating shade inspired Holl to design the massive structure on stilt-like columns, so the building itself would provide a giant canopy, cooling pedestrians passing beneath.

Respect for History

Holl, the subject of the new book Steven Holl: Architecture Spoken (Rizzoli) is discussing one of a number of adventurous buildings that he's designing in China. It's a mixed-use development that will house the headquarters of China Vanke, the largest publicly listed real estate developer in the country and a company that's gaining global attention among investors.

Last year, General Electric (GE) announced the company would invest $20 million to become the sole strategic investor in the newly formed CITIC Capital Vanke China Property Development Fund—and enter the booming Chinese real estate market. "Vanke wanted to make it known that this is Vanke's place on earth" and a bold, brand-building statement that conveys a forward-thinking attitude, Holl explains.

While Holl might not qualify as a "starchitect"—along the lines of Frank Gehry—he is a successful designer who has garnered numerous awards and critical praise. He is known for experimenting with new materials, often to save costs, and for his respectfully modern approach to historical renovations.

The Washington state native arrived in New York in the 1970s after studying at the Architectural Assn. in London alongside Zaha Hadid and other well-known builders. He founded Steven Holl Architects in 1976.

Holl gained attention in the late 1980s for Pace Collection Showroom, a furniture retailer on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where he experimented with industrial materials such as copper, steel, and glass. By 1989 he was featured in an exhibition at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In the 1990s he drew raves for another experiment with industrial materials, his curvy, elegant design for the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, completed in 1998, and Holl's most recognized building to date. The structure features translucent walls, made from an industrial glass, that look like they're glowing from within when lit at night. While these designs might seem to exemplify trendy industrial chic, Holl says that his choice of materials is usually based on economic and/or eco-friendly reasons, not simple stylistic flair.

Man of Steel

Holl is quick to cite the use of Core-Ten steel for the exterior design of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, which opened in September, 2006, as a prime example of how material can result in a more cost-effective project.

"I had to present my design to the board of regents at state level in two minutes. This was a $15 million project," Holl recalls.

"I had to build it for only $200 a square foot. So I tried a special grade of Core-Ten steel [mixed] with copper and nickel. I'd never used it before! But it was half the cost of aluminum"—the shiny, glossy, and enduring metal many architects use.

Not only did the project come in on budget but it recently won a 2007 American Institute of Architects Honor Award, considered the profession's highest recognition. (His other accolades include a 2002 National Design Award in Architecture.)

Holl will soon complete additions to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., set to open in June, 2007. Rather than build an extension onto the existing neoclassical structure to create additional galleries for a growing collection and exhibitions, Holl designed a series of five free-standing, slightly off-kilter, geometric structures made of the same structural glass plank material he used at the Kiasma in Helsinki (but with some eco-upgrades).

Parking Lot Proposals

Each building's walls include double-glass cavities, which are designed for optimal heat retention in the winter and to circulate cooler air in the summer—thanks to translucent insulating materials embedded in the glass—thus cutting down heating and cooling bills.

The other proposals the museum received all called for building in an adjacent parking lot and adding on to the 70-year-old original structure. "I wanted to let the old building stand with integrity," Holl says, adding that he didn't want to "deface" its elegant proportions, which recall the Parthenon in Greece.

Holl's focus on green architecture, however, is most pronounced in his projects in China. The most ambitious is his design for a residential complex called Linked Hybrid, a 2.15 million-square-foot complex of 750 apartments, a movie theater, spas, and ponds. It's located near the old city wall of Beijing.

The building is scheduled to be completed in 2008, part of the starchitect-filled construction boom leading up to the Beijing Olympics (see, 12/23/05, "China's New Architectural Wonders"). The Linked Hybrid takes eco-friendly building to a massive scale, with 660 geothermal wells to heat and cool the structure and a water-recycling system that purifies the collected grey water (from laundry rooms and showers) with ultraviolet light before re-using it in the landscaped ponds and in toilets. Holl also designed a system of shades that will automatically lower to cool the structure.

Although it might seem that there are distinct themes that recur in Holl's work—experimentation with industrial materials, slightly skewed geometric shapes, "green" elements—Holl hopes his clients and passersby alike see the differences between each building.

"There really isn't a signature style of our firm. Each building is unique to site, program, and situation. Some architects only work in white or rippled titanium," Holl says, vaguely referring to star architects Richard Meier and Gehry. "Our philosophy is to not have a signature style." But given the variety of styles and materials reflected in Holl's list of architectural wonders, that shouldn't come as any surprise.

Click here to view a slide show of buildings and places that have influenced the work of Steven Holl.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.