Steven Holl - 'Architecture brings art into our lives'

In the first part of a wide ranging interview the great architect tells us how buildings connect us to the spiritual
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Architect Steven Holl. Photograph by Mark Heitoff
Architect Steven Holl. Photograph by Mark Heitoff

What’s the point of architecture, beyond providing shelter or storage space? Some in the profession might spend a few jargon-filled hours describing the architect’s place within the cultural pantheon. Yet Steven Holl barely draws breath before giving his simple, heartfelt answer.

“The point of architecture is to bring art into our lives,” says the highly acclaimed, 67-year-old American practitioner and subject of a new Phaidon monograph, “to bring it deeply into our daily lives. It is as essential as music and poetry. Poetry, music and architecture are all related, they lift the human spirit. They give us access to those mysterious dimensions of life. Architecture has that potential, so does music, so does art, so does poetry.”

 

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki by Steven Holl
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki by Steven Holl

Of course, not every part of our built environment has this kind of numinous appeal, though almost all of Holl’s buildings have it to some degree or another. The architect, who has won the Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award for Architecture, the 2012 AIA Gold Medal, and the RIBA 2010 Jencks Award, spends around eight years on each of his projects, producing 30 or so drafts from an initial conception to a ready set of plans.

Rather than adhere to this or that architectural style, Holl prefers to begin with this spiritual quality and work, as he puts it “from the inside out”, understanding how the light and space within a room might conjure up this appeal, before sketching in a building’s walls and windows. He also paints, reads poetry and appreciates music, though he understands that not everyone needs to engage in these lofty concerns to be moved by them.

 

Y House by Steven Holl
Y House by Steven Holl

“When you listen to a piece of music, you don’t need to know that it was played in a certain way, or had a retrograde tone row to get this uplifting feeling,” Holl says. “The same is true with architecture. A five-year-old can walk into a building and not really understand the concept, but still get that feeling.” 

And adults, from any walk of life, are not immune either. Holl remembers standing in line at a grocery store in Seattle shortly after completing the Chapel of St Ignatius for the city’s university. The building, which Holl conceived as “seven bottles of light in a stone box” is widely regarded as one of his masterworks. Indeed, in our new book, Robert McCarter writes that it “will prove to be the Ronchamp of our generation”

 

St Ignatius Chapel in Seattle by Steven Holl
St Ignatius Chapel in Seattle by Steven Holl

These are probably not the words that Holl’s grocery clerk would have used, though she got the building nonetheless.

“I handed over my credit card, and it said ‘architect’ on it” Holl recalls. “The cashier said, ‘Oh you’re an architect, you should see that chapel up there!’” he smiles. “In the end, you really want to reach the everyday person with the feeling of a building.”

To see more of Holl’s buildings and to understand his work a little better, buy our new monograph here, and check back for more instalments from our Steven Holl interview soon


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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