Architect and theorist Steven Holl is definitely one of the most interesting figures within the contemporary architecture landscape.
Born in Brementon, Washington, in 1947, he graduated from the University of Washington in 1971 and continued his studies in Rome and London. With the passing of time, apart from being an architect, he also began teaching, first at the Columbia University, then at other prestigious universities in the US, from New York to Pennsylvania.
He was therefore not only a designer, but also a man with a passion for scientific research, as shown by his numerous publications on the grammar of architecture.
Such a multicultural and multidisciplinary background has made Steven Holl one of the most important American architects of our time. From his stay in Europe in the early 1970s, Holl learned how to adapt to different local contexts.
His innate multidisciplinary interest can be found in all of his works, that stand out from the typical contemporary language. In a historical period marked by the rise of deconstructivism, Steven Holl developed his own project vision, in which architecture is made of time, light and matter.
Holl’s works are also influenced by his peculiar attention to the interconnection of architecture and visual and performing arts, physics and music.
His natural inclination to multidisciplinarity has been the key to the success of Steven Holl’s works, the planning of which is influenced not only by the surroundings, the architecture and the purposes, but also by other disciplines.
Steven Holl and Kiasma
One of the most important works by Steven Holl, that was influenced by the mixture of different disciplines and inputs during its design phase, is definitely Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki.
The concept of “chiasma” (the part of the brain where the optic nerves partially cross) leads the planning of this museum, that was completed in 1998. The building in fact consists of two intersected parts: one is straight, a prism, while the other one is a curved volume.
The American architect has designed a building that is in line with his ideas. Light has not only a practical role, but is also a means for creating the perfect atmosphere along the exhibition itinerary.
Steven Holl and the Y House
Another project in which the architect underlines the central concept of his mindset, namely that a project must rest on a leading concept, is the Y House.
The Y shape has to do with both Holl’s will to make each and every one of his projects symbolic and metaphorical, and with the importance of opening the residence outwards. The Y shape is therefore perfect as it embraces the outside and brings it inside the house. The two wings of the building are also two observation points towards the outside.
On the inside, the house consists of a living area and a sleeping area, corresponding to the two wings, while the two large balconies facing south work as passive solar devices, so that the sunbeams illuminate the indoors in the winter, and at the same time prevent the house from overheating in the summer.
On the outside, the building consists of a frame structure made of glass and exposed steel, which has been treated with a specific iron oxide finish that lends it the typical red colour.
Steven Holl and the MIT Cambridge Simmons Hall
Among the most recent works, we must mention the Cambridge Simmons Hall for the MIT, Boston, inaugurated in 2002.
Commonly referred to as “the sponge”, Holl reveals that he actually took inspiration from sea sponges for designing the sleeping quarters for the MIT students. According to Holl, the space outside and inside the college dormitory has stimulated the students’ interest.
Therefore he created a “porous” structure that absorbs sunlight through a series of large openings, designed to cut the structure, resulting in a skilful play of solids and voids. This project, that covers an area of approximately 18,000 square metres, apart from the college students’ dorms, also includes a theatre that seats 125 people, a coffee bar and a restaurant.
The personality and the peculiarities of the building lie in the play of solids and voids, and in the numerous glass surfaces: every bedroom has got nine windows. Just like in other projects by Holl, nature and sunlight filter into the structure and blend into an indissoluble whole.
Steven Holl and the Sarphatistraat Offices
Finally, another extremely interesting architectural intervention in a European city is the building holding the Sarphatistraat Offices in Amsterdam that was inaugurated in 2000.
This project comes from the extension of a U-shaped federal warehouse located along the Singel Canal that consisted of four storeys above ground. For this intervention, Holl decided to use a façade cladding material (perforated copper) in clear contrast with the surroundings and with the pre-existing cladding made of exposed bricks.
The previous material of the extended building can be half-seen from underneath the perforated copper cladding, which also allows sunlight to filter inside. This results in a very interesting play of lights and reflections on the surfaces that create a partial transparency.
Just like in the previous project, the large windows highlight and enhance this type of material by creating a skilful play of volumes and materials.
This building along the canal best expresses itself at night. The coloured lights allow an easier reading of the volume intersection and of the creation of solids and voids.
On the inside, unlike the façade, the passage to the pre-existing building, after it was restored, is less immediate.
The new building was inserted opposite to the main entrance, proceeding towards the canal. As far as functional distribution is concerned, the pre-existing building mainly holds public offices, while the added volume is destined to events and it consists of an exhibition space and a large multifunctional room.
Steven Holl in brief
Light, playing with matter that intertwines into various combinations in order to create solids and voids that give personality to space: we can thus very briefly summarise the works by this great contemporary architect.
As already mentioned in the biography, Steven Holl has been one of architect Mino Caggiula’s “teachers”, with whom he collaborated to complete a few projects such as the Herning Center of Arts in Denmark (inaugurated in 2009), the Museum of Ocean and Surf in Biarritz, France (inaugurated in 2011) and the building of the Linked Hybrid Complex in Beijing, China (inaugurated in 2009).
Photocredits cover: Motopark, Wikimedia.org