"The soul has greater need of the ideal than of the real.” Thoughtful words inscribed in the limestone facade of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The author, Victor Hugo, French playwright, novelist, essayist. The reader, Steven Holl of Steven Holl architects. It is with this sentiment that Holl, a highly-respected architect from Bremerton Washington, engaged the process for what would in the end be the finest, seamless addition to an elite center of art. The New Yorker tagged the new Block addition; “One of the best museums of the last generation.” Such glorious reviews are birthed not from the complexity of the structure, but rather its simplicity, brave simplicity. It is one thing for an architect to design simple works when more creative options are not within his gifting. It is quite another to ignore the more complex, creative options at ones talent disposal, and instead settle for the sophistication of less.
Steven Holl, is an architect difficult to define. To reduce his work to a style or its influence to a time period would be flirting with simple-mindedness. Instead, the casual and the informed observer must reach for the most blatant of contradictions. Holl may be best described as spontaneously-static, or maybe even a feeling-pragmatist. He is an architect in total command of the inherent metrics required to create elite, permanent structures. Yet, he balances the technical envelope so well he seems to ignore it. His skyline creations seem to join hands with the clouds rather than compete against them. Much anticipated is the High Line Hybrid Tower connected to the High Line Park in New York City. This project will be Holl’s first large-scale project in New York. The tower design will, in Holls words, “enable interaction with the public sphere vertically as well as street level.” His design philosophy is to create what nature would create on its own if given a protractor and pencil.
As with many architects, the most covert design element is patience. Such was the case while penciling one of the 650 drafts in preparation for the Atkins Block design competition. One of the static requirements distributed among the invited architectural firms was that the addition would face north.
Holl, working in conjunction with his partner Chris McVoy, felt that the best solution was to instead create a structure that would fuse the facade with the landscape and move the structure eastward. Holl recalls his anxiety going into the committee meeting to present this new idea. At risk were the many months and hours spent on a drawing that fundamentally violated the basic design requirement.
“I apologize for breaking the rules” Holl’s opening statement would read. With regret out of the way, he pushed forward uncovering what strengths were submerged in the surrounding natural landscape, and how these strengths should be highlighted. The result was a unanimous vote to approve his modern design. A very discerning architectural board saw the wisdom of this unorthodoxy for the benefit of current visitors and the thousands to come.
It is this style of people management that allows for Holl to succeed domestically as well as internationally. His most ambitious project to date is in Beijing China where he has opened a new office. The spider like project is geo-thermally heated and cooled with 660 geo-thermal wells, 8 towers standing 22 stories tall, and 750 apartments. The towers are connected with bridges with pools inside of them. In brief, the structures combine high-end apartment residences with connecting, highway-like bridges leading to market places, and other centers of international commerce. Such aggressive designs are par for the course when hiring Steven Holl architects. The hiring committee for this Beijing project commented that the Holl design was far above what they had budgeted for this project, their response, the budget was increased.
Whether one subscribes to this account in whole or in part, it is vital to understand that Holl is not the average commercial architect who follows the rules for no other reason than social compliance. Instead, he is a partner of the environment. A partner who prefers to listen to the beat of his vision.
In all, his fans seem to outnumber his critics. One just need view the list of his awards that include: The Sustainable Design Award for Linked Hybrid, RIBA International Award (UK) for The New Residence at The Swiss Embassy, or the AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Project Award for the Whitney Water Purification Facility and Park. The Whitney Purification Facility in Connecticut is an arresting structure. It gradually emerges from a piece of property with no real pre-requisite to its existence. Yet, it does not interfere with the natural flow of the land. The water facility gives one the impression that something has landed, although it isn’t clear exactly what. The very existence of the Whitney again shows the ingenuous balancing act of Holl. The design board who approved the structure was made up of mostly stoic Yale professors who live and work in the area. Proving once again that sometimes the greatest successes make a mockery out of traditional expectations.