Steven Holl’s Masterpiece Architecture

Steven Holl may have more in common with artists who create experiences than with his colleagues who design mere buildings.

When he was asked to design a museum in Biarritz, France, to celebrate both surfing culture and marine ecology, Steven Holl began not by laying out rooms but by imagining the feeling of being in a small boat bobbing in rough seas. “When you’re up, you can see 360 degrees; when you’re down, you see nothing but the swells,” he says. He began to capture that experience in watercolors. From this series of paintings, he teased out an idea for a building, the acclaimed Cité de l’Océan et du Surf Museum, with a wave-like roof terrace designed with the artist Solange Fabião. As built, it is a seascape in its own right. “Which part is art and which part architecture?” Holl muses, adding, “I like to blur the line.”

It is a line Holl has blurred in more than a dozen museums, each dedicated to the idea that a building can enhance the experience of seeing art. His current project, an addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is about as strong an endorsement of that approach as he could hope for. The MFAH has a $1 billion endowment. And it has a building by the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Every top architect wanted the job. One reason Holl got it—the unanimous choice of the trustees—is that he has “an artist’s sensibility,” says Gary Tinterow, the museum’s director.

Indeed, Holl may have more in common with artists who create experiences—think James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson—than he does with his colleagues in the architecture world. His buildings aren’t so much containers for art as they are sculptures created with light and surface. (His first museum, the Kiasma in Helsinki, has 25 galleries, each a different size—Holl describes it as “a piece of music in 25 measures, the last one a crescendo.”) His buildings reveal their pleasures slowly, in ways that are derived directly from his decision to work first in watercolors rather than the precise pencil drawings—or worse, computer programs—employed by most of his contemporaries. That gives him a chance to explore surfaces that blend and spaces that connect gradually, ambiguously, instead of abruptly.

Perhaps his best-known cultural project is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri. Competing for the commission, which involved adding to the museum’s neoclassical building, Holl decided not to touch that venerable structure. Instead, he proposed a sculpture garden filled with glass “lenses” filtering light to a series of underground galleries. Next to the original building, the lenses are “like feathers to a stone,” says Holl. That isn’t just talk, but a feeling captured in the finished building.

When Holl moved to New York from California in the 1970s, he wasn’t thinking about making money. What attracted him to New York, he says, was the depth of the city’s intellectual life. He began teaching at Columbia University (an appointment he still holds) while becoming known as a “paper architect,” one whose work is drawn, not built. When he finally got a public commission, it was to design the façade of a tiny downtown gallery (the Storefront for Art and Architecture), and he collaborated with an artist, Vito Acconci. The result, a series of pivoting opaque panels, a literal breaking free of two dimensions, was meant to be temporary, but it has become the institution’s symbol and greatest asset.

Then Holl began entering competitions—a chance for the unknown architect to rise or fall on the strength of his ideas. Between 1985 and 2005, he designed a chapel in his native Washington State, a dormitory at MIT and a series of huge developments in China—almost always working with artists, including some he has championed for more than 30 years. In the case of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, he knew he wanted the underground garage—the first space most visitors would see—to be lit by skylights through a pool of water. He chose Walter De Maria, the earth artist, to arrange the skylights in the pool. That, Holl says slyly, makes it impossible for the museum to tamper with the design (since, unlike architecture, works by artists are spared the indignities of renovation).

Next up was the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, on the outskirts of the booming Chinese city. The client didn’t have (and still may not have) a plan for what to put in the building, which made Holl the perfect choice: He created a structure that is itself an artwork, inspired by Chinese parallel perspective (a system without vanishing points, which is common to Chinese painting in part because of the need to accommodate the horizontality of the scroll format). The building guides visitors through a series of experiences leading, finally, to a terrace overlooking the Ming dynasty capital. Around the same time, he completed a much darker project, a museum dedicated to Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian author who won the Nobel Prize but was later ostracized as a Nazi sympathizer. In remote Hamarøy, Norway, Holl created an almost figurative building that expresses the relationship between the novelist’s complex personality and the landscape that inspired him.

For Holl, there are more museums in the pipeline, including one for Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. There, Holl says, he was asked to design a pair of galleries. But he began thinking about the art world—in which methods and media, ranging from painting to conceptual art to video art, exist simultaneously—and he designed three connected orthogonal spaces and another sculpted gallery to symbolize the many parallel paths available to artists.

From Holl’s vantage point, this is a particularly happy time for people who make art. There is no one right kind of art, no single narrative, like Fauvism or Cubism or minimalism, he says. “And no one thinks anyone else’s approach to art is passé. There’s a real camaraderie between artists right now,” he adds. And, thanks to Holl, architects are now included.

Stephen Holl’s Architecture

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 2007: In an early collage, Holl explored ways of accommodating the museum’s extensive collection of Isamu Noguchi sculptures, indoors and out.

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, 1997: At night, when Seattle University’s Jesuits gather for Mass, the skylights are like “beacons shining in all directions out across the campus,” Holl says.

Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing, China, 2012: “It’s about the experience of space,” says Holl. Up close, concrete formed against bamboo ties the building to nature.

Knut Hamsun Center, Hamarøy, Norway, 2009: Holl conceived the small museum, in a remote part of Norway, as a “battleground of invisible forces,” a phrase borrowed from Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger. Holl’s other Scandinavian projects include the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki and the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Herning, Denmark.