The Complementary Contrast of Steven Holl

by Douglas Gordon, Hon. AIA

The VCU School of arts featured 2012 AIA Gold Medalist Steven Holl, FAIA, October 15 at the Singleton Center in Richmond. The topic for the Windmueller Artist Lecture was “Scale,” based on both a lecture Holl presented in June to the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the latest book on his work, edited by Lars Müller.

Scale is not a thing, Holl said. It is a comprehension of our world. He mesmerized the packed hall for an hour with his presentation of selected work, from the largest-scale to the smallest.

It’s worth noting that he also said that “scalelessness” is not a word that turns up any hits when searched on Google. It was along the lines of the old saw that “gullible” is not in the dictionary, one guesses, since a quick check shows 551,000 results from that search. Nonetheless, Holl was on a roll.

First, in deference to the season, he recalled his first visit to Richmond, on a ghost quest of Edgar Allan Poe. “I’ll have to spend some time visiting the museum,” he said, further stretching his credibility for the night, at least until  he launched into his presentation. (The largest-scale, and first work he showed, by the way, was not of his own, as it turned out. It was of the sun’s coronal mass ejection, but I digress.)

The next series of slides covered the Tianjin Ecology Museum and Planning Museum, which Holl described as a grand exercise in negative/positive space, with one museum having voids that are the solids of the adjacent building, and vice versa. The amazing part of working on those museums, he said, was that he could send conceptual sketches to China at night and get rendered results back the next morning. The firm started design at the end of August and construction was completed in December of the same year. Despite his many projects in China, Holl is perpetually amazed at the turnaround time, he emphasized repeatedly.

Sliced Porosity Block, in Chengdu, China was the next project on Holl’s scale of Scale. Chengdu, he noted, is the oldest city in China that still has its original name. The project is an office/condominium/hotel/shopping center mixed use, and he refused to treat it as a single block of a building despite the client’s expectation, he said. With three million square feet, Holl determined that the project would be an integral urban form. Quoting the eighth-century poet Du Fu, Holl characterized the building’s three sky-light ponds with the words “From the northeast storm-tossed to the southwest, time has left stranded in Three Valleys.” The entire design was inspired by this, one of China’s greatest poets.

Horizontal Skyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzhen, China, is indicative of Holl’s thinking that, even in spite of a project’s inherent mass, he insists that it have a human scale. Shenzhen is a tropical city, he said, and although it would encompass 1.8 million square feet, he was going to see that it stayed light on the landscape. The permits took 10 days from submission to approval, he again marveled over China’s construction processes, even though the structural system is an innovative rigid concrete frame held up with cables. To make the project more palatable to code officials, he was willing to move the structural columns from 50 meters on center to 30, he said, but the structural engineer said he could make it works, and the building inspectors approved it as fully capable of withstanding a 900-year earthquake. With 50 meters on center, where do you put the MEP connections, his design team wondered. The answer was to cover the columns in a translucent material, put the mechanical chases and lamps between the structural elements and the covering, and make those columns into light fixtures. Every detail possible was sourced locally, Holl said, including the door handles, which he modeled after the plan of the building itself. The project achieved LEED Platinum certification.

Simmons Hall, at MIT, was a study in porosity, one of Holls re-occurring themes (although he insists he does not have a signature style). With an exo-skeleton structure, Holl said he kept a sponge in mind as he designed the building, going so far as to take a sponge cut to the building’s plan to make a preliminary study sketch. Because each room has a 3×3-square module of windows, the scale of this dormitory is skewed to look larger than it is. The students devised clever ways to use their windows to send messages—not always welcome ones—to the outside world, Holl said. (This is MIT, for goodness sake, of course they did.) They even devised an anthem, posted on YouTube.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., was to be an addition to a 1937 Neoclassic landmark of white limestone. The competition rules said the new building was to take up one side of the existing building and leave the other side open. Fill in one side that way and, before long, both sides will be developed, Holl said his team decided, so they disobeyed the rules and went underground to create the desired square footage and connection without impinging on the existing building’s presence. “Stone and feather” was the concept for the design team, with the project placing the ideal over the real with what Holl describes as “landscape lenses.”

Of his firm’s work, Holl said that he makes doodles and Senior Partner Chris McVoy transforms them into architecture. “That is teamwork,” Holl said. The structural elements he called “fluttering Ts” mix north and south light and still allow the wall-to-floor connection to be orthogonal. But the element of this building that Holl pointed up as being the most difficult was the use of 16-inch-wide optical spanning glass, which allows translucent images of interior elements, including people, to show through in ghostly fashion. “It was the most difficult part and the most exciting,” Holl said.

The University of Iowa School of Art and Art History had a site in an abandoned limestone quarry, which prompted the concept of using an industrial material, Corten steel. When he showed images of the building concept, though, Holl said, the immediate reaction was that it looked like Picasso’s 1912-1914 Guitars. That was totally unintentional and yet stuck. After construction, the area had a 500-year flood, which caused damage that was quickly repaired, Holl said. Overall, he added, on a brighter note, the building’s planar construction brings people together, and the grand stair, with an out-of-view elevator, encourages people to climb rather than ride from the lower level to the next.

Multiple design-development models for the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, here displayed at the Virginia Center for Architecture, indicate the creative doubt Holl’s design team worked their way through.

It was at that point—midway through the presentation because, he said, the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art was midway through all the projects in terms of scale—that Holl came to the project everyone in attendance had come to learn more about. The site was what Holl focused on as the locus of the design concept: “Forked Time.” The intersection of Boulevard and Broad in Richmond is a point of congregation. It is also a place from which the Fan spreads west, and is an anchor spot for VCU as well. There was a train station there, and the site is a part of the city’s history, all embedded in that corner, Holl said. The forked galleries of the museum—all of which is readily perceived from the entranceway—are a subtext of the site itself. The building is also designed as a state-of-the-art non-oil-dependent piece of sustainable architecture, Holl said. “This will be an enormously active center in the city,” he predicted.

The Jesuit Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle is essentially seven bottles of light in a stone box, except instead of stone they used less expensive precast concrete, Holl said. The bottles change complementary colors from day to night, he said. And the construction crew was particularly excited by the concept of the scratch-coat concrete finishing process because the effect they left in the concrete was going to be the finish that people would enjoy for the life of the building. The construction involved 21 slabs of tilt-up precast concrete, Holl said, so the building materialized miraculously, in the public’s eye. The pick-pocket hooks stayed right where they were; also part of the final architectural expression, he said.

The Nanjing Sifang Art Museum was his first project in China, Holl said. He chose to use a parallel perspective—an element of traditional Chinese art—to focus the building on the city of Nanjing. It was the bamboo concrete forms and charcoal concrete tinting he pointed out as vital to the building’s human scale.

Hunters Point Community Library in Queens, N.Y., is on an important site, next to the newly opened Kahn memorial to Roosevelt and the U.N. Building. Books are still vitally important to our keeping and transferring of knowledge, Holl said, even if it seems that everyone is on the computer instead. He created a vertical garden as a welcoming space for reading (with the foamed aluminum exterior connoting the iconic Pepsi sign at the former Hunters Point bottling plant) he said.

Cite de l’Ocean et du Surf opened only last summer at France’s only surfing beach. The use of 5×7-inch Portuguese stone gives scale to the relatively small facility while the wave-form ceiling provides a sense of scale-lessness, Holl said.

Maggie’s Centre Barts in London is only 5,000 square feet, yet is a cancer center at one of the most historic church hospital in the world, St. Bartholomew’s, Holl said. The graphic treatment in colored glass is an allusion to early musical scales, he pointed out. The firm chose to do the project pro bono.

The Daeyang Gallery and House in Seoul took a long time despite its being a very small space. In this case, architecture was like music to him because it surrounds you, Holl said. He organized the house plan around an arcane, very long musical score, “Symphony of Modules,” by Istvan Anhalt, he said. One of the more unusual aspects of this work (for a great client, he said) was that the patina-copper skin was manufactured in Kansas City and shipped to Asia. That may seem backwards, Holl said, but this was a client interested in creating an architectural work of art without sparing the expense. “I don’t make architecture for clients,” he said. “I design to generate ideas. That’s why I don’t do many houses.” This house, though, he said, was a delight to design.

VCU School of the Arts Dean Joseph Seipel calls for questions following Holl’s presentation.

Following the lecture was a question-and-answer session during which a student brought up Holl’s book, Urbanisms. In that book, she said, Holl mentioned the ever-present doubt that enlivens every project. She asked: “What doubt did you have with the VCU Art Center?” Without skipping a beat, Holl pointed to the abundance of models then on exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture as ample evidence of doubt. “The site, among other things,” he said.

The next question: How do you continue to grow? “Don’t repeat yourself,” Holl said, noting that he eschews the concept of a signature style.

With questions seeming to center particularly on the new arts center itself, the next question was about materials that might contribute to the building’s sense of positive/negative balance. Holl launched into something of a commercial for Opalux, positing that he likes the translucent color potential of the material so much he was hoping the manufacturer would consider donating materials to the project.

And, asked the last questioner, how is this building going to work with Richmond vernacular? As if this were a straight line in a Vaudeville show—again with no pause—Holl said: “Complementary contrast.” To add a note of seriousness to offset the immediate round of laughter, he said that the New York City Landmark Commission agrees with the concept of having a design that stands out well from its surroundings. “This design is about our time,” he said of the new VCU building. “I think that is a good message to our youth.”

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