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Interview: Steven Holl

As the AR features Steven Holl’s new building in China, Emmanuel Petit talks to the American architect about poetry, Wittgenstein and the futility of philosophy in a world of rapid change

EP: One of your most recent projects is a mixed-use urban building in Chengdu, the Sliced Porosity Block, in which you put architecture to the service of a series of urban ideas. I am curious to hear you articulate your thoughts about what constitutes a good human environment, how you create the ingredients of a ‘micro-urbanism’ in this project, and what your attitude is towards the Chinese City?

SH: There are 1.3 billion people in China, and right now, the country is going through the most radical transformation of its political, social and urban structure in its very long history. I never set foot in China until 2001. Before then, in Asia, I had only been to Japan (over 60 times for two of my projects), but never to China.

What fascinates me about China is that there is more poetry written in that culture than in all the other civilisations combined. The first book of poetry that was ever given to me was an anthology of Chinese poetry entitled The White Pony; and interestingly, its editor, Robert Payne, claimed that if you want to understand a people, you must first understand their poetry. That’s how I started when I went to China.

My first project there was the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, to be followed by the Linked Hybrid Towers in Beijing, then the Vanke Center or Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen and the Porosity Block in Chengdu. Now, Chengdu is a city of 10 million people; it is thus bigger than almost all of our cities in the United States, but people here don’t know about it. And our project is right next to the centre of Chengdu − it is a bit like what 5th Avenue and 60th Street would be in New York City.

I have written about urbanism and public space, and so my goal was to question the developer formula, according to which two towers − one residential and one office − sit on top of a flat shopping mall. We wanted to take their programme and use it to shape urban space.

So we moved all the volume to the perimeter and made a big public space in the middle; we did not want any blank walls where you meet the street, but insisted on a sense of porosity on the edges of the streets. We then broke a giant hole in every one of the main facades and inserted a smaller building inside them to mediate between the 32-storey buildings and the human scale. We carved a series of gigantic pieces out of the section and inserted smaller buildings in them − like for instance the history pavilion, where you can visit the history of the site. For the public space in the middle we activated the narrative of a poem by Du Fu from the year 745, and introduced the idea of three valleys, with their cascading fountains and green areas.

Many of my observations about urbanism are based on Greenwich Village, where I live and where you can walk in any direction and find cafés, restaurants and shops. The length of a New York City block is 200 feet, and it is important that the city allows you to cross through buildings or blocks every once in a while. The Manhattan grid is extremely effective this way.

In Chengdu, you can penetrate the block from many different entry points; each of them has a particular character.

EP: Your Chengdu project is based on the rationalist and traditional urban typology of a perimeter block, which is then, however, sliced by a series of expressive cuts which fragment the initial diagram.

I feel that one can extract from this double strategy your affinity with the rational architecture of Aldo Rossi, and, at the same time, with the abstract expressivity of Carlo Scarpa.

Rossi always reconfirms unchanging architectural type-form, while Scarpa never closes spatial figures and always opens form to alternative figures.

How does your architectural poetry relate to these seemingly incompatible sensibilities in architecture − to the strict and metaphysical poetry of Rossi, on the one hand, and the lyricism of Scarpa, on the other? It seems that John Hejduk should also be mentioned in this context of poetry; for him, architecture granted access to the realm of angels. Your poetry is more abstract and less mythifying …

SH: In the Porosity Block, the light does the slicing, and so does the building code. In fact the cuts assure that every part of the block and the context get maximum light exposure − which is regulated by the local building code.

But it is true that poetry is the most important part of my life. And I loved Aldo. We became friends; I met him in his studio in Milan around 1979. He was a poet. There is a sense of the ineffable in some of his early work. Just look at those black shadows in his drawings. But when I made a pilgrimage to his Gallaratese and his Modena cemetery projects, I was disappointed, because he cared more about his ideas than about the actual construction.

That is why Scarpa, to me, is ultimately more important. He was one of the great architects. There is a lot of emotional intensity in his work, and you can always go back to his architecture and see something new. He has a great sense of materiality and an understanding of detail vis-à-vis how things are made. And the tectonic joint is so important to Scarpa.

In the end, the real singing of the song has to come out in the movement of the body through the actual space. But there needs to be an idea which drives the design. I am on both sides of the fence that way. I think this is also evidenced in our Chengdu project. Certainly the best way to understand it is to experience the dynamic quality of the space.

And for sure Hejduk was an enormous influence − he was a great man. Poetry is at the heart of architecture. I was mesmerised by John; he was so important to me. Especially his Half-House and the Wall Houses: they were incredible things to me.

And Le Corbusier cannot go unmentioned. Especially his La Tourette monastery. I stayed there four times in some of the monk cells. I think it is his greatest work. I also like Ronchamp, and the church he did with José Oubrerie [Saint-Pierre in Firminy]: those three works contain the most subjective impulse of Le Corbusier. In those, you can see many dimensions, and there is always this ineffable space. I never tire of going back.

EP: Returning to the Porosity Block, the geometry of the exterior facade evokes the structure of your Simmons Hall project at MIT. What was the architectural intention behind the homogeneous appearance in both Cambridge and Chengdu? It seems like you are giving tectonics a modern upgrade.

SH: The Porosity Block is currently the largest exoskeletal loadbearing concrete structure in China. Its white coloration reflects the light and lights up the buildings at night.

But let’s talk about tectonics. We hear that it is the end of tectonics because of digital fabrication. If you don’t make anything larger than a boat that is probably true; the digital has supercharged things to the point where we can imagine enormous fabrications which have no joints and which are continuous and smooth.

But I am going to give you an example, and that is the Boeing Dreamliner. When they turned the fuselage of the Dreamliner into carbon fibre as a continuous piece − a brilliant breakthrough in aeronautical technology − the big problem came in the tectonic joints between the fuselage and the wings, and that is where they lost two and a half years in the production of the Dreamliner. As far as I am concerned, that proves that tectonics will never disappear.

We too are presently making six gigantic digitally-cut stones, where there are no working drawings; everything goes directly to a five-axis cutter in Lecce, Italy, and it will be delivered and installed in Milan.

There will have been no working drawings exchanged and there will have been no trips to the factory. That’s going to be the future of architecture: we will eliminate working drawings, but we will not eliminate tectonics.

Holl Watercolour

Holl rejected conventional tower-and- podium groupings, submerging the ground floor levels to create pavement level space

EP: You describe yourself as a phenomenologist; you refer a lot to Maurice Merleau-Ponty − the philosopher who published Phenomenology of Perception in 1945. Can an architectural phenomenon ever speak for itself?

SH: No. I definitely believe in ideas driving a design, and that makes me different from the people who pretend to be phenomenologists. I am very different from them: you must have an idea to drive a design. I am much closer to Peter Eisenman or Zaha Hadid than I am to Zumthor. Le Corbusier always had an idea; and so did Louis Kahn. That’s for me enormously important. I also believe that you don’t need to know what that idea is to appreciate a building.

I agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein, when he said that there is no such thing as phenomenology, but only phenomenological questions. Wittgenstein said that ideas are like ladders: they get us to a platform, and when we arrive there, we can kick the ladder away. I think that is really a great statement. In Wittgenstein, every statement is a question. Remarks on Colour is a book on all kinds of questions.I think the time we live in is so full of change, and that you cannot have a philosophical position in such a situation in which change is so dramatically unpredictable. This is particularly the case in China. So all you can do is to ask questions; and that is what Wittgenstein did.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Steven Holl is incorrect in his perception of Scarpa's work. Every architectural move in the Brion Tomb is related to a syntax of metaphors comprising an allegory of origins.

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