Three schemes that demonstrate Holl´s ability to draw inspiration from the world of phenomena
Originally published in AR February 1989, this piece was republished online in September 2011
For Steven Holl, history may organise a site, but this history will not be confined within its boundaries. What is recalled from history is drawn through the invention of the architect and a wider knowledge of a place and its circumstances.
A pool house celebrates a boulder found in excavation, and a New York shop on a major cross-town intersection takes the orthogonal tensions of the grid for its history. Similarly Holl finds a broader history of invention and place in rural and urban vernacular building types which he researched early in his career and from which he developed such projects as the Bridge of Houses and Telescope House.
He respects the carpenter architects of pioneer days, whose inventive power was untrammelled by the patterns of historic models, which were functionally adapted retaining their formative idea. Holl insists that architectural principles form a fulcrum between codified practices and free invention.
The architect must be alert for inspiration from the world of phenomena. He recalls the sight of a box of light caught between the head of a skyscraper and a cloud, and a free-form wisp which blew through it. These situations disclose relations in the city not revealed by the standard planimetric understandings.
Particularly in New York the ‘Z’ or vertical axis is as powerful a conduit of space as the long avenues. Thus a 42nd floor corner apartment of the Museum of Modern Art Tower appeared, under the influence of its vertical vanishing point, to lean out over the street.
Here Holl created a choreography of the three axes with black and yellow wall planes played with intuitive freedom against the rotations of elements of furniture and the rug designs. The variety of furnishing elements induce multiple expressions of the XYZ idea and it becomes a diffuse history in the realisation of the apartment.
“Holl’s histories are drawn through naive eyes, which see visions lost to the majority by habituation”
The table from the MOMA apartment is an infill of wood between metal splines which spin amongst axes. Its particular dimensions and orientations are the signature which give it an anchorage, as Holl calls it, in the particular place.
Holl’s concept of anchorage ties the Berkowitz-Odgis house to its site on Martha’s Vineyard. Here, on a gullied site overlooking the sea, Holl’s design is for a long, low house built within the continuous frame of a porch.
The construction appears to be inside out and when covered with island vines, the house will seem to be no more than an arbour. However for Holl the true anchor and the poetry of living on the dune derives from the account in Melville’s Moby Dick of Indians of the island who, to make dwellings, would drag the skeletons of beached whales above the tide line and cover them with skins.
Holl’s design resonates between recall of the Indians and other beachcomber lore. The gaunt frames also bring to mind stranded piers, former pilings, breakwaters and general flotsam of the seashore. The Hybrid Building is at Seaside, on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico.
The urban design guidelines for the town square of the developing seaside resort required mixed use and a two-storey tall arcade to connect with that of the adjacent buildings. At ground level, retail uses front the square, above is a deep floor of offices, and over this a courtyard of residential accommodation.
The latter comprises ranges of maisonettes facing west and east. The former overlook the public square and enjoy the setting sun. Holl conceives these residents as boisterous types happy to share a terrace of five identical units.
They contrast with three differentiated units of his melancholic types who face and rise with the morning sun and conduct the introspective lives of poet, musician and mathematician. Holl’s treatment of the house of each reflects their respective callings.
The court is invested by Holl with a series of boarding house histories and becomes the focus of unforeseen tales of occupation. In a final project, an apartment in the 40-degree angle of the 19th floor of Metropolitan Tower overlooking New York’s midtown and Central Park, Holl chose to intensify the prevailing angularity rather than reconcile it.
Here deflected vistas strike through the space from entry to apex. Warped fragments of walls and screens incline four degrees from the vertical, delicately challenging perception of perspective. The dark terrazzo floor appears to rise and fall with the irregular concentrations of pale aggregate, and the brass stripping of its panels follows a crazed Mercator projection.
Drooping lamps of cast glass casually hang from the junctions of deformed elements and from host cavities within the built-in furniture. A yellow wrap of colour staples a wall to its soffit as though it were an impossible reflection from a tank or glass which is not present.
The spatial condition of the apartment alludes more to the space walk with objects bleeping to each other across non-space than to the plastic definition of space and sequence. The objects are not merely opaque masses in a continuous spatial structure but confront each other thematically, episodically, epigrammatically across a dimensionally nonspecific void.
Light and cloud effect change and move around the apartment, and the relative intensities of objects and relations follow their lead. This crow’s nest of an apartment pitches and rolls with the phenomena it scans.
Holl’s histories are drawn through naive eyes, which see visions lost to the majority by habituation.They have a concise verbal life which seems provocative but elusive; and they find form along surprisingly literal paths and with highly specific craft. Once again the immediacy of realisation is naïve and defies formulation. An admirer, even with the help of Holl’s verbal cue and a sense of his directness, could surely not match his invention, Holl’s imaginative leaps are acutely thrilling.