Book Review: Steven Holl

Steven Holl 2dA book review by Michael Webb

In his four decades of practice, Steven Holl has created some of the most sublime and thoughtful buildings of our time and yet, once again, the Pritzker jury has failed to recognize his achievement. Is there some hidden reason for this omission or is it merely a lack of perception? Over the years, the jury has oscillated between annointing celebrity (the first award went to Philip Johnson) and, more recently, rewarding earnest strivers (Alejandro Aravena). As the monograph, Steven Holl (Robert McCarter; Phaidon, $95) demonstrates, no contemporary architect has explored the potential of architecture so consistently and profoundly or on such a broad canvas as Holl. And, if he had built nothing, he would still deserve acclaim—as a teacher, a writer, and a watercolorist.

McCarter has known Holl since they met in William Stout’s architectural bookstore in San Francisco in 1981, and has invited him to teach at Washington University in St. Louis. To judge from his exhaustive descriptions he has visited all the major buildings and gives due weight to unrealized projects that fed into the built work. I’ve had the good fortune to explore many of these landmarks myself, from the Hybrid in Seaside, to Kiasma on an icy day in Helsinki, and the University of Iowa Art School. I’ve thrilled to the play of light and color in the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, and the luminous skylit galleries of the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Holl is a shaman who has inspired me to drive to remote places and write about the Nail Collector’s House on the Hudson in upstate New York or the Knut Hamsun Museum in the far north of Norway.

Each of these buildings offers singular rewards. Holl, like Alvar Aalto and Juhani Pallasmaa, is a haptic architect, and one has to move through his work, touch the surfaces, and experience the constantly shifting play of light. The many photographs in this handsomely produced monograph serve as reminders of that experience, or as incentives to make a pilgrimage. Some fall woefully short, failing to capture the essential features of the building, such as the sculptural staircase and Scarpa-esque details of the Iowa Art School, or the tactile concrete walls of the Herning Art Museum in Denmark. This may be the best survey to date of this protean architect, but there is room for another, more selective and sharply focused study, which explores a dozen of the best buildings in depth.

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