PRINT April 2008


Steven Holl

UNTIL LAST MARCH, the main offices of New York University’s philosophy department looked out over Washington Square Park from the fifth floor of a building on the park’s east side. It is at once a tribute to the popularity of the discipline and to the excellence of NYU’s philosophers that the department had over the years outgrown this ideal location; philosophers were housed in three separate locations around the campus. This state of affairs was felt to be unsatisfactory, in part, surely, for administrative reasons, but mainly for reasons connected with the spirit of philosophical communities as such: Philosophers are resources for one another, since it is chiefly through discussion and debate that the subject is advanced and refined. And so the department was at last offered a building of its own, and it was announced that a search had begun for a major architect to create an interior space responsive to its needs.

I have spent my entire professional life in and around philosophy departments. The one that I know best (having taught there for some decades) is that of Columbia University, which occupies the seventh floor of a building called Philosophy Hall. There is nothing architectural that says “philosophy”—nothing that differentiates the seventh floor from the sixth, occupied by the English department, or the fifth, occupied by the French department. The oak office doors are half-glazed with opaque glass, and the brass knobs are typical of those found throughout Columbia’s original campus, which was designed by the great Gilded Age architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White.

So when word came down in 2004 that architect Steven Holl had been selected to execute the NYU project, I was eager to see what he would do, chiefly because Holl has an explicitly philosophical approach to architecture. His task was to remodel the interior of an existing building, now pictured on the departmental Web page and proudly identified as “The Philosophy Department’s New Building.”1 Built in 1890, it is a six-story loft building, at the corner of Mercer Street and Washington Place. The building itself cannot express anything about the academic mission of its new tenant. Rather, it expresses New York when the city was a commercial and manufacturing center, and, though an aesthetically imposing structure, it owes its landmark status chiefly to that historical significance. As it happens, there are certain architectural features specific to loft buildings of that era that Holl was able to draw on, but the exterior of the building was not part of his mandate.

Holl’s architectural philosophy derives from the phenomenological writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially as set forth in Phenomenology of Perception, in which the philosopher explains how the traditional philosophical literature on perception had largely failed to take our embodied condition into account. Heidegger speaks of human beings as Dasein—as “being there”—but Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that we are in the world as embodied subjects, and explains in great detail what this entails in terms of how we perceive the world. Holl’s buildings involve an understanding of how the body interacts with space through motion, and he and two of his associates have set these ideas out in their 1994 book Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture. In one passage, he draws a connection between two architectural features—door handles and light—that were to play important roles in the design he worked out for the NYU philosophy department: “The everyday act of pressing a door handle and opening into a light-washed room can become profound when experienced through sensitized consciousness.”

Holl likes to say that the door handle is the primary point of contact between the body and the building, and the one change he was able to make on the NYU building’s landmarked exterior was the door handles. His handles are distantly related to the ones that Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for the visionary house he conceived for one of his sisters, Margarethe Stonborough, in Vienna, between 1926 and 1928— when he was, so to speak, between philosophies. Years later, in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” As an architect, he believed that a house is, in a way, a picture of the human body that is to use it. His tacit philosophy of domestic architecture has been described by architectural historian Bernhard Leitner, who has studied the Wittgenstein House for more than thirty years, as “the house in motion,” which gives an immediate sense of the affinity between Wittgenstein, at least as an architect, and a philosophy of architecture grounded in Merleau-Ponty’s thought. The house in motion is the house in use. “Use,” Leitner explains, “is action such as opening a door, interlocking window-doors, or raising metal curtains.” That explains Wittgenstein’s obsessive attention to window locks, radiators, and the like. He is said to have spent a year designing the door handles.

Holl explains one way in which the spirit of “the house in motion” is realized in the NYU project: “Within the Faculty Offices, we used a special stainless steel door lever which [we] designed and developed with the Italian hardware company Olivari. The lever is small enough for the human hand and provides an intimate scale of interaction as the philosophers operate the four-foot-wide pivot doors to their offices.” Leitner says that the phrase “house in motion” does not refer to the “path between sink and stove.” But designing paths through the building solved a central problem the philosophy department faced in its move to the new space. The faculty, Holl explained, “were nervous that they might lose touch with one another when spread out over several floors.” His solution was to create an extraordinary staircase that would, as he put it, “function as the backbone of the department.” He conceived the staircase as a “Tower of Light”—an illuminated shaft, six stories high, with a skylight, as well as a large window on each landing. It is here that the original use of the building came into play. Its particularly large windows were meant to admit as much natural light as possible, which was typical of downtown loft buildings in an era in which electric lighting was still an uncertain novelty. These large windows are part of what made lofts highly desirable residential and studio spaces when artists began to colonize that area of New York in the 1960s, initially illegally, as the city underwent its transformation from a manufacturing center to a cultural, financial, and communications capital, with block after block of underutilized and antiquated buildings.

The staircase is set in an eccentrically perforated metal shell, which casts spots of light on the floors outside the stairwell, somewhat reminiscent, someone observed, of the spots of sunlight in Impressionist paintings. The stairwell’s interior walls are painted a brilliant white, and of course the space is strongly lit, since natural light cannot be depended on. This use of light is intended to take advantage of the fact that we are, after all, positively phototropic: Although there is an elevator, the stairwell’s intensity of illumination encourages, says Holl, “a more active participation in the building . . . where people meet each other on one of the landings, see each other going down when the stairway changes its direction.” Holl also placed strips of prismatic film across the window glass, refracting the light into a kind of moving rainbow, which contributes to the stairway’s seductiveness. When I lived in the south of France in the early ’60s, my house was located not on a street but on a staircase—the Escalier de la Gendarmerie—that ran between the two lower corniches in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It was where one met one’s neighbors, paused for conversation, or simply stood to look out over the sea below. In its own fashion, the stairwell in Holl’s interior integrates the life of the department as the escalier integrated our community. He speaks about “the complicated geometry of the stair itself and the especially large landings, which serve as platforms where philosophers have discussions.”

The stairway, or Tower of Light, is certainly the most distinctive feature of the renovation, and probably the most expensive. But it creates a remarkable aesthetic experience while solving a sociological problem. Here is a testimony from John Richardson, one of the philosophers I contacted to see how it felt to occupy the new accommodations: “The stairwell . . . is my favorite part of the building. I love looking up and down at the geometry of the staircase, and the uniqueness of the space there. When the sun shines through the prismatic glass . . . it throws colors on the white surfaces, which is very pleasing—and also gives pleasure that the architect thought to add this touch for us.” Richardson was dubious about discussions on the landings, but there are plenty of places on the various floors to which the philosophers can repair should such a conversation begin. It makes the expression esprit de l’escalier particularly vivid.

The entrance to the building is through a triumphal arch set into the facade—a not uncommon appropriation in brownstone-era New York—topped by an ornamental balustrade. When the door from the street swings open, the “light-washed” room one enters is a high-ceilinged public space, with a cork floor and, to the right, the perforated screen of the stairwell. Wooden cubes serve as chairs. Holl designed a bench beneath the tall windows along the south wall. Also on the ground floor is a cork-lined auditorium that seats 120. A few slender, white-painted iron columns that belong to the era of the building’s exterior stand as reminders of the original architecture. The philosophy department itself occupies the five upper floors, and, once one has ascended, one senses a sharp difference between these upper floors and the ground floor, which is open to the university community. The quiet, the generosity of the spaces—the ratio between the height and width of the corridors, the dark cork floors, and the cadence of the wide office doors, made of ash that is whitewashed on one side and ebonized on the other, with the pivots enabling both sides to be seen at once—creates an environment considerate of thought and discourse that really manages, I feel, to express philosophy in architectural terms. (The rows of doors, conspicuous features of Holl’s design, show a sensitivity to the need to control privacy.2) It is an extremely beautiful complex, and certainly unlike any philosophy department familiar to me. In fact, I know of no other philosophy department anywhere that was designed to express the spirit of philosophy. The members of the NYU philosophy department are divided over the somewhat stark white-and-black aesthetic, but I feel that it contributes to what gives the space its philosophical aura.

Holl says that his decorative scheme was inspired by Wittgenstein’s late text “Remarks on Color,” and, indeed, he uses Wittgenstein’s own words in explaining his decision to limit his palette to black and white: “We did not want to establish a theory of color (neither a physiological nor a psychological one) but rather a ‘logic of color concepts.’” The effort was “to make this project a little like [Wittgenstein’s] thoughts.” To do architecturally what Wittgenstein sought to do philosophically—establish a “logic of color concepts”—is an extraordinary undertaking, and it certainly differs from the usual practice of assigning a space to the philosophy department consisting of a complex of offices and classrooms. And it gives the department that occupies its new space something to think about as it ponders the question of what makes its quarters so distinctive.

Holl told me that he had wanted to inscribe the two exterior door handles with some words by Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, but that the NYU philosophers were unable to agree on which words. In the end the handles are eloquently, rather than merely, blank. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The central concerns of philosophy lie outside the realm of the sayable.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.


1. The Linguistics and Philosophy Department at MIT has images on its Web page of Frank Gehry’s 2004 Stata Center, but the latter was not designed with philosophers in mind, and the department shares the building with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. The architecture critic of the Boston Globe praised Gehry’s signature appearance as “a metaphor for the freedom, daring, and creativity of the research that’s supposed to occur inside it.” But the interior, unlike the interior of the NYU building, does not take the specific needs of a philosophy—or any—department into account.

2. I only know by hearsay that privacy is an amenity—or necessity—largely unavailable in the Stata Center, due in part to the use of glass walls. Some of the NYU philosophers express gratitude at being able to shut themselves off. As graduate students share offices, this is a less available option for them, but, again by hearsay, it is not an option available to their peers at MIT. A standard complaint against the Stata Center is that its interior is insensitive to its inhabitants’ needs. The existence of the stairway at NYU is evidence that this is not the case there. My sense is that the complaints are minor, and in principle remediable by minor adjustments