New York

Steven Holl

Facade Gallery

There is room for whimsy and idiosyncracy in architecture, but no building can be absolutely capricious. There must be reasons for things appearing the way they do beyond the obvious fancies of the architect. Buildings and spaces have common stories to tell, cultural and formal legacies to be perpetuated and elaborated; it is these impulses and essences that inform great buildings, fuse different times and cultures, and transcend style.

Steven Holl’s buildings are idiosyncratic, but they are also eloquent episodes in a search that gathers momentum and clarity with each project and idea. Quiet and thoughtful amid the excesses of contemporary architecture’s pomp and circumstance, Holl’s work seeks an animated homeostasis between autonomous innovation and the anonymity of tradition, and between art and culture. His keen interest in and vast understanding of vernacular architecture, joined with a regard for place, generates both poetic and commonsense realizations.

The models and drawings here represent projects and proposals from the past seven years. The works grow in scope, complexity, and clarity as the commissions increase. Three projects for sites in New York aptly demonstrate Holl’s facility with ideas and contrasting programs. In the “Cohen Apartment,” 1983–84, Holl renovates an L-shaped space, using the project as a forum to investigate three elements of architecture—line, plane, and volume. All of these elements are ever-present, yet Holl modulates and articulates each through the linear qualities of furniture and other details in the dining room, the substantial volumes of the seating in the living room, and the stretched surfaces of walls and tables in the studio/sleep area. Programmatic ideas can easily degenerate into excessive self-consciousness, yet HolI adroitly escapes the potential to be overbearing.

The “Chelsea Block,” 1982–84, is proposed for a block-long site at Tenth Avenue and 28th Street in New York. In this work Holl reiterates urban vernacular forms. Four residential and mixed-use towers rise at each corner of the site, echoing each other in an additive and subtractive conversation. Between the towers continuous corridors of low row houses form a residential perimeter which encloses a common courtyard. The project is clearly developed in a series of drawings which highlight the strong relationship of this major renewal project to its context, as well as its very human qualities.

Among Holl’s most original works is “Autonomous Artisans’ Houses,” 1980–84, which synthesizes most of his esthetic concerns and investigations. Here Holl takes an existing warehouse in Staten Island and converts it into collectively owned artisans’ workshops and housing, the houses projecting perpendicularly from the warehouse spine so as to allow gardens to run between them. All of the long, narrow buildings have shotgun plans. The facades of the ground floors are variegated but quite anonymous, while the upper levels have unique configurations, creating functional spaces of private use and public identity for a papermaker, a mason, a tinsmith, and others. Few architects can mediate the requirements of architecture as function and as sign and symbol as persuasively and naturally as Holl does here.

These private architectural visions are grounded in cultural history and in a commitment to public life and common language. For this reason, Holl’s simple architecture has much to tell about building history, neighborhoods, places, and people. Through these projects and proposals we feel an intention to reconcile a past with a future. It is this theme of continuity, punctuated by architectural improvisation, that makes Holl’s architecture of essences so essential.

—Donald Kuspit