New York

Steven Holl, Emilio Ambasz

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Both Emilio Ambasz and Steven Holl remain faithful disciples of Modern architecture. But by asserting new objectives and allowing for a good deal of invention, they overcome the constraints of tradition. Their projects are infused with vitality and a sense of enigma. While neither architect makes any great, radical acts here, both offer promising, if problematic, visions for a legacy that is still in crisis. Curiously, while an introductory didactic text drew numerous connections between their bodies of work, the exhibition plan could not have been more segregated. There was no pass-through between each architect’s exhibition area; the viewer was required to return to a public corridor to get from one contiguous space to the other. This encouraged the viewer to see the work in terms of conservative, measured responses rather than spontaneous, unpredictable dialogue.

Ambasz’s portion of the exhibition marked a path of strategic, poetic reconciliation—a search for ways in which architecture can be modern and independent, yet reside in an engaged, harmonious way with the natural environment. The architect has framed this reconciliation in very different ways over the years. Cooperative of Mexican-American Grapegrowers, 1976, is a proposal that begins with the landscape, the agricultural crop, and the armature of food production. These form the basis for an adjustable, incremental architecture that can change, open, and expand as the community’s sense of confidence and cooperation becomes galvanized. Much of the life of this community takes place beneath the raised grid of stakes, strings, and grapevines. In this unrealized project, Ambasz takes care to embrace the volatility both of landscape and community, and to provide flexible spaces for the restorative powers of ritual.

In a proposal for the Sanda Cultural Center and Athletic Facility, 1988, the architect accommodates a different ritual—that of fitness and vitality. An enormous L-shaped glass building extends both beneath and above ground level, to create a variety of spaces for recreation and other functions. Unlike the cooperative, this is a programmatically precise environment. The two outer walls of the building form greenhouses and the exterior court is a lush, tiered garden bisected by a water cascade. Gardens abound inside the building as well. The conspicuousness of landscape in this project is its most artificial characteristic. Landscape is not treated as a condition that is discovered and modulated, but as a component of architecture that is ordered and constructed. Where it was once a deeply felt concept, landscape has become an expectation, an amenity, and an obvious metaphor for fitness. Ambasz makes a heroic attempt to embrace the garden, while acknowledging urban pressures and client demands.

Steven Holl’s architecture encompasses both urban propositions and residential spaces. His exquisite, tough sense of form and knack for materials fits the scale and idiosyncrasies of the house. It is here that the work is unique, rather than just unusual. Holl’s Metropolitan Tower Apartment, 1987, begins with the outrageous contortions of this Manhattan skyscraper and intensifies the angular, ethereal qualities of the space. Many interior walls are tilted slightly; one wall, made of wood and stretched airplane nylon, seems to float between the living and the sleeping spaces. This site of domesticity is not quiet or calm; on the contrary, the restless contemporaneity of the city is expressed in the interior life of the home. By contrast, Holl’s House on Martha’s Vineyard, 1984–87, is based on regional mythology and vernacular building styles. Inspired by Melville’s Moby Dick and by the whale skeletons used as improvisational habitations by Native Americans who once lived in the area, the house has a tactile, linear structure that acts as a frame.

Likewise, Holl’s competition entry for the Addition to the West Berlin Library (Gedenkbibliothek / Berliner Zentralbibliothek),1988, virtually surrounds the existing building. But this aggressive proposal is not entirely unrelenting; one side is raised on pilotis and another is a modest one-story structure punctuated by a tower to house a children’s library. The most dramatic gesture is a high-flying bridge, which connects the tower to the raised portion of the O-shaped plan. The bridge actually crosses above the older building, but its delicacy and translucency defer to the history and solidity of the precedent. Like much of Holl’s work, it seems to glow with light and lightness.

Patricia C. Phillips