New York

Steven Holl

Architectural League

Helsinki is a modern architect’s mecca. Scheduled to open in 1998, Steven Holl’s Museum of Contemporary Art will stand at the center of the city’s greatest Modernist landmarks: the House of Parliament, Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall, and the central train station designed by Eliel Saarinen. Acutely conscious of the location—of the weight of Finnish history and culture—Holl envisioned a structure that would embody what surrounds it. His current show traces the vicissitudes of his attempt to remain true to his original vision.

At the entrance to the gallery, Holl’s sketchbook is mounted on the wall, open to the first, tiny drawing of this monumental project. Two small lines, in orange and blue, crisscross. One is marked the “line of culture,” the other the “line of nature.” The former continues past Finlandia Hall to include the new Opera House; the latter vaguely connects to Toolo Bay, a vast body of water that now ends about a quarter mile from the site. Two years were spent trying to turn this simple sketch into a building.

There are a myriad of failed attempts here: a plaster form twisted like a propellor, a cardboard model of two intersecting, chiasmatic forms. In a culture that values seamless, slick production, this willingness to look coarse, even inarticulate, is unusual. In one sketch, the water from the bay bends to cross the sire and seems to wash up on the steps of the Parliament building across the street. The solution at which Holl finally arrived is almost as whimsical. Two narrow buildings lie parallel to each other. One, an enormous organic form, flares at one end and seemingly slices off the end of the other building, engulfing it. At the front of the structure, the two are gently separated to form a central courtyard. The water, which is now channeled down from the bay, wraps underneath the edifice where the two parts meet, and emerges on the other side as a pool.

At times, despite the clarity of Holl’s overall vision, there are details that seem almost decorative. Brutally slicing off the end of one part of the building, for example, is a gesture whose weight and audacity is obscured by the slightly fussy, cubist, glass-paneled facade. Nonetheless, the conceptual integrity of the structure holds: when visitors enter, they can follow a ramp that hugs the curved wall of the interstitial space and then circulate upward toward the point where the two forms crash together.

If once architects could dream of an “international style”—whose mission, according to Le Corbusier, was to ”make the work of man ring in unison with the universal order“ (the order of the machine)—the failure of totalizing utopian visions has forced architects to struggle with the question of how to work within the boundaries of a particular culture. Solutions have ranged from post-Modernist appropriation and eclecticism to a more regional Modernism that responds to local building traditions. Here Holl has reverted to a more primitive answer, drawing on his first impressions of the sire. To borrow a phrase from Alexander Herzen, a turn-of-the-century Russian critic with a socialist bent, Holl’s building is ”a rebellion against abstraction on the part of life."

Nicolai Ouroussoff