Steven Holl’s Luminist Architecture on view in New Paltz

Architects Steven Holl and Dimitra Tsachrelia at Ex of In House in Rhinebeck (photo courtesy of Steven Holl Architects)

Steven Holl Architects, a 40-person firm with offices in New York and Beijing, has built museums, libraries, health centers, chapels, university buildings, houses and mixed-use urban complexes consisting of hundreds of housing units and retail and community space. But no matter the configuration, scale or location, each building has the same beginning: a small watercolor sketched out by Steven Holl. How that concept evolves into a complicated structure of glass, concrete, metal and wood, entirely green and fitted harmoniously into the surrounding landscape, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art titled “Steven Holl: Making Architecture.” The exhibition examines 20 of his projects through his watercolors and the subsequent models that were made from them. It concludes with videos of the built projects.

From the start, Holl, who is a tenured professor at Columbia University (he has taught there since 1981), resisted “corporatization,” maintaining his commitment to integrity and quality while happily finding success, as evidenced by the multiple awards that his firm has garnered. Holl himself has received a roomful of prizes, including his profession’s most prestigious awards. In 2001, he was named America’s Best Architect by Time Magazine, which praised him for designing “buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye.” Much of the postwar built landscape tends toward the ugly, banal and dehumanizing; in a world starving for buildings that are beautiful, pleasant to inhabit, that connect rather than isolate people from nature and encourage community, along with being emissions-free, Holl came along just at the right time. His architecture is in great demand, from Richmond to Mumbai, Iowa to Nanjing, Helsinki to Taiwan.


Each conception is rooted in the uniqueness of the place and site, a confluence of the local culture and landscape that seeks to maximize the amount of natural light in a fluid space that often incorporates a water element and is fully reliant on green energy. One of his earliest buildings, a wooden house overlooking the sea in Martha’s Vineyard, was inspired by domiciles crafted out of beached whales from the original natives, as described in Melville’s Moby Dick; the building’s balloon frame – taking the form of a verandah and roof deck – or skeleton is on the outside. The Knut Hamson Center, a museum located near the Arctic Circle in Norway, is sheathed in stained black wood, a nod to traditional Norse stave churches, while the long grass of the roof garden echoes the sod roofs that once proliferated in the region.

Conversely, the monumental, perpendicularly arranged rectangular blocks of the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Moscow, with its glass “flying beam” suspended near the top of the vertical block, clearly references Russian Constructivism. (Despite looking like something that fell to Earth from outer space, it’s powered by solar photovoltaics, heated and cooled by geothermal wells and fully illuminated by natural light.) The Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center is designed to give the residents of nearby blocks of apartment buildings a sense of freedom. Its theme is clouds and time, resulting in forms evocative of the sinuous, weightless mountains in ancient Chinese landscape painting. Spiraling ramps circulate through the concrete building, which has whimsical cloudlike shapes cut out of its curved sides. The shimmering reflection of the building in an adjacent pool (used to recycle rainwater) further lightens the space, and the luscious roof garden of sedum plants provides a touch of green in the view from the surrounding apartment buildings.

Steven Holl Architects, Exploration of IN House (interior), 2017, photograph courtesy of Paul Warchol

Holl adheres to this philosophy, no matter how big the scale. For example, in designing the 3.3 million-square-foot Sliced Porosity Block, an urban complex in Chengdu, Holl was inspired by a line in a poem by ancient Chinese poet Du Fu that refers to three valleys. He conceived of the five towers not as discrete skyscrapers but as jagged, mountainlike structures, their masses sliced and angled to allow for the maximum penetration of sunlight, rising from three multi-level plazas, each punctuated with a pond that reflects light back towards the sky. Holl incorporates a “micro-scale” streetscape of small shops within the complex, but also creates notes of drama – expressed, for example, by the three large sculpted openings in the towers that serve as entrances to pavilions dedicated to history, light and art. The entire complex is heated and cooled with geothermal wells, and the ponds, surrounded by grasses, serve to cool the space in the hot summer months.

Closer to home, Holl has designed a small house, called the Ex of In House, off the grid on a wooded preserve in Rhinebeck that trades mere square footage for inspirational forms that convey an experience of spaciousness and light. He also hosts students at the preserve through his T2 Foundation, which organizes exhibitions. Holl divides his time between New York City and Rhinebeck, accompanied by his wife, architect Dimitra Tsachrelia, and young daughter. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed the architect.

When did you decide to become an architect?

I was already building things by the time I was five. I grew up in Bremerton, Washington, on a peninsula located across from Seattle. It was a hardworking, hardscrabble place. My father could draw and paint, and he was instrumental in sparking my interest. My brother, James Holl, is a painter and sculptor, so you could say we were collaborating. The impulse of my designs is that there needs to be joy in life, in the artistic creation of things, and I’ve been going that route the whole way. I came to New York in 1977 from San Francisco. I had attended Architectural Association in London and studied in Rome after graduating from the University of Washington.

How many projects are in development right now?

Eighteen, including a new library in Malawi and new Geneva Operational Center for Médecins sans Frontières, or Doctors without Borders. We just won a major competition in Moscow called the Parachute Hybrid. It’s the same size as Linked Hybrid [a mixed-use complex of 644 apartments, stores and communal space in Beijing], located on an old airbase that was the center for paratroopers in 1944. My father was a paratrooper, so this was exciting to me. I made the buildings with large round cuts in them. Each cut has a café or library or spa; all the amenities show up in the parachute holes. It’s a piece of a city, with a kindergarten, school and library.

How were you able to resist going the corporate route?

I’ve never given into the money. The problem with our society’s values is that they are driven by money, even though you can’t take it with you and it doesn’t do anything. What’s important is a great piece of music or work of sculpture. A house should be about the joy of inspiration, not about how big it is. I want to celebrate the artistic intensity of life. What better place to do this than in architecture, where you can bring it to everyone? The Community Library at Hunter’s Point, Queens, will open when this show opens, and it’s the kind of building we should be doing.

How did you survive in the early years of your career?

For the first 15 years of my life in New York I made a living only as a teacher. I still have a full-time teaching job.

How do you have time to teach full-time and design award-winning buildings?

I love what I do. I love to draw and make sculpture.

Why start with watercolor drawings?

In order to have the intuition give birth to an inspired idea. I think about the direction of light. Every site and every circumstance on the face of the Earth is different. Today, more than ever, we need to be cognizant of that so that we give meaning to places, rather than just have some kind of commercial activity and build on a, b and c.

How does your initial conception evolve?

I start with a five-by-seven-inch analog drawing connecting my design from my mind to my hand, then I take an iPhone photo of it and send the photo to the offices in New York and Beijing. The next step is putting the photo in the computer and printing a 3-D model, which can be made overnight by the machine; the largest model printer is in my office in New York. It’s complicated.

In designing the library in Malawi, for example, I wanted the maximum amount of light in the interior. The light pours off the curved roof structures, which also collect solar energy. When the wind blows across the savannah it makes a wave shape. With the 3-D printer we could make a model [incorporating that shape] in a few days.

In the case of the Franklin and Marshall Fine Arts Building, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania [which is represented by a model in the exhibition], an older brick building was torn down. We were doubling the size in the new building, but wanted to save the six or seven old trees, so the building needed to have a shape that avoided getting too close to the trees. I drew the diameter of the drip line of the trees’ branches and pushed them on the building, connecting them as a scallop wall, so that the building relates to the curves of the trees. The machine could print out all this complicated geometry.

Such complicated structures must be expensive to build.

The Franklin and Marshall Fine Arts Building is actually a very low-budget building. You can build a box and for ten percent more, build a work of architecture; it’s not expensive. The concrete wall is exposed, the framing consists of lightweight metal and the curves are made from bent pipes. We use a new kind of recycled glass called Poraver here and in the Ex of In House. The way we economize is with the materials. The Hunter’s Point Community Library is also an inexpensive concrete structure. But we don’t economize the way the Modernists do.

Technology has made it possible to build types of structures that just weren’t possible 20 years ago, I’m guessing.

What happened with the iPhone was a revolution. The same thing happened in architecture. I’m having another show opening in the Antonia Jannona Gallery in Milan on April 14, in which there will be three sculptures made out of Lecce stone from a quarry opened by the Romans 2,000 years ago. I make a watercolor, then my assistant draws a computer model of that, we e-mail it to Italy and their robot takes this file and cuts stone with it. It’s a giant machine, 20 feet high.

First there was Modernism, which swept away the past, imposed itself on the landscape and tended to isolate and disconnect people from nature. Postmodernism quoted traditional forms, but still suffered from “bigness.” You employ a Modernist flow of space that is dramatic, but human-scaled. Your buildings relate thematically and physically to the site, and they incorporate nature. Does this type of architecture have a name?

I have a new book called Seven Houses, which is coming out in August. I talk about the Hudson Valley in a long essay that references the Hudson River School of landscape painters, such as Thomas Cole. The concentration of light and atmosphere depicted in their paintings is evident in all my buildings. So you could call it Luminist Architecture.


Your work is characterized by playfulness. In some cases this is expressed in color, such as the polychrome shapes inset into the glass curtain wall of Maggie’s Centre Barts in London, which conjure up a medieval musical score. Other buildings feature fanciful shapes, such as the wave-shaped curves of the roof structures of the Malawi Library.

My approach is just like that of a child. The childlike imagination is freedom without constraint. Architecture can begin with any idea; it can be inspired by music, painting, sculpture or poetry. For the Maggie’s Centre Barts, a support center for cancer patients that just opened, we invented a new form of stained glass. It’s made in Germany by Okalux. They embed a colored film between a special insulation material, which is a super-ecological new material invented for controlling light and insulation. We invented the layer of color, which is a very thin ultraviolet-proof film.

You have written that “Space and Light [in architecture] are like Sound and Time in music.” Can you explain?

I believe in the inspiration of light and space, which are powerful in and of themselves. One of the core issues is natural light and the way it changes through the season; the sunrise, noon light and sunset; how it comes into the room. Every room should have natural light; that’s the starting point.

All your buildings are green, from the three-million-square-foot mixed-use complexes you have built in China to the small Ex of In House, which is located on a 28-acre wooded preserve near your house in Rhinebeck. How did the In House fare when the temperature was below zero?

The pipes were freezing in our house, but I go to the In House, which is heated by a single geothermal well, and it’s 68 degrees inside: a perfect temperature. It’s superinsulated and has incredible sunlight, solar photovoltaic cells on the roof and radiant heat from the geothermal well. Although it’s only 918 square feet, it sleeps five. We put it up on Air B&B last July and it’s in total demand. Everyone wants to stay there.

How much did it cost to build?

About $900,000, but that’s because we had to have a gigantic septic system, with a 1,000-gallon tank, to meet the code in Rhinebeck. The house itself cost around $750,000. The materials are economical, consisting of all-natural plywood: four-by-eight sheets that are cut in half and staggered, so it looks like a running pattern covering the ceiling and walls. It doesn’t have any sheetrock, which I hate.

The In house supports itself. The Linked Hybrid, located in Beijing, has 660 geothermal wells and was the largest geothermal installation in the world at the time. Ten years later, it works perfectly and doesn’t require any fossil fuels. Geothermal works perfectly in Kingston, too.

But not if you live in a Victorian house.

You’re probably better off building a new building that’s superinsulated with double-glazed windows.

So, does that mean all this historic infrastructure is obsolete?

No! The answer is we should do case-by-case studies to preserve Victorian architecture. Each situation will have its solution. There are super-efficient ways to make things better in a Victorian house. The irony is you can build a superinsulated new extension for less.

I note that many of your projects incorporate water.

I grew up on the edge of Puget Sound. When the sun would rise over that body of water, sprinkles of sunlight would be reflected on the ceiling of our house: a mystical and inspiring thing. I always try to put a body of water on the south side. There’s a small pond at the In House, which brings dancing sunlight onto the ceiling. Ninety-eight percent of our bodies consist of water, and water covers three-quarters of the earth. I’m just reminding us water is part of our nature.

In your Seven Point Manifesto for the In House, one is “Purpose finds In.” What do you mean? It seems you’re reversing the dearly held Modernist precept of “Form follows function.”

Yes, I’m turning this functionalist attitude around. We should instead aim for sacred space and arrange ourselves to think of how natural light should be used. We should have something almost like a piece of music, which we can enjoy every day, instead of adhering to a grocery list of functions, which is the most boring thing in the world. The functionalist idea that you can take a list of programmed parts and think you can make a building that will last is a fallacy. All these functions change. We have beautiful experiences in older buildings because they have good light and air. Elementary schools with 16-foot ceilings are about light and space. Air conditioning made building designs even worse, by making the floor plans too deep for natural light to penetrate, which was a mistake.

What has been your most challenging project?

Probably the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts extension, because of the politics. We were competing against six architectural firms and had to make 60 presentations to different committees. The building is an extension of an Edward Durrell Stone building built in 1972, and the site is a former parking lot on the south. Our design connected the existing building to the Potomac River and consisted of structures both above- and below-ground, expanding into the landscape and bringing light down below the surface of the ground. They said we couldn’t work around all the underground utilities. But they were wrong. It’s under construction.

At the groundbreaking everybody’s there, including Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, Caroline’s daughter, and Joe Biden. As I’m shaking Joe’s hand he turned to me and said, “You know, I always wanted to be an architect. When I was running for Congress in 1969 or 1970, I told my wife, ‘If I don’t make this race, I’m going to save up for architecture school.’” I said, “I wouldn’t trade places with you.”

What’s your dream commission? Is there a type of building you’d especially like to design that you haven’t yet?

I’d like to be commissioned an opera house. That would be fun. I teach a class on the architectonics of music, and the analogies between music and architecture are very important. My wife plays piano and my daughter is learning to play the piano. I used to play the trumpet, and now there’s a tuba laying around.

You describe the Ex of In House as “a house of compression and inner voids.” That aesthetic seems to go against the grain of the sprawl of the typical American house and landscape. Is the little house a taste of the future, if we are to survive – and perhaps be happier in the prospect of living better, with less?

It has a lot of hope in it. Five suburban-style houses were planned for that site before we bought the 28 acres at a reduced cost and joined the lots together to form a single nature preserve. All the trees and turtles and squirrels and deer are protected. We made the house efficient and preserved the landscape around it. An act like that regarding preservation of the rural landscape is in the spirit of Scenic Hudson’s work: It expresses hope in the future cultural works of the Hudson Valley.

The T2 Reserve, as you call it, also hosts a group of architectural fellows every year, one of the initiatives of the foundation that you founded in 2010. What is your goal?

In July, five fellows will come here to study under my wife, myself and several other professors and do a project. The goal is to pass onto the next generation some hopeful possibilities of the inspiration of light and space. We decided to do this on this land, so we could activate it and get people interested in it. We’ve just installed a sculpture trail that’s connected to the landscape. I’m a member of Scenic Hudson, which is a great institution. We live in this incredible environment and need to preserve the natural landscape, but it doesn’t mean we can’t build in a compact, super-energy-efficient way. The little house so important for that reason. It’s an exercise in simplicity and exploring ideas in a little space.

“Steven Holl: Making Architecture” is part of the Hudson Valley Masters series at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz, running from February 10 to July 15. It’s curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine, gallery director at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. An opening reception will take place on Saturday, February 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit or call (845) 257-3844.