Steven Holl is one of the world’s great, actually one of the world’s greatest architects (why he has not already been awarded the Pritzker Prize—the profession’s most prestigious accolade—is a mystery to me, but one assumes, and certainly hopes it will sooner rather than later be conferred). And he lives, at least most weekends, in our midst, near Rhinebeck.
Holl’s status is due as much to his philosophical acuity, as to his visual imagination and mastery of building technology. A true conceptualist, the designer of such disparate constructions as the Simmons Hall at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, the Linked Hybrid mixed-use complex in Beijing, China, as well as the improbably beautiful Whitney water treatment facility and public park in Connecticut, proves his mettle as one of, in his field of expertise, the fiercest subliminators of banality.
To every project that Holl brings deep analysis, imagination, creative and technical sleight of hand, sensitivity to purpose, and wholly idiosyncratic sense of style, he also boldly and convincingly demonstrates the power of architecture to transform the way human beings occupy and experience landscape.
A while ago, Holl bought a tiny, rather undistinguished house in Milan, New York to which he added a dramatically modernist extension from which the surrounding grounds and lake are poetically exposed. A few years later, he built, in the woods there, a little art gallery – ‘T’ Space – which about as neatly as possible integrates art and landscape.
Then, twelve months or so ago, as something of a side project to the multiple mega-projects that he has to manage, Holl hastened to buy a nearby 24-acre swath of virgin land, otherwise doomed to become another dreary sub-division, on which he envisioned an array of experimental projects that would further demonstrate how buildings can co-exist in a benign and beatific relationship with nature.
Using the foundations of a derelict cabin, Holl first erected an elegantly configured but roughly constructed second art gallery (“T2”). Then, he constructed an implausibly appropriate guesthouse (“Ex of In”) on the property, employing a set of ingenious design principles that (a) eviscerate the division between exterior and interior, and (b) incorporate, to the fullest extent possible, across the spectrum of technology now available, sustainable energy use, in both construction and ongoing usage.
Next, he invited other pioneering architects to follow suit with their own projects, to create a tangible, material record of innovation concerning the relationship of architecture and nature.
It cannot be argued that the state of building, at the local level, on America’s vast lands has for a century or more been sadly, deeply unimaginative. For sure, America has its share of architectural magnificences (the exquisite, technologically advanced buildings of Sullivan, Wright, van de Rohe, Kahn, Gehry, and maybe Johnson and Koolhaas and Hadid), but no architect has yet solved the problem of how to integrate practicality, compatibility, and style into an overall landscape poisoned by mass-production housing.
Holl may not have the ultimate solution, and his proposals may be a little too effete for public taste, but his project is highly provocative, and a beautiful work of art, that may yet force through some constructive ideas about how to build a new generation of housing that connects its inhabitants to, rather than divorces them from nature.
Now, if he could just come up with a re-design for a mobile home, advancing the ideas of the late James Rossant (see OURTOWN, Issue #4, page 20 @ ourtownonline.org) we might really be in business.