Steven Holl interview

by | 18. Oct 2017

Article | Interview


Steven-Holl portrait. Image courtesy of Mark Heitoff

Steven Holl portrait. Image courtesy of Mark Heitoff

Steven Holl is one of the great contemporary architects. With a career spanning over 40 years, Holl has produced a body of work that has seen his consistent and considered approach to architecture develop into a unique signature style. Although this style is comprised of many different aspects, none is more synonymous than his unparalleled mastery over daylight.

In honor of Holl’s work, he was awarded The Daylight Award 2016 for Daylight in Architecture by the VELUX Foundation. The Daylight Award honors and supports daylight research and daylight in architecture, for the benefit of human health, well-being and the environment. The award puts specific emphasis on the interrelation between theory and practice and is awarded once every two years.

In anticipation of an upcoming lecture series Steven Holl will be holding in Copenhagen and Zurich, editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, spoke with Holl to find out more about his relationship with daylight.


Robert Martin: A masterful application of daylight is clearly a part of the architect the world has come to know you to be. How does your appreciation of daylight shape your design point of view?

Steven Holl:I think my appreciation towards daylight actually began when I was child. I grew up in the US Pacific Northwest in a little town called Manchester, Washington, just near Seattle and the quality of light there is absolutely amazing, which was always something really important to me. There is a huge body of water right in front of the house we lived in and when the sun came up in the morning and first rays of light hit the water it created a glimmering spiritual atmosphere. I still have very vivid images of this in my memory, especially the way the sky would glow in summer long after the sun had set. This relationship to light was very special to me as a child growing up and left an impression on me that has been with me ever since.

My first project of real consequence was the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki. The building is formed around an understanding of natural light and is shaped like a catcher’s mitt to catch the low angle of the Scandinavian sun and provide daylight to all the gallery spaces. Kiasma opened almost 20 years ago and I think my understanding of light has played a pivotal role when I design contemporary art museums, of which I have done over 10 since.

LEFT: Watercolor and photo of Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects. RIGHT: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Photo by Pirje Mykkaenen. Image courtesy of D/A Magazine.

LEFT: Watercolor and photo of Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects. RIGHT: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Photo by Pirje Mykkaenen. Image courtesy of D/A Magazine.

RM: It’s obvious in your work that you carry this approach towards daylight and it’s very nice to hear that this came from the experiences you had as a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Do you think that geography plays a big role in our understanding of daylight?

SH: The first articulation of my work was in a book I wrote in 1988 called Anchoring which coincided with an exhibition I was having at the Museum of Modern Art. In that book I wrote that every site, surface, condition, and climate is unique, and therefore one shouldn’t have a signature style – it should move from site to site and you should try to make each building almost like a statement about that site, that not so much intrudes on the site as it builds meaning into it.

I’ve carried that thought with me over the years and therefore every program, every context, every climate, and certainly every lighting condition sets up a unique framework to make a creative act not something you bring in yourself but something that develops from the situation.

For instance, I am currently building an extension for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in Texas where the sunlight is very hot (to the point of health danger) so shade has become very important in the design. In this context you’re looking at light completely differently to the northern states or in Scandinavia. The sun becomes a force to be employed and used to create shadow, reflected light, and soft glows so that we can liquify the light so that it becomes a presence rather than an overbearing element.

Anchoring cover. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Anchoring cover. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

RM: You’re not only an esteemed architect, but also a dedicated academic and teacher. In what ways do you impart your appreciation and understanding of daylight to your students?

SH: I think that students today don’t realize the importance of actually going to and studying buildings. There’s definitely an advantage today that we have so much available to us on the internet with the amount of images and videos out there but the actual experience of seeing natural light bring architecture alive is something you can only understand by visiting buildings.

I have a seminar called Architecture Apropos Art that I teach together with Dimitra Tsachrelia at Columbia University where we look at Luis Barragan’s Casa Gilardi in Mexico City. There’s a film we watch on the house called Nowness that gives you a great insight into the workings of the architecture but I think it’s grim that students think they know the building after watching it. I’ve been to the house and I tell them that they have to go and see it in person because it’s just not the same. I always tell my students to go and travel to the sites. If they visit these great spaces they will never forget them.

RM: We live in such a mobile world in which travel is so accessible that it’s funny that we rely on the internet so much to experience architecture. Would you offer the same advice to practicing architects?

SH: I would say to practicing architects to try to take advantage of all the new materials and technologies and see what light can do with them. We’re in a time now that we have access to a wide range of very exciting possibilities when it comes to daylight.

For example, I’m about to complete the Maggie’s Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the center of London, an institution for physical, social, and emotional support for people with cancer, where we’re experimenting with new color inserts in a glass material called Okalux. This material is an insulating glass that has a capillary inlay that makes the material look like polar bear hair that filters the light in a very soft and diffuse way. We’re using it on the exterior of the building but sandblasting the finish so it doesn’t look like a glass building, it looks like something silky, soft, and matte. Between the layers of glass we’re using sheets of copper we’re using sheets of color to create a new kind of stained glass that’s also very economical. If architects try to use traditional lead stained glass today, it costs a fortune. That material was a great moment in history but unfortunately not for us today, so we’ve had to reinvent how we treat light with these new materials. I feel the results are very inspiring.

Watercolour, Maggie’s Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Watercolour, Maggie’s Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Facade tests, Maggie’s Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Glass facade tests, Maggie’s Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

RM: Apart from new materials, do you see any other emerging trends in the application of daylight?

SH: I see a trend of ignorance when it comes to the correct use of daylight in architecture! The buildings currently being built across the street from my office are being built with no understanding. They are too deep with incorrectly placed windows so they don’t catch the light. But it’s about real estate now so that’s I guess it’s not surprising.

However, there are some interesting developments in the research of how daylight affects the brain. In parallel fields like neuro-science, that’s where it is interesting and as architects we need to learn from them. It might provide a better understanding of where we are as architects and show us a way towards the future. I’m going to be lecturing in Copenhagen and Zurich as part of the Velux Daylight Award and the topic of my talk will be Architecture Activating the Brain.

What I’m going to argue in my lecture is that in neuroscience they have discovered that we can actually see the synapses for everything in the brain and can trace the effect of certain elements on the brain. Neuroscientists know that light is a brain activator and I’m arguing that it excites brain networks. What does that mean? It means it helps you think. You’ll see if you come to the lecture.

Steven Holl watercolors. Photo by Gregory Halpern. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects and D/A Magazine.

Steven Holl watercolors. Photo by Gregory Halpern. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects and D/A Magazine.

RM: When you initially start to design a building, would you say that this understanding of daylight shapes your building concept, or do you let the design concept push your understanding of daylight?

SH: Every circumstance is a little different but one thing that I do is I start every project on a 5×7 watercolor pad and do an initial drawing of an idea. I’ve been doing this since 1979 so I have more than 30,000 of these watercolor sketches. Because I use a watercolor wash right at the beginning I’m forced to integrate the direction of the light and how it moves in the space. It’s how I get a feel for the light and it’s how I design with it. No matter what my first concept is about the design, light is always there.

The Malawi Library in Africa is a great example of how daylight has shaped the concept of a building design. When we first received the commission, I approached my environmental engineer even before we knew the site and asked him, ‘What would you do if you had an ideal site with no restrictions and were asked to design a 60.000sq.ft library, where would you begin’? So he came up with this sketch of a curvilinear roof structure that maximized reflected light on the inside while maximizing the capture of solar energy on the outside. Basically, the whole design of the library is based on energy, light, and wave motion of grass. I’m very proud of this building. It’s in a country where people earn less than a dollar a day and they have no power so having access to daylight and solar power is a vital resource that we need to give as it’s the beginning of education.

This interview was made possible by the support of the VELUX Foundation and Daylight Award. If you would like to hear more about Steven Holl’s work in relation to daylight, he will be giving two inspiring lectures in Copenhagen, Denmark and Zurich, Switzerland on the 7th and 8th of November. The lectures are free and open to anyone with an interest in daylight research and architecture. To register and find out more about the events click here.