“Steven Holl: Making Architecture” curated by Nina Stritzler-Levine
February 10 – July 15, 2018 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art
Morgan Anderson Gallery and Howard Greenberg Family Gallery
On the SUNY New Paltz Campus
Creating something from nothing is the magic of art. Perhaps it begins with the germ of an idea or a feeling of wanting to make a particular shape with a stick in the sand – something that grows from a curved line that meets another curved line that in turn meets another curved line that sparks a thought which grows into a dance, a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture or a structure. And from that initial germ is born, through that process of discovery, a manifesto for how to live.
While “Art for Art’s sake” is a familiar term, “Architecture for Architecture’s sake” is not – it is rare that an architect has the opportunity to take an abstract thought through to a completed structure for its own sake. For the most part, projects come in the form of commissions for a specific purpose and so must constitute a puzzle to be solved. A puzzle with rules such as: has to include bedrooms, a conference room, a hospital ward, a stage, an altar; has to fit into a particular topography, city, or existing structure. The exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, “Steven Holl: Making Architecture” – part of the Dorsky’s Hudson Valley Master’s Series – while overwhelmingly about grand commissions, gives us an insight into these two approaches, the experimental project and the commissioned project. The exhibition explores Holl’s process through eleven of his recently completed and current projects, but for this piece, I am going to discuss just two of those projects, the Ex of IN House and Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre, which is an addition to an existing building, St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
Holl, a dual resident of New York city and the Hudson Valley, is one of the world’s foremost architects with offices in New York and Beijing. He founded the firm, Steven Holl Architects, in 1977 and, since then, it has gained partners in Chris McVoy and Noah Yaffe, and grown into a 40-person concern that includes Holl’s wife, architect Dimitra Tsachrelia. The firm’s commissions run the gambit from private homes to museums, galleries, university buildings, libraries, performing arts centers, a chapel, and on four continents. Holl has authored numerous books on architecture and the list of prizes and awards garnered is too long to enumerate. In addition to his being the principle architect of the firm, he is also a tenured Professor of Architecture at Columbia GSAPP.
Furthermore, since 2010 he is deeply involved in T Space, a non-profit initiative of the Steven Myron Holl Foundation that includes a Holl-designed gallery and performance space, and a summer residency program for 5 architecture and art students, or young practitioners. Its aim is to offer an educational fusion of the music, poetry, architecture and art of the 21st century. There are two T Spaces – the first is on 4 acres in Rhinebeck and the second, T2, is on a nearby 28-acre wooded reserve – a fairly new acquisition. It is here that the Ex of IN House is located.
“T” Space and T2 refer to the T-shaped gallery on the 4-acre parcel. Re the concept of “IN:” well, it may not be entirely true that Holl had nothing on his mind when he made those first marks that became the genesis of the Ex of IN House, but that day he didn’t know he was creating a house, and a dance, and a whole nature reserve. Nevertheless, since 2014 Steven Holl Architects were exploring the idea of “IN” and had made a seven-proposition manifesto on it: the first proposition is “To study architecture freed from the purely objective,” and the seventh is the riddle-like “The thing containing is not the thing contained” – one thing should not be detached from the other, perhaps. Regarding the title of the house, “Ex of IN,” while “Ex” refers to Explorations, it is could also refer to Ex(periment), and to be IN it is, of course, to Ex(perience) it. A quote by critic Bonnie Marranca on the Steven Holl Architects’ website tells us that it’s “the Ex(perience) of IN… intimate, infinite, intricate, intrinsic, internal, inter, into, inasmuch … In and around the trees light angles its way into T2 and through the Ex of IN like unexpected insights.” The quote ends with, “Knowledge is windowful!” This last sentence holds one of the fundamental keys to Holl’s way of thinking about interior space, that it should be flooded with enough natural daylight so, while there is light outside, it ought not to require any other light. The presence of water is the other ideal, preferably on the south side of the structure – water that will reflect the sky and also be reflected through windows to play and create patterns on the interior walls and ceilings.
So the outside is also IN and the inside is connected to the outside. This is very much in concert with the thinking of the German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, much admired by Holl. Sloterdijk rejects the concept of Cartesian dualism: subject and object, culture and nature, mind and body, etc., as components separate from each other. Rather he seeks to integrate these components as Holl seeks to integrate the structure with its environment, and inside with outside which, in the 20th century, often became detached from each other in architecture through the creation of monster structures. In a recent interview with Lynn Woods for Hudson Valley One, Holl lamented how the advent of air conditioning has allowed buildings to be too deep for natural light to penetrate creating unhealthy, artificial environments. He is not interested in ideas such as form vs content or form following function, rather he is interested in “creating ‘spatial excitement’ and then you find how the functions work.”
” Holl begins every day in a small hut by Round Lake on the T Space property. He puts those first clear hours of the day into composing watercolor sketches in 5”x 7” sketchbooks. It is there that ideas are generated and honed. He has hundreds of notebooks that contain the thought process for each project. So, the Ex of IN House began its life there as drawing and watercolor paintings of Venn Diagrams. Circles and spheres are important to Holl, as they are to the philosopher Sloterdijk, for their symbolic echoes of the uterus in which we are first sheltered to our macro shelter, the globe that is our planet.
When the watercolor sketches have arrived at a certain stage of development, he sends them to an assistant who creates a computer model; this is then sent off to be made as an object in a 3D printer. In the case of the Ex of IN House, the 3D models, interconnected spheres, were brought through a variety of hybrid combinations and permutations, including a negative of one of the models, and began to look like a small house. It was at around this point in the exploration that Holl became aware of a 28-acre parcel of land near his T Space in Rhinebeck coming on the market – a parcel originally slated to be a five-house subdivision. It was the perfect location for this experimental structure to inhabit. He acquired the land and reunited the five plots as one rural preserve. Steven Holl Architects went to work on formalizing the plan and the house, a 918 ft2 guest house, was built. See the above video for a detailed account of this work from the architect.
While the Ex of IN house could develop in this free-form way and be a stand-alone piece in the middle of the woods, Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in London, England, had to fulfill a clear and important purpose. And, as the existing hospital building of St. Bartholomew’s – Bart’s as it is called locally – from which the structure would extend is a long-standing and much-revered Georgian landmark, and one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, it was bound to be a challenge. At the initial stage of the project, the City of London’s planning committee rejected the proposal, but the team and their commissioner, Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres, persevered.
The original Bart’s and nearby Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, was founded in 1123 by Rahere, an Anglo-Norman priest of the Augustinian Order who, having fallen ill on a pilgrimage to Rome, had a vision of St. Bartholomew who directed him to establish a religious hospital for the poor in his name. Bart’s continues to occupy the same site it was originally built on, surviving Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1539, the 1666 Great Fire of London and the 1940/41 WWII blitz. But it has gone through changes over time; most of the original medieval buildings were demolished in the 1700s when the hospital was redesigned by James Gibbs in the Georgian style of the period – Gibbs’ design comprised four blocks around a square of which three survive today. Other buildings were added over time as the needs of the hospital grew. The most recent addition is Steven Holl’s 3-story design for Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre which replaces a dilapidated 1960s brick structure, formerly offices.
Holl is very committed to the value of architecture on the human psyche – he likens it to music rather than painting as, like music, architecture surrounds you. He has said, “Architecture can change the way you feel – like music.” This is also the point of these particular Cancer Care Centres that are inspired by co-founder, the late Maggie Keswick-Jenks, in her search to find a new approach to cancer care. Her mission was to provide free practical, emotional and social support to sufferers and, as importantly, to their families and friends. Maggie’s Barts, as it is called for short, is the latest of many such facilities that have been built since the first one in Edinburgh in 1996, and many have employed star architects. For Maggie’s Barts, Holl was very conscious of the twin needs of the building: to provide a safe and therapeutic environment for the visitors to the facility and to be sympathetic to the existing structures and honor the history of the place itself. Holl has said about this project: “To really respect the authenticity of the historic architecture, you must make an authentically new piece.” And this is what he has done.
His design makes no attempt to echo the existing architecture but to contrast it. The exterior is clad in two layers of matte white glass with squares and rectangles of colored glass sandwiched between them creating a diffused watercolor or alabaster effect. The composition of the colored glass fragments harks to 13th century neume (music) notation, such as that found in Gregorian chant, to songs that may once have been sung in the old Church of St. Bartholomew’s the Great.
There are eleven projects on display at the exhibition. If you go, and I hope you do, I recommend watching the video, which is at the back of the gallery, first. It is also possible to visit the T Spaces in Rhinebeck and schedule a tour. See Steven Holl Architects website – link below.
Featured Image: Steven Holl Architects. “Study Model for Arrival Hall and Light Monitors,” Detail — 2017. Resin impregnated plaster 3D print, white paint, colored acrylic. Taiwan Chinpaosan Necropolis, Taipei, Taiwan.
Use of images are courtesy of Steven Holl Architects. Except where it says otherwise, photographs are by the author.
To learn more about Steven Holl or make an appointment to visit T Space, go to: stevenholl.com
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Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: