When Professor of History of Art and Architecture Dietrich Neumann asked his class, HIAA 0860: “Contemporary Architecture,” whether or not they would be attending renowned architect Steven Holl’s lecture this past Tuesday, the overwhelming majority said – via iClicker – “Absolutely, I will be there.” And the students were not just humoring Neumann. Salomon 101 was packed with students eager to see the winner of the 2012 American Institute of Architects gold medal, a recognition that has previously been awarded to Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei.
Steven Holl, whose diverse portfolio includes the Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Simmons Hall dormitory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, centered the lecture on the theme of scale, describing a selection of his works. He started with the largest, the Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, China, and ended with the smallest, the Daeyang Gallery and House in Seoul, South Korea.
Despite the differences in size, there were multiple threads woven through his conception of each building, which begins not as an elevation or floor plan, but as a watercolor painting on a five-by-seven index card. In designing each, he attempts to bring the building down to a human scale, so the buildings can be used and appreciated.
One of these threads connecting his works is his acute sense of a building’s location. Though he is not quite a regionalist, since he has his signature style, Holl manages to incorporate the geography, traditions and most noticeably the light of his buildings’ locations into the architecture itself.
In a work that he considers one of his favorites, the Chapel of St. Ignatius, Holl said he attempted to capitalize on the unique, pulsating light of Seattle. The space, which is modeled after the image of seven bottles of light in a stone box, encompasses those who enter in seven different qualities of light. Holl hopes this “mystery of light … makes you feel immeasurable,” he said, adding that only architecture has this power, as no other art form can truly surround you.
Another theme running through Holl’s architecture is his attempt to make each building as eco-friendly as possible. He said his projects in China particularly accomplish this due to China’s willingness to invest in green technology. He said he hopes that these “ultra-green” constructions will “prove to the United States that these things really do work.”
Holl livened the descriptions of his buildings with humor. After he completes the initial designs of a building, he said he does not “really know what’s going on – so (he) picks up a broom and acts busy.”
A group consisting of Neumann and Professor of American Civilization Steven Lubar chose Holl as a J. Carter Brown lecturer. “We wanted a major figure for the lecture series,” Neumann said. “Steven Holl was surely on top of our list as a great architect.”
In asking Holl to speak, Neumann hoped students would “get a better understanding of the craft and art of architecture when it’s done by someone who really knows the history and the present and is really attune to local conditions,” he said.
Julia Telzak ’15, who went to the lecture to learn more about the architect, said she left with new comprehension of the architectural process Neumann wanted to convey. “Seeing the drawings progress and ultimately seeing the designs of the building was interesting for me,” she said.