Below: Simmons Hall, MIT, Cambridge, MA
© Steven Holl Architects. Click on images to enlarge.

Vladimir Paperny

Holl of Fame

The Russian version of the article was published in Architectural Digest Russia.

Simmons Hall
Steven Holl and Solange Fabião at Kazimir Malevich's grave
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Steven Holl and Solange Fabião at Kazimir Malevich's grave in Nemchinivka near Moscow. © 2000 Vladislav Kirpichev
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Steven Holl and Solange Fabião at Kazimir Malevich's grave
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Steven Holl and Solange Fabião at Kazimir Malevich's grave in Nemchinivka near Moscow. © 2000 Vladislav Kirpichev
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Steven Holl in his office.
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Steven Holl in his office. © 2005 Vladimir Paperny.
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Steven Holl in his office.
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Steven Holl in his office. © 2005 Vladimir Paperny.
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Steven Holl in his office.
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Steven Holl in his office. © 2005 Vladimir Paperny.
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Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, WA
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Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, WA. © Paul Warchol
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Kiasma Museum, Helsinki, Finland
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Kiasma Museum, Helsinki, Finland. © Paul Warchol
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Kiasma Museum, Helsinki, Finland
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Kiasma Museum, Helsinki, Finland. © Paul Warchol
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Sarphatistraat Offices, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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Sarphatistraat Offices, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, © Paul Warchol
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Sarphatistraat Offices, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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Sarphatistraat Offices, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, © Paul Warchol
Architect Steven Holl owes his family happiness to the Russian avant-garde. He met his wife, Brazilian artist Solange Fabião, in New York at the Paula Cooper Gallery. "Who is your favorite artist?" he asked about two minutes into their acquaintance. "Malevich," she said, without thinking.

"Can you imagine, Malevich," Holl says to me, "he's my favorite artist; he has influenced all my work." We are sitting in his office in New York, a former photography studio with a view of railroad tracks. There is wet snow outside. I made my way here through knee-deep slush and road salt, and only now I'm beginning to warm up a little.

Holl continues, "We are so different. I'm from the north, from Seattle. She's from Brazil. I look out the window—wet snow, an ideal day for Scandinavian melancholy, and she sings and dances: Brazil, Brazil. We found each other through Malevich. A Russian artist untied North and South America."

Two years ago Steven and Solange decided to visit Moscow and sent an e-mail to architects Vlad and Ludmila Kirpichev, "We want to visit Malevich's grave." The answer, "His grave is somewhere in Nemchinovka, but no one knows exactly where." Steven did not give up, "Then we'll go to Nemchinovka and look for it." They wrote back, " To go to Nemchinovka is to go nowhere." Steven replied, " We want to go nowhere, we want to go to Nemchinovka."

"The first thing Steven said at the airport was, 'Let's head for the Malevich museum.'" Vlad Kirpichev recalls, "We told him there was no such place. 'Then let's go to the Lissitzky museum.' But that does not exist either, 'Fine, then let's do the Rodchenko museum.' When we explained that there was no Rodchenko museum he got angry. 'You guys just don’t know.'"

"They ended up getting a car," Steven recalls, "and we went to Nemchinovka. It turns out that they had never been in Nemchinovka, these Russian architects. We drive past many very bad postmodernist dachas and wound up on Malevich Street. There's a white cube at the end of the street: ' Placed here by the daughter of Malevich in 1988, this approximately where my father was buried.' I say to Ludmila and Vlad, 'There, you see, you simply don't know. Now let's find Malevich's house.' They say, 'Nothing remains of it. Let's go home.' Fifteen minutes later we find a house with a memorial plaque: 'Malevich lived here." And this old lady tells us, 'You are the first foreigners to have come here.' You understand, we were the first. Ever."

"Most architects I interviewed," I observe, "have some sort of drama: Meier is accused of plagiarizing himself; Gehry is accused of being a show-off; Venturi is said to be fixated on old ideas. You don't seem to have any drama, everybody just loves your work."

"I have no drama?" Holl interrupts indignantly, "Everyone you mentioned came from blue-blood families, they all graduated from Yale and other ivy-league schools. I was born in Bremerton, Washington, a military town with a population of thirty thousand. So imagine someone grown up in that town, they probably never saw a piece of architecture, right? And then I went to Rome. This is what saved me. I lived in Rome behind the Pantheon, and I became interested in what architecture could be, what amazing series of examples of how exciting it could be. I travel Europe for years, visiting all Le Corbusier's buildings — Ronchamp, La Tourette — and I finally went to the Architecture Association in London, studying with Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas. Zaha Hadid was also a student there. In 1977 I came to New York and opened a studio. My first loft overlooking the cemetery on the 21st Street and 6th Avenue I had for 10 years for 250 dollars a month."

"Is that all," I ask in amazement. It seems impossibly low for that part of New York.

"I know; it was like having a grant. I slept on a plywood shelf over the entrance, and no one knew I lived there. And I went to YMCA everyday to work out and take a shower — there was no hot water in my loft. I didn't have a single employee for fifteen years, nor did I have a single client; I supported myself by teaching. That lasted until 1993, when I won the competition for Kiasma museum in Helsinki. That was just twelve years ago. And you say there is no drama!"

Robert Venturi, who visited Italy a few years before Holl, returned with anti-modernist theories, which he laid out in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. His ideas are the cardinal opposite of Holl's.

"You know, when that book came out," Steven says, "I was in my first year of architecture school. My professor gave me that book, I read it and I rejected it. Right then in 1967. I said, 'I am interested in the opposite of this, I am interested in concept, clarity and a simple connection between concept and clarity. I am not interested in complexity and contradiction.' I had an exhibit in Vienna. The organizers asked me to think up a name that would express the essence of my work. I said, 'Idea and Phenomenon.' That's my method, the phenomenological approach to architecture."

It may sound pretentious, but Steven gives this notion a specific meaning. It all begins with the idea, like the plot of a novel. Realizing the idea and its verification come through the experience of architecture—what you feel walking through the building; how your body moves; how it interacts with other bodies; the play of light, perspective, sound and smell. This entire phenomenological layer must come from the main idea.

"What is the main idea? Is it something like, 'I'm for world peace'?"

"The idea must be specific. Do you know about Menger's sponge?"

In fact I do. Austrian mathematician Karl Menger conceived a three-dimensional object with an infinitely large surface and no volume. You take a cube, imagining that it consists of twenty-seven smaller cubes, remove seven cubes from the center, then repeat the operation for each of the smaller cubes an infinite number of times. The surface will thus grow, the volume shrink. The result is Menger's sponge.

Holl is taken with the idea of porous architecture. He understands porosity in the both physical and the social sense as the capacity for penetration. When he built the student dormitory at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he treated the parallelepiped of the building in roughly the same manner as Menger with his cube—pulling out bits until it started to look like a sponge.

"The porosity was first an urban idea, an idea of porous urban field that would connect the landscape of the playing field to Cambridgeport. Then it was a structural idea — the porosity of concrete, each room has nine windows and they all can be opened. But then there is social porosity that mixes the division of the ten houses inside with these drilled down spaces. In my thinking there are always links to energizing the social fabric of what we are working on."

"That's lovely, but we all know the kinds of failures that have resulted when architects have tried to transform architecture into a vehicle for social engineering: for example, the infamous Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis. Yamasaki also tried to create public space there, but instead it became into a drug den. Where is the guarantee that this won't happen at MIT?"

"I thing postmodernism fails much more miserably that Yamasaki's Pruit-Igoe. The way they cynically send a message to our youth that there is no future, it was better in the past. Postmodern buildings are emblems of cynicism and they are standing in the cores of our cities. Charles Jencks’ book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture begins with the destruction of Pruit-Igoe as the reason we should do that god-awful pastiche, historical draperies over contemporary buildings. The cure is worse than the original problem. Jencks is an “-ism” manufacturer. Now he has something he calls “iconism”. That’s all about the Bilbao effect. To build these big bulbous titanium-clad empty gestures. But a building must be more interesting inside than outside, as it was with Louis Kahn, Corbusier, Loos, and to some extent Mies van der Rohe."

"Frank Gehry would not pass your test?"

"No, and not just him. We have a basic cultural problem with architecture."

"Venturi separated buildings into 'ducks' (highly sculptural forms) and 'decorated sheds.' Do you build 'ducks'?"

"Why would I frame myself in his argument of 1966? All these 'ducks' have long ago gone extinct. By the way, the other day saw a headline in the 'New York Times' that I still cannot get out of my mind. It was something about the bird flu from Asia: 'Two Dead Ducks Found in Ding Dang'."

Steven likes this phrase so much he repeats it several times with varying intonations. What it means he does not know but the phase does have a certain hypnotic effect. Perhaps it reminds him of Venturi's dead "ducks?" Is this the ritual dance of the victor?

In spite of all the science in his theories, Holl is really a poet. He is a person with a rarefied sense of the world, sensitive to all aspects of his surroundings. This is why it is so interesting to be in his buildings. He is not a slave to one idea. Menger's sponge is just one of hundreds of his concepts, although transparency and openness are the hallmarks of many of them.

I go back out onto the street. The snow has stopped; the sun is shining. Scandinavian melancholy has changed before my eyes into Brazilian rhythm. I feel like I've been at the place where today's most interesting architecture is being created.

12.09.2005