Disobedience is important for an architect: Steven Holl

The acclaimed architect on going beyond the brief and learning from failures

October 18, 2021 11:14 am | Updated 11:14 am IST

Steven Holl at IIM, Ahmedabad in March 2015.

Steven Holl at IIM, Ahmedabad in March 2015.

New York-based architect Steven Holl leads an architecture and urban design firm called Steven Holl Architects. Among his acclaimed works are the 2019 expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Hunters Point Library in New York and the 2009 Linked Hybrid mixed-use complex in Beijing, China. In this interview, he shares insights for a paradigm shift in architecture, emerging from the pandemic, and the role of civic spaces. Edited excerpts:

Landscape takes on a new role in your projects. For instance, though the Kennedy Center buildings (Washington) remained locked, outdoor civic spaces were accessible for public gatherings. It is a democratic gesture. Is this a paradigm shift to ensure “urban voids” (parks, playgrounds) and landscape are accessible to all, during the pandemic?

Absolutely! I was educated as a landscape architect. I worked for Lawrence Halprin, a great landscape architect. My teacher, Richard Haag, taught us landscape as a kind of ‘first principle’ to understand the site. He said, “whatever you’re going to do for a project, go to the place and “be the site”. So, landscape, to me, is when you’re thinking about a project, you are thinking about “voids” first. It gets obvious how important this will be in the future, and rightly so.

The projects emphasise the role of open-ness, light and ventilation — an ecological idea. Simultaneously, pavilions and open spaces for circulation lend themselves to social gathering and communion. In creative institutions, like a school of architecture and arts, or a research centre, the open pavilions convey a sense of freedom...

Well, I think, both in the case of the Kennedy Center and Bogota, the open landscape is a social gathering space. It’s how the openness of the ground is expressed and what’s happening below the ground and what’s happening above the ground, that’s a primary aspect of solving the nature of the project.

When I was teaching at Columbia University, I gave a lecture; I said there’s only four types of architecture: there’s under the ground, in the ground, on the ground and there’s over the ground. I gave that lecture with a little diagram. And I began to remember that, that’s how I started as a seven-year-old. So, maybe, I was destined to be an architect about the earth, about the relationships of the earth. It’s a principle.

So, by introducing the concept of “open landscape” as primary, and then organising the functions under the ground, and pavilions that come above, not only bring in light and air, but also orientation. The idea that drives a design is very important. The openness of the landscape in one case is working or natural light coming down from above, is working in another — that’s important. That way, one isn’t hamstrung by the size of the project. Louis Kahn once said, “It’s what an architect contributes to the project that counts and that’s a spiritual aspect”. Landscape, air, and light are important. I also believe that students want something that reflects an optimism about the future.

New York is a global city. Hunter’s Point Library that overlooks FDR Memorial, designed by Louis Kahn, has a view to Manhattan, the Empire State Building and the UN Building, across the river. Does the pandemic change what it means to be global, both politically and ecologically?

When I first got the assignment to do this project, I drew a triangle of the city — connecting the FDR Memorial and the UN building, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and La Corbusier and this site. It’s almost a perfect triangle across the water, and I thought, “Wow! What an incredible site!”

Because when you’re in the library, you see the Louis Kahn-FDR Memorial which is a fantastic project. And you see the big Secretariat, the UN building, which has an amazing history of New York’s architectural culture. There’s a film by Peter Rosen, with the story of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. I knew Niemeyer and met him a few times. The UN building is very important in the urban frame of New York. It’s, I believe, as important as the Empire State Building or Chrysler building because it stands for something — the belief in the United Nations. That to me is the most important thinking that we need to come back to today: that we are all global citizens, that the earth is one ecological system. I consider myself a global citizen and think we all are.

It’s amazing we have the technology to do really interesting things in the future. But we need the political will and I have found it in several sites. I’d love to build that museum we designed in Mumbai. We are all global citizens now. I did a Museum of Surf and Ocean in Biarritz (France), with exhibits about the ocean and its health. The mayor of the city said, fishermen and surfers know that the ocean is in danger today. We need to bring that knowledge to the public. When I started to work on the ecological exhibits, I realised that every ocean on this planet is connected to every other ocean. The water is moving and it takes almost a thousand years from one side of the planet to the other; the sub-currents and laminar flows. The movement of water is the biggest example that the earth is a global organism and humanity is part of it.

Some of your most significant projects have come through competitions. Kiasma (Finland) was a turning point. You’ve often had the courage to redefine the programme, and not follow the competition brief.

Disobedience is important for an architect. I was making a list of all the 160 competitions that we’ve done. Samuel Beckett said that failure is a principle that an artist has to absorb and realise. It’s a principle — ‘failure’.

Fail, fail again, fail better — 34 wins in 160 competitions. There are a lot more failures than there is a win. And you got to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again. Enjoy it. I actually enjoy competitions! Why? Because it’s a place of experiment. I don’t try to win and that’s probably why we’ve won some of them. We try to do the best possible and not necessarily be obedient to whatever they’re asking for.

So, that’s exciting — young architects today don’t need a big office to do a competition. You can do it with two architects. To have the idea, that’s key. It levels the playing field in a way. We are entering a competition right now against two firms that have 300 people. We’re 33 people and I never want to be bigger than that. Nobody’s going to know that we are only 33 people, because the renderings are going to look just like that 300-person office.

This moment we are living in is a great potential for young architects. I think, this moment is open. Architecture can come from anywhere. It can be inspired by music, science, painting, sculpture.

Steven Holl Architects won the competition to build the Mumbai City Museum in 2016. It’s a place of education for young people and I will definitely get back to Mumbai if they give us the go-ahead for the project. I would love to see the stepwells in Gujarat, and I think those are worth fighting for. They are an amazing subtractive architecture. There are a lot of cities in India that I am looking forward to visit in the future.

The writer is Dean of Saveetha College of Architecture and Design, Chennai.

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