Holl knows that conceptual clarity is a luxury—that most clients (and most architects, for that matter) are less interested in philosophical abstractions than in ensuring adequate plumbing, breathable air, and honest budgets. He recognizes, too, that even as he and his associates grope their way toward revelation, they sometimes emerge with an idea so exquisitely recondite that it’s practically incomprehensible. This fact disturbs him not at all. He mentions a pavilion he added to a 19th-century brick building in Amsterdam, a small project that boasted not one but two generative analogies: the composer Morton Feldman’s hauntingly abstract 80-minute work for cello and piano from 1981, Patterns on a Chromatic Field; and the mathematical concept of a Menger sponge, which yields a cubical solid shot through with cubical voids.
“The clients went along with the project, liked it and built it, but I don’t think they ever really understood the connection to Feldman or the Menger sponge,” he says serenely. “I think it was Wittgenstein who said that ideas are like ladders: When you get there you can kick it away and move on.” Which is to say that what matters in the end is not what thoughts brought forth the building, but what the space feels like when you’re in it.
Holl’s breakthrough project, the one that finally made him a celebrity beyond the rarefied world of his academically inclined peers, was Kiasma, the contemporary art museum in Helsinki. He won the job in an open competition in 1993 (more than 25 years into his career), with a design that challenged the jury to understand his subtle and unorthodox tunnel of light. Somehow, despite all of the hands-off theorizing, he had developed a set of profound intuitions about how light clings to a ceiling or coats a wall, how enclosing a volume of air can endow it with sensual magic, and how soothing a touchable surface can be. That emphasis on the immediate, physical experience of architecture—what Holl calls its “phenomenology”—would seem at odds with his intellectual approach. But you don’t have to spend much time in Holl’s company to start picking up his emotional connection to his designs. “My buildings are my children, and I go and visit them,” he says. To prove it, he takes out his smartphone and flips through snapshots of himself, posing proudly with his architectural progeny: Simmons Hall, a student dormitory at MIT; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.; his latest complex in China.
A tactile relationship with architecture, a love of glimmering color, a contemplative sensibility, a lyrical sense of the kinship between space and music—these qualities characterize Holl’s work more than any stylistic habit or signature move. “If I have a style like blob or zigzag, then the problem can’t show me anything new. I try to come innocently to a project, find an idea, and let that lead me into the possibilities. The measure of good architecture is in the experience—in the quality of space, of light, smell, sound, and texture. A five-year-old can go into a space and be excited about it.”
The real function of those watercolors, then, is to keep the lengthy design process—so full of puzzles and compromises—grounded in a visceral impulse. Holding a brush between the fingers and using the bristles to spread colored water on a piece of paper is a physical act that links even the most immense and technologically advanced structure to the architect’s nerve endings.
Holl’s virtuosity with light makes the challenges of being his client worthwhile, says Joan Camins, a former architect who commissioned him to design a weekend house on the East End of Long Island. “We wanted him to create a work of art, but we also needed to make sure we had a space we could use.”
The process involved what she euphemistically calls “lively discussions” over minutiae such as the size of a bed and the length of a tub. In the end, she says, “it works the way a house should, and you get these wonderful surprises as the light changes.” She rhapsodizes over the way the afternoon sun slides through a small window onto a stairwell, turning a nook into a chamber of gold.
Holl’s physical connection with space and his sense of detail have been challenged lately by projects so huge that they transcend even the architect’s ability to grasp them completely. Sliced Porosity Block, a ring of towers dancing wildly around a public plaza in the Chinese city of Chengdu, encompasses more than 3 million square feet. “When a building gets that big, it’s very hard to experience it at all,” Holl admits. “I spent six hours there recently, and there were still areas I didn’t get to.”
It’s with a mixture of intense admiration and sheer puzzlement that Kenneth Frampton has watched Holl try to translate his private eurekas from intimate, postcard-sized paintings into concrete mountains in China. “He’s a romantic person, and his energy comes from strong intuitions,” Frampton says. “He’s a very positive force in American architecture—the Nelson-Atkins Museum is a pretty extraordinary invention in how to extend the classical building without impinging on it. But sometimes the work goes completely out of control: the Sliced Porosity building has turned into a kind of monster.”
You could take that last remark as a backhanded compliment—after all, at 64, Holl is still experimenting, still taking risks, still showing no signs of complacency or fatigue. His firm enters a dozen competitions a year, winning some, losing more, and moving on to the next as relentlessly as the teenaged Holl went through souped-up cars. Architecture never gets easy, and he acknowledges that the pressures of constant travel and total absorption in work helped end both his marriages.
But Holl is already thinking excitedly about a fistful of new projects—some of which will, in all likelihood, consume much of his time for the next year or two and then not pan out. He smiles at the prospect. “I love it,” he says. “I’m like an old football player who still likes to go out there and smash himself against the line.”
Justin Davidson is New York magazine's architecture critic. He has also contributed to The New Yorker, Travel and Leisure, Slate, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times.