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Simmons Hall

Steven Holl Architects

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Project Description

Audacious Yet Deferential

At the advent of a new millennium, the jurors for the 47th annual P/A Awards selected 14 projects that “push[ed] the limits of invention and originality.” Steven Holl Architects won two of those awards—one for MIT’s Simmons Hall student residence and one for the project revisited here, the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

Holl’s firm had won an invited design competition for this addition with a scheme radically different from other contenders. Instead of blocking views of the existing building’s imposing front or back façades, Holl, FAIA, stretched his extension along a constricted area to one side. The bulk of the resulting 840-foot-long structure is sunken beneath berms, from which rise a series of glass-clad volumes. Whether refracting daylight or glowing from within at night, these forms are distinctive and bold, yet they defer in their scale and translucency to the emphatically solid 1933 building.

The apparent delicacy of these volumes is made possible by the ingenious structural engineering of Guy Nordenson, Holl’s perennial collaborator. Supporting each of them from a central spine makes their column-free envelopes possible. Light from the translucent glazing enters the exhibit spaces through clerestories and is dispersed across curved surfaces that conceal structural-mechanical innards. The meandering layout of the galleries provides for spaces that vary advantageously in scale and sense of enclosure.

During a period of additions to many similar institutions, the Holl team showed how such a project can be both an exemplary expansion and an architectural milestone.
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