Time magazine recently selected Steven Holl as the best architect in the United States. This is an important prize, adding popular prestige to an already successful career as an architect. On the flip side, however, it throws a huge responsibility on Holl’s shoulders. Now, he is the best. His buildings immediately become objects of public scrutiny. From young architects to experienced scholars, people look at their buildings as intellectual references, and for a standard of our finest architecture. From general design to detail, every corner in Holl’s buildings is going to be studied and researched.
Prizes have many effects besides celerity. They point toward specific trends within the industry. Architectural prizes, like the Oscars, tend to award originality, innovation and risk. Purposefully, they don’t usually award simplicity, economy and common sense. They like innovative detailing but don’t really care about consistency. They praise flashy rhetoric as opposed to simple construction. If Holl’s Bellevue Art Museum is not an example of super hip architecture—like Gehry’s—it is also not an example of modest design.
I’ve been to the Bellevue Art Museum many times. Living in Seattle gives me the opportunity to explore Holl’s building repeatedly. I really like the building. During my last visit, however, I had a different sort of idea in the back of my mind. I went there to find mistakes and errors and to purposefully ignore the building’s qualities. As a result, I spent a few hours—like an architectural Sherlock Holmes—searching for concepts and details that didn’t work. And, although I did find a few flaws, overall, I intuitively like the building. Still, I believe that everybody can profit from a debate about architectural ideas and imperfections.
When I was in college, I was taught to be particularly careful in the detailing of corners. Intersections of different materials—I’ve been told—present a special challenge, since materials can rust or break, and insulation or fasteners can be exposed. At the intersections we were supposed to avoid the "open corner" and, whenever possible, try to use a "closed corner". That was the rule of thumb.
To my surprise, however, Holl has done exactly the opposite of what my professors advised me to do. He deliberately used the "open corner" at the intersection between aluminum panels and concrete walls. Why did he do that? There is no flashing. There is no "L" or "C" channel in the end of the aluminum wall, either. Aluminum panels are not protected or finished. Is this the way it is supposed to be?
Apparently, Holl produced this detail because he is concerned with the purity of the design. Walls covered with aluminum panels meet concrete walls as if they don’t have any materiality. They are two aesthetic entities. They meet like two plain surfaces on watercolor paper. Yet, they are not two surfaces on a piece of paper. Is this logical? Is this detail the result of pure aesthetic pursuit?
I wonder if Holl paid too large a price for his seductive watercolors. In the glazed stair, for example, floating glass panels dive into the ceiling as natural light comes down from the sky. It is indeed a beautiful concept. Yet Hall refuses again to admit the materiality of the glass. Conceptually, the glass panels are supposed to float in space, so they receive minimal support. They are not firmly connected to one another. For the sake of design, there is no frame for the glass (just a small line along the base on the stair). As a result, these panels don’t align well and look disturbingly fragile.
The glazed stair is supposed to bring light to the main hall—and it does—but it carries other functions as well. It hides concrete steps and works as a huge light fixture on the underside. Glazed panels envelop, simultaneously, a skylight, the stair steps, railing and underside light fixtures. Apparently, there are far too many functions to be enveloped by simple translucent panels and their delicate detailing. This stair is supposed to be pure. But, it is not. The shadows of the steps are a confusing part of the design. They don’t really agree with the simplicity of the glazed panels. Are these steps supposed to be invisible or visible? Worse yet, does a light fixture-cum-ceiling make sense? It definitely doesn’t work very well. The panels are dirty (I presume they can be cleaned), uneven and unaligned. Are they supposed to artificially generate the same light as the panels above?
Broken Northern Light
The Northern Light Gallery is at the top of Holl’s building. It is its largest exhibition space and also one of the most dramatic ones. Its ceiling slopes down and a long and narrow window (or skylight?) follows the slope. The drama of space reminds me of the sets from the expressionist movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is a very powerful image. Unfortunately however, the narrow window that follows the ceiling doesn’t have a corresponding element in the exterior elevation. Looking from the gallery, we are left with a shadow that splits this expressive window in two parts. Does it make sense?
In modern architecture, windows are consistent from the inside to the outside. In other words, an opening in the outside corresponds to an opening in the inside, presumably in the same shape and size. If many contemporary buildings adopt false windows, they do it as a compromise, trying to compose beaux-arts symmetries or proportions in their facades. But Holl’s building is definitely not beaux-arts, is it? So, why does he adopt this beaux-arts trick?
I can understand Holl when he argues (controversially, one might suggest) that he doesn’t mind the cracks in the main gallery floor. He wants it brutally simple. I can buy that. Still, there must be a good explanation for that wall behind the window in the Northern Light Gallery. Is it just aesthetic sake of continuity? Here, something has to be wrong. If an outside facade doesn’t agree with its interior elevation, this is not modern architecture. This is set design. And, I wonder: is this justifiable? Is this a beaux-arts approach in an otherwise modernist building?
I believe that all the flaws in this building come from one single source. Holl wants his building simple, simple, simple. He wants it pure. He wants it clean. Ceilings, for example, are designed as flat gypsum board or stucco surfaces. They are as simple as they appear in Holl’s watercolors. But ceilings today have many functions. They have accessible doors. They have air vents. They meet soffits and corners. Should a design treat the ceiling as a simple continuous surface?
I would like to hear Holl’s opinions on my observations. They would create an interesting debate. Do my comments make sense or not? In a way, I believe that all my questions point to an old problem in modern architecture. Do aesthetics prevail over construction? How far can an architect go to force construction to adapt to his design?
Steve, what do you think?