There was a period not so long ago when it seemed Steven Holl couldn't get a break. Perhaps it started when that high-profile art museum he designed in Bellevue, Washington, marked its two-and-a-half-year anniversary by unceremoniously shutting its doors. Maybe it was the very public breakup with that Denver courthouse project, or when the artist Richard Tuttle—a friend, no less—told The New York Times Magazine that the house-pavilion Holl designed for him and his wife was "uninhabitable half the time."
In fairness, among cutting-edge architects, a perpetual state of embattlement often comes with the territory, and Holl's biggest snafus weren't his own. (The closing of the Bellevue project, which has since reopened, was blamed on the museum's management. Meanwhile Tuttle has said his quote was misconstrued; he and Holl remain pals.) Still, in the rivalrous world of architecture, you could almost hear the chorus of snickering. "Well, that's human nature, isn't it?" Holl, 60, shrugs.
These days, Holl and his 65-person New York-based firm, with offices in Beijing, are thriving—a juggernaut with projects worth $1.4 billion on the boards last year. Among them: a marina in Beirut; museums in Norway and Denmark; and a "horizontal skyscraper" in Shenzhen, China, that will be as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Not to mention a 2.4-million-square-foot mini-city in Beijing that has the design world agape.
And then there was the unveiling last year of Holl's $200 million addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Cascading down the sloping lawn of the existing neoclassical building, Holl's 165,000 square feet of subterranean galleries emerge as five crystalline pavilions, surfacing on the landscape like sublime boxes of light. At a time of growing museum fatigue—it seems there isn't a city in the world without a new starchitect-designed showstopper—the Nelson-Atkins has been earning the sort of praise that would make a lesser man blush: "One of the best museums of the last generation," wrote Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker's architecture critic. "A perfect synthesis of ideas ... a work of haunting power," gushed the New York Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff. Time ranked it the "No. 1 Architectural Marvel" of 2007.
Holl, however, takes the recognition in stride. "I'm very egotistical," he says with a wink, "so I thought it was overdue."
One of the most formidable architects around, Holl is an amalgam of renegade bravado and artistic sensitivity, social progressivism and problem-solving virtuosity—all wrapped in a medium-build frame with blue eyes and a maestro's mop of graying blondish hair. A Seattle-area native, he arrived in New York in 1976 via the University of Washington and studied in Rome and at London's prestigious Architectural Association, where his cohorts included Zaha Hadid. Following a common architectural narrative, he spent much of his early career in academia, entering competitions, scavenging commissions wherever he could find them, and, especially, theorizing. Among other things, he produced an influential series of publications called Pamphlet Architecture and coauthored the 1994 book Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (now in its third printing).
These days, however, Holl is best known for his harnessing of light, materiality, and movement—often expressed with washes of colored illumination, snaking ramps and stairs, and the abstracted grids and perforated surfaces that evoke what he likes to call "porosity." Free of the over-the-top acrobatics of, say, Frank Gehry or Hadid, a Holl building can be fairly described as a series of revelatory moments: the gentle, luminous sweeps of his breakthrough Kiasma museum in Helsinki (completed in 1998); or the cavernous funnels of light penetrating his Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT (2002), a building nicknamed "the Sponge" for its uninhibited grid of windows; or the aureoles of reflected, diffused fluorescent light filtering through his Amsterdam offices for the Dutch housing developer Het Oosten (2000). Holl's work is rooted in what architects like to call "phenomenology," which means a concern with the sensory perception and bodily experience of space—or what Holl calls an "effort to put essence back into existence."
"It's hard to put into words, because his architecture is not about words," says Barry Bergdoll, chief architecture and design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "It's about an effect, a subtlety, and a kind of understatedness that's both personal and enlightening."
Holl's greatest talent may be for persuading clients to buy into his creative vision in the first place, then keeping them true to it. Exhibit A: his Linked Hybrid complex in Beijing. When Modern Investment Group, the project's Chinese developer, approached Holl, the brief was "basically to put a skin on some conventional, blocky towers set behind a gate," Holl says. Instead, he brazenly came back several months later with a proposal worthy of Buck Rogers: a city-within-a-city of eight irregularly massed residential high-rises interconnected by sky bridges supporting aerial cafés, a spa, even a swimming pool. The buildings would ring a new urbanistic core outfitted with public parks and a cylindrical boutique hotel, plus a faceted three-screen cinematheque that seems to float on a pond cum reservoir. Features such as gray-water recycling and 660 geothermal wells would make it one of the greenest megaprojects on earth.
It was a counterproposal so extreme as to border on arrogance. But the project is due to begin opening this month—and the Linked Hybrid apartments are now selling at about triple the initial offering price. "When Steven changed our original proposal into an open urban complex, he did it without our authorization, and we could have terminated his contract," says Chen Yin, the developer's chief engineer, who first interviewed Holl. "But in reality, his radical design awakened us." The result could well become a Rockefeller Center for this century.
A visit with Holl can sometimes feel like an audience with architecture's self-appointed messiah. He relishes recounting how he beat the five other firms competing for the Nelson-Atkins commission by "being the only one to break the rules." (Holl's underground scheme differed from the others by flouting a suggestion—though not a dictate—to use the site more conventionally.) Meanwhile, about the Herning Center of the Arts, now rising in Denmark, Holl huffs, "I had to argue for months to get them to put geothermal energy in, because they didn't want to spend the extra money. [He offered part of his fee to offset the cost.] But we kept fighting and fighting for it, and now they're very proud of it."
One facet of his work that he actually downplays, however, is his interest in sustainable architecture. "I'm sorry to say, but 85% of so-called green firms make some of the ugliest buildings that were ever made," he says, in a typical excess of candor. "So for God's sake, I don't want to be categorized with them." Holl no doubt cultivates the image of himself as an insurgent, a David among Goliaths. He also tends to wear his erudition on his sleeve—slipping in the odd allusion to Stravinsky, or a bit of Wittgenstein, wherever he can, while savoring the role of artist (or "artiste," as Nelson-Atkins director Marc F. Wilson says half-jokingly). It's a caricature reinforced by the fact that Holl famously starts each day by painting a watercolor.
And yet here is an artiste in action, one who is restoring architecture to a social art form. When Holl sticks to his guns, others benefit; he rarely takes on a project unless there's a public component, and even then, he'll try to expand it. His forthcoming Vanke Center, the mixed-use "horizontal skyscraper" complex in Shenzhen, China, is another good example. By lifting the building some 50 feet off the ground, Holl isn't just providing occupants with sea views; he's making it possible to transform nearly the entire 13-acre site into a public park.
In the end, despite the setbacks and controversies, Holl's unwavering faith in himself comes with the subtext of vindication. He was recently asked to expand Het Oosten's Amsterdam offices. The client for a hotel he designed in Austria has returned for another property in France. And one of Holl's first projects, the Manhattan offices of David E. Shaw's hedge fund, now has a Holl-designed glass showcase for the supercomputer at the center of the firm's new technology-driven venture, D.E. Shaw Research.
"You can say I'm not the easiest architect in the world, because I'm always trying to push the limits," Holl says. "But now I have repeat clients. And I never imagined I'd be able to say that."
Aric Chen is a contributing editor for Fast Company, I.D., and Interior Design; he also writes for The New York Times.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.