Holl, Steven (b. 1947)

  • By John Pastier
  • Posted 1/05/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2932

Architect Steven Holl is the designer of two notable King County buildings, Seattle University's Chapel of St. Ignatius (completed March 1997) which won an National A.I.A. award for Design Excellence, and the Bellevue Art Museum (opened 2001). Holl was born in Bremerton, studied architecture at the University of Washington, and, though based in New York since 1976, retains connections to the Pacific Northwest, which he once left for architectural reasons.

Frustration at UW

Holl is a northwesterner whose relationship to the region has long been complex and ambivalent. He found the UW architecture faculty and curriculum so uninspiring that in the late 1960s he contemplated dropping out. One of his professors, Herman Pundt, encouraged him to enroll in the school's Rome program in his junior year, and he was profoundly inspired by the experience. He returned to complete his studies (in 1971), but upon graduating, left the region for San Francisco, frustrated by what he felt was a lack of true architecture here.

In 1976, he did some post-graduate work at London's Architectural Association, a freely structured institution that encouraged experimental work. He returned to New York in 1977, teaching at the Parsons Institute of Design, working on hypothetical projects, and co-founding an innovative publication program called Pamphlet Architecture. His interests were primarily artistic and theoretical, and he won early recognition for his writings, drawings (he is a superb watercolorist), and unbuilt projects. In 1989, he began teaching at Columbia University, a position that he still (in 2001) maintains.

The St. Ignatius Chapel

His body of built work gradually grew in scope, and extended as far from New York as Fukuoka, Japan. Eventually, his career became entwined with the Puget Sound region once again. Developer Paul Schell (1937-2014) promised him a building commission that never materialized, but in 1997, Holl completed his first Seattle-area building (other than a guest house for his parents), the small but well-received St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University. In the following year, he completed the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, probably his most significant commission up to that point.

In 1999, he finished second (out of a field of 26 applicants) to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the selection process for Seattle's new central library. At about the same time, he was one of four finalists for the new building of the Tacoma Art Museum, a commission which was ultimately awarded to Antoine Predock of Albuquerque. Kiasma influenced his second building in the Puget Sound region, the Bellevue Art Museum, which opens in January 2001.

An International Outlook

While Holl's work and outlook are international rather than regional, he is nevertheless drawn to the area personally and professionally. He frequently stays with his parents on the Kitsap peninsula, and enthusiastically presents himself as a native son when seeking commissions here. Although Seattle patronage has come somewhat late in his career, it has been highly supportive; Seattle University and and the Bellevue museum both gave him a free hand to exercise his avant-garde proclivities, as well as very generous construction budgets compared to building size.


John Pastier Telephone interview with Steven Holl, 1987; John Pastier Personal Conversations with Steven Holl, 1997, 2000; Steven Holl presentation, Seattle Public Library, Central Library, May 10th and 12th, 1999; Steven Holl Architects Website (http://www.walrus.com/~sha/index.htm); "The Art of Architecture," The Seattle Times, December 2, 2000; Steven Holl Press Conference, Bellevue, December 27, 2000; John Pastier, "Let There Be Light," Seattle Weekly, April 16, 1997; John Pastier, "Urban Edge: Bellevue Art Museum," ArtsPatron December 2000.

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