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Steven Holl, named by Time magazine in 2001 as “America’s best architect”, grew up in Bremerton where he first encountered three-dimensional design as a teenager, in his father’s sheet metal workshop. It may seem a long stretch from fabricating ductwork to creating “buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye”, as Time asserted but an early life on the Puget Sound, including architectural education at the University of Washington prepared him for his creative career.

“Steven Holl: Making Architecture” at the Bellevue Art Museum was open for three weeks of its six scheduled months, but many architecture enthusiasts failed to catch it.

Fortunately, Seattleites can still make up for the disappointment by communing with Holl’s two outstanding buildings in our area. The award-winning Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, 1997, only a few steps from Madison Street, offers an architectural experience worth frequently reliving. The simple exterior form, seen across a reflecting pool, stands out among other buildings on the campus. The sculptural elements on the roof reveal their purpose as devices admitting light from the sky to the spaces below. Holl conceived the interior by responding to St. Ignatius’s vision of the inner spiritual life. Creating a sequence of seven subtly modulated spaces infused with colored light, he evoked different parts of Jesuit Catholic worship. Luminescent rays penetrate through stained glass to combine with light reflected off painted surfaces.

The Bellevue Arts Museum, 2011, an irregular volume carved out of a cubic form, enlivens the commercial townscape and invites us in. The stepped ramp inside illustrates the French modernist Le Corbusier’s concept of a promenade architecturale curving through the lofty atrium. It carries us first to a stage where performances often take place and on to upper galleries of diverse character, one with soft, even light entering from the north, another responds vibrantly to the arc of the sun at our 48° north latitude; a third, lit by east-west skylights reflects “fragmented time”. Outdoor terraces named by Holl as the “Right Hand Rule Terrace”, the Terrace of Planetary Motion”, the “Court of Light”, the “Chromatic Terrace”, the “Court of Water” and the ”Terrace of Wind and Shadow” show that the architect demands eloquence from the structural elements that define space.

When we visit these two buildings, we will not be surprised that Steven Holl rejects the use of computer graphics, the almost universal tool of today’s architects. As the exhibition vividly reveals, watercolor drawings, followed by models serve as his means of exploring design concepts and bringing them through many evolutions to realization. His worldwide reputation, international practice, and prestigious awards prove that his traditional approach triumphs; he is no luddite, but a leader in his field. This exhibition originated in New Paltz, New York and will travel to Korea, China and Japan.

The show includes sixty projects world-wide, most of which exhibit Holl’s characteristic drama with space, light and structure, but on a larger scale than the two buildings described. The University of Iowa Visual Arts Building of 2016, like the Bellevue Museum, appears to have begun with a rectilinear volume from which voids have been carved. Elements project forcefully outwards, fragmenting the structure and allowing light to penetrate interior spaces from many directions. The design invites maximum interaction between departments. Curvaceous walkways, staircases and balconies intersect and collide as they encircle the central atrium. Classrooms, studios, the library, art gallery and social spaces assert their own individuality.

The Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton further deconstructs the box, pulling its components, further apart and adding a cylindrical volume as well as a large reflecting pool. Designed for theater, dance and drama, it provides visual variety and spatial complexity.

Compared with the two university arts buildings in this country, Holl’s projects for the arts in China and Japan confront us with more daring originality. Notably, the Sifang Art Museum at Nanjing, China 2013 consists of flexible exhibition space in a translucent tube, which makes three turns as it hovers in the air high above the concrete base. It gives spectacular views of Nanjing from this elevated vantage point, often across a misty landscape evoking Chinese paintings. The lower area elegantly provides for other museum functions. Would any American Museum client be so audacious?

If you missed the show in Bellevue, and, after visiting the chapel and the museum, you want visit Steven Holl’s work, at his website

Henry C. Matthews Architectural Historian Professor Emeritus, Washington State University. His most recent book is Greek Cities of Sicily: History, Archaeology, Architecture available from the author at or online.


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