Holl Outlines Guidepoints to Suit His Urbanisms

Reports from the Field by • 03/04

Event: Urbanisms: Working with Doubt
Location: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 02.21.08
Speakers: Steven Holl, AIA — Principal, Steven Holl Architects, & Associate Professor of Architecture, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP); Jeffrey Kipnis — Professor, Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University;
Introduction: Craig Konyk, AIA — Principal, konyk, & Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture, Columbia University GSAPP
Organizers: The Architectural League of New York; The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union

Sliced Porosity Block

The Sliced Porosity Block represents Steven Holl’s 11 principles outlined in Urbanisms.

© Iwan Baan, courtesy Steven Holl Architects

In projects from Cambridge, MA, to China, Steven Holl, AIA, is bringing momentum to situations where few would be at ease. His first principle behind his forthcoming book Urbanisms: Working with Doubt (Princeton Architectural Press), “the geo-spatial,” explores environmental design in a context that is not just metropolitan but astronomical: he considers the 800-degree climate of Venus, which once had water before greenhouse effects made the planet inhospitable to life. Here on Earth, Holl blurs the borders between urban formations and landscapes so that “every work is an urban work.”

With the scale and the stakes thus raised, Holl proceeded through 10 more guidepoints — or Urbanisms — such as the new forms of space created by nighttime luminosity, the value of urban porosity to receive light and shadow, the downsides of ephemeral construction methods that lead to rationalized banality, the capacity for “working in the Z dimension, not just the X and Y dimensions,” and a new take on the Keatsian poetic concept of negative capability, emphasizing the importance of responding to potential uncertain occurrences (“negative capability is a modus operandi for the 21st century”).

These principles are taking shape most dramatically in Holl’s projects in China. An elevated “city within the city” under construction in Beijing, the eight-tower Linked Hybrid housing complex organizes daily life around modular waffle forms, heated geothermically, and conjoined by skywalks to create “a cinematic space in the air.” Even more radical is the Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, a sun-sliced master plan that will incorporate pavilions by Lebbeus Woods and Ai Weiwei. The mixed-use Vanke Center in Shenzhen, is a nearly Empire State Building-sized “horizontal skyscraper” hovering on 9- to 14-meter legs to create shade and admit breezes while offering multiple perspectives on surrounding bodies of water.

Presenting the works and ideas behind Urbanisms, Holl was matter-of-fact, whether introducing abstract ideas or recalling the days when his practice occupied a small Sixth Avenue office, “where I slept on a plywood shelf over the entranceway and no one knew I lived there.” Urbanisms, the macro-scale companion to his previous volume, House: Black Swan Theory (2007), links six major projects with the 11 principles. “Today, working with doubt is unavoidable,” Holl asserted, proposing strategies that reckon with uncertain, intermittent, even ephemeral conditions as a necessary background for practice.

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