Steven Holl's Latest Design Is Business as Unusual
Monday, January 1, 2007
On bucolic Cathedral Avenue NW in Woodley Park, the Swiss ambassador's residence stands out like an alien object that dropped out of the winter sky.
"It did," New York architect Steven Holl says playfully. "My idea immediately was this Swiss island -- this little piece of Switzerland."
The house consists largely of two blocks of translucent glass -- giant ice cubes, if you will -- anchored by a box of charcoal-stained concrete. And drive-by visitors to the 25,000-square-foot structure will see Holl's work differently each time they pass. Glass planks layered over wallboard or insulation give the exterior white and milky casts on a sunny day, or two shades of gray when clouds hover.
The changing facade is very much a part of what makes the Holl house -- which took five years and $14 million to complete -- an object of architectural art.
Architectural masterpieces aren't always easy to read. A bird flying overhead might notice that the three-level building is shaped like a Swiss cross. It replaces a 1920s mansion that Swiss envoys had outgrown. A rectangular pad of slate is Holl's only nod to tradition-minded neighbors in a historic district. The pavers, he notes, are "the color of local mansard roofs."
The rest of the inspiration is intentionally foreign. The materials and palette represent the landscape of black rock, ice and snow that Holl saw on a long-ago journey to the Swiss Alps.
The structure is industrial enough to be mistaken for a gondola station, but the site, on one of the city's highest plateaus, is as majestic as a mountaintop. It also offers an impressive view of the Washington Monument -- a view that inspired Holl to design the interior as a series of interconnected rectangles, pushing visitors on a diagonal path from the front door to a view of the obelisk from the main salon. At night, layered glass walls allow the exterior to glow from within, like a Japanese lantern.
Holl, 59, lacks the name recognition of a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Frank Gehry, but he is considered a visionary of his generation. Time magazine named him "America's Best Architect" in 2001 for "buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye." The Smithsonian Institution gave him the 2002 National Design Award for architecture for successfully exploring such arcane concepts as porous membranes and materiality.
Holl's buildings, it must be noted, are inevitably austere. The architecture is steeped in intellect rather than brimming with emotion. That makes his buildings easier to admire than to love at first sight.
Holl won a competition to design the house in partnership with Swiss architect Justin Ruessli. The first occupants, Swiss ambassador Urs Ziswiler and his wife, Ronit, inherited the design with their new post. Since September, they have inhabited a modestly scaled private apartment on the second floor and begun to entertain those on their annual guest list of 3,000. Visitors are welcomed on the broad plaza of slate pavers, where a white-painted cast of a 2,000-year-old olive tree is the only decoration. Inside, a soaring white reception hall with black terrazzo floor opens to double dining rooms and three sitting rooms.
Holl's spare volumes struck the ambassador's wife as cold when she arrived. Colorful contemporary art, chocolate-brown sofas and a few chairs and stools by mid-century Americans George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames have warmed things up. Most of the rooms look out to a terrace or herb garden.
Holl's architecture is manna for design magazines, whose readers appreciate the luminous play of light and stark spaces. As he tells the story, it was those qualities in a 1998 design for the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki that kicked his career into high gear. In essential ways, the museum's industrial materials and wintry aspects foreshadowed the ambassador's residence.
Echoes of the lantern effect can be found in another Holl project, the long-awaited expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, that will open June 9. The 165,000-square-foot project includes a string of oversize skylights protruding from the institution's stately lawn. Over the course of construction, the project has gathered fans and vociferous foes, the latter of whom Holl hopes to convert with his completed work.
Holl's portfolio is packed with challenging but iconic works. He describes a chapel at Seattle University as "seven bottles of light in a stone box." The $95 million Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT looks like its nickname, "Sponge." A sculptural stainless steel water-treatment plant in Connecticut is seen as converting unsightly infrastructure into a landmark. An aluminum-clad, Airstream-inspired "Turbulence House" in New Mexico is unusual for the wind tunnel running through its middle.
Couture architecture is expensive. The cost of the Kansas City museum has risen from $80 million to $200 million, including renovation of the 1933 main building. A spokeswoman for the Swiss residence says the dwelling was originally conceived as a "$10 million plus" project.
In a community devoted to red brick and marble columns, Holl's work will always stand out. But as the latest addition to the community's collection of contemporary masterworks -- the Finnish and Swedish embassies and the residences for envoys from Spain and Germany -- it more than holds its own.
Being markedly different from the norm can be a cultural asset in Holl's view.
"The whole notion of an embassy is like The Other," he says. "That's what makes Washington interesting."