R and G in email exchange with Steven Holl and Dimitra Tsachrelia on March 14, 2014. Subsequent conversation recorded April 4th, 2014.
1. When we first met and I proposed having a conversation for our Phenomenology issue, I was excited to be told that Phenomenology does not exist. However, in reading your built and written works, it is clear that the ideas of Phenomenology are of great influence. I believe a good question to begin the discussion would be whether you view phenomenology as an ideology or as a kind of lens with which to read and design architecture.
SH: Wittgenstein said, “There is no such thing as phenomenology. There are phenomenological questions.”
Phenomenological questions can be a route to architecture. They give a framework for asking about our experience of space, sound, texture, light, and smell. Over the last 20 years, as architecture has been misrepresented by different media, to ask these questions about experiences of architecture brings us back to the true core—that architecture is the only art capable of bringing a manifold of essential experiences together and must be “seen” via the body moving through space.
G: Documenting the experience of architecture as exactly that, “seen via the body moving through space,” has been a great struggle for many of the figures discussed in Jorge Otero-Pailos’s Architecture’s Historical Turn.1
He speaks about the careful and meticulous methods used by Jean Labatut and his students, such as Charles Moore: for instance, photographing the buildings discussed in their writings as a way of communicating their subjective experience of a place. I also am recalling the way that you showed me the images of Doug Wheeler’s light pieces on your phone to share a personal experience. How does an architect, who puts so much weight in the sensory experience of a space, deal with the fact that the way the majority of people will see a work is through heavily mediated channels rather than physical occupation of a space?
SH: Maybe the mediated experience isn’t that important. Adolf Loos said that his buildings could not be photographed. He wasn’t that interested in getting published because he really insisted that you have to experience the condition of the Raumplan. When these volumes shift against each other, like in the Müller House in Prague, this condition is something that you simply cannot photograph. It’s just the slippage of one cubic volume against the other. If you look at Adolf Loos in books or photographs, you don’t understand Adolf Loos. It is the difference between looking at a score of music and actually hearing it.
I would also just add that I have been referred to as an unrelenting modernist . Jorge’s book has a postmodern subtext that I don’t agree with. When I talk about phenomenology, I am using examples like Adolf Loos and Luis Barragán.
Barragán’s work is something that you really have to see—these big fields of color and very simple movement of planes. Le Corbusier is another example, especially in La Tourette and Ronchamp. The way the floor slopes, the way light enters—these things are almost visceral. They have to be felt from being in it.
When I came to New York, postmodernism was the rage. Phillip Johnson had just finished the AT&T Tower. Michael Graves built the Portland Building. It didn’t carry that kind of weight in Europe because they had the historic examples in their flesh, in their realities. The sort of stuff that was built in America was just unbelievably bad. Please don’t confuse me with that.
G: What I took away from that was not putting you in a box with postmodernism but rather discussing the attempt to communicate these subjective experiences in space through the tool of photography. This was especially true in the work of Labatut and his students at Princeton—this first person view of the photographer. How does the experience of the body in space get communicated to someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to go to the building?
SH: We’ve invested in the medium of small films because they get closer to presenting our architecture than magazines. We’ve made several films with Spirit of Space in order to get you closer to the movement through the space, the sound, the change in the light.
In those videos there is much more than you can get in photographs or a text. So that’s a case where I am trying to use the most recent technology at hand to communicate more architecture.
2. In Kenneth Frampton’s book Steven Holl: Architect, he calls out a shift in your work that gradually occurred in the late 1980s from the earlier typology focused work to having more of a focus on the sensorial experiences of the individual within space. A common debate within architecture is whether practice precedes theory, or vice versa. Was this shift only possible after having the opportunity to build, or was it always an underlying focus of the work that became magnified over time?
SH: My earlier preoccupation with American building types ( Pamphlet Architecture #5,6, and 7: The Alphabetical City, Hybrid Buildings, Urban & Rural House Types) were part of a necessary working through of theoretical fundamentals that led to the breakthrough of the 1986 Porta Vittoria Urban Proposal for the Triennale in Milan, which was published in Within the City: Phenomena of Relations. Parallel to these writings, I was building small projects that helped to form other theoretical directions via light, material, and structure.
R: The important part of the Porta Vittoria proposal was the shift to design from a series of first person, subjective perspectives.
This is a radical departure from the primarily orthographic techniques of representation that were used in the Pamphlet Architecture projects. Is this a technique that has remained a primary design tool in your work? What advantages do you feel that design through subjective perspective gives you over orthographic drawings?
SH: That moment in 1986 was the height of the Italian Rationalists, especially Leon Krier. It was a polemic that starts with Aldo Rossi, Leon Krier, Giorgio Grassi, and all the Italian Rationalists. The prescription was that you could only do cities from building typology and morphology—the grid pattern of the city.
I said that we were going to do the exact opposite. We are not starting with morphology. We are going to start with space. We are not going to start with typology either. We are going to make up new types. The project began by making this prepositional chart with four kinds of architecture: under the ground, in the ground, on the ground, and over the ground. Then the word “between” was added. We made this complicated chart of prepositional relations. That was going to be the basis on which we would create new types. Then we made perspectives of space and determined what types that space made. These became fragments that were stitched together into a larger ground plan.
Just before that project, I took a train from Toronto to Vancouver. I always say that’s where I went through this change. I was sitting beside this phenomenologist. I didn’t even know who Merleau-Ponty was—he was teaching Merleau-Ponty. This train went through what is called the “spiral tunnel” in Canada. In order to make the train achieve the necessary elevation change, it goes through a spiraling tunnel under a mountain. I always said when I came out of the other end of that tunnel, I gave up everything I had done before, and I was going to find a new way.
After coming out of the end of that tunnel, when I got to Banff, I swam in this outdoor pool, and it was snowing. The snowflakes were coming down, and I was swimming next to Thom Mayne—that’s where we met. I had never met him at that point. That was April of 1984.
3. In the essay from the early 1990s, you open by stating, “Experience of phenomena—sensations in space and time as distinguished from the perception of objects—provides a ‘pre-theoretical’ ground for architecture…Phenomenology as a way of thinking and seeing becomes an agent for architectural conception.” 2 A common accusation against architectural phenomenology is that it does not operate on a theoretical level, assigning preeminence to individual experience. As a counter to this claim, where does theory play a role in your work?
SH: I purposely went against principles common in Phenomenology from the beginning as I insist on an a priori idea that drives a design.
G: This leads us to believe that there is a working partnership between the broad conceptual idea of the project and the kinds of phenomenological questions described by Wittgenstein. It is very clear in your writings and descriptions of your work that there are many external sources from which you derive ideas that influence your work beyond a focus on purely phenomenological questions. How do the theoretical and the phenomenological influence one another?
SH: Working from an a priori idea that drives the design doesn’t work with phenomenology. I presented this at a conference of philosophers in Helsinki. I wrote a text called “The Crisscrossing” describing the problem—that an idea needs to drive the design by holding all of these manifold pieces together. I said at the conference that I was misusing phenomenology. Those professors said, “No. You just reshaped it for your purposes in architecture.” They were fine with what I was doing.
DT: So phenomenology needs a prescribed form?
SH: First of all there are only phenomenological questions. The problem is that if you base a discipline all on effects and experiences, then we have to have a pre-existing condition to react to.
Architecture needs a beginning, a concept. There’s nothing in phenomenology that allows you to do that.
G: A lot of the conversations that we have had look at how architects did not read phenomenology and then go do phenomenological architecture. In the case of Labatut, he was already asking these questions and philosophical phenomenology was used as a tool of justification. There is a big distinction between Phenomenology and architectural phenomenology. They should be understood in relation to one another, but they exist as two separate discourses.
SH: I don’t think so. In fact it is precisely the ways that things are not separated that make them interesting. My experience was to be working on projects and reading a longer text in the evening or at lunch. The things that I would read would then filter in and become related to the project. There was one case where there was a direct link. That was for the Kiasma competition, because that comes from a text from Merleau-Ponty’s book The Visible and the Invisible. There is a chapter called “The Intertwining—the Chiasm.” It’s the Greek word for crossing. That was the key word for our competition for the Kiasma Museum. When we won that’s what they wanted to name the museum, but in Finnish there is no c-h, so they used a K.
[Yehuda Safran enters]
YS: This is your interview. I was there last time.
SH: Are you coming to my lecture on Tuesday in Glasgow?
YS: I can’t I will be giving my own lecture Tuesday at Pratt, but I will be there Wednesday morning.
SH: The building opens at noon on Wednesday—the Glasgow School of Art. That’s a very phenomenological building.
YS: Don’t say so. There is a phenomenological view, but not a thing. A thing is not phenomenological.
[Yehuda Safran exits]
4. Part of what has led us to the theme of the issue was the reemergence that phenomenology seems to be having with our generation of students and young practitioners. Much of the work being done in schools is largely concerned with affect and attempts to make appeals directly to the senses. Many of these young designers speak using similar terminology when discussing their work with very little knowledge of phenomenology as a pre-existing framework to discuss experience. As a practitioner and an educator of this generation, why do you believe this reconnection between this emerging group and sensory experience is occurring?
SH: I am not sure that your observation is correct, especially given the dominance of exterior image making and the repetition of iconic images via a plethora of websites. However, a return to core values of the inner experiences of architecture would be welcome. Like my past professor Hermann Pundt said to us in 1970 “A building must be more when you go in it than when you look at it.”
R: Last spring George and I were in a studio in which no exterior images of the building were ever shown. It was about the development of interior space across mediums.
G: In studios we are considering this first-person, subjective point of view, an emphasis on the atmospheric qualities of the space. These were essential in that studio but no one really knew at that point the discourse behind it.
SH: It’s a two dollar word. It’s used up already. The point is to look past the word and get into the substance.
G: We were mostly unaware of a prior discourse but were operating very much in the same way. An idea that I brought up was that my whole generation growing up was playing video games in which you are a first-person in space. You experience this world through this very mediated but also very subjective view. This entire world only exists because you are there to occupy the first person view.
This is something that may have had a profound effect on the way that we experience a virtual space. I think a lot of that has filtered over into the way we work digitally.
SH: That’s why such terrible buildings are coming out of the computer. People don’t really understand architecture. So they’re making some of the worst designs ever… this is a tragedy. I read a recent article about a video artist in the New Yorker—they describe going into his studio which is piled with pizza boxes and coke cans and has black garbage bags taped over his windows to keep light from going in so he can work on his machines for 20 hours at time. In a way there is this whole mindset that actually has a negative value to the environment. That comes with the territory of staring into the screen all time. This is a tragedy. Light and fresh air are biological needs. Suddenly we are turning against the natural environment. The captive video environment is something else.
7. Something that has become a signature of your work has been the delicate play of light and its effects within your projects. You have discussed the great care your office takes in the design of these effects at length. How does this attention to nuances of lighting scale up from the intimate scales of your earlier work to the mega-scale projects you have been developing in China over the past decade or so?
SH: Light and its effects are crucial in shaping the 3 million square foot urban project, Sliced Porosity Block that we realized in the center of Chengdu, China. The idea of urban porosity, public access from all sides, of this hybrid building is not as form-giving as the actual sun angle zoning rules that literally cut the block into a jagged elevation. In China, the code requires a minimum of two hours of sunlight per day into every apartment. In order to preserve the sunlight shining into apartments on the adjacent city block, our elevation was “sliced” according to those sun angles. At night the Light Pavilion by Lebbeus Woods throws its glowing light out to illuminate the large public space.
G: We do not disagree that the Chengdu project was not heavily influenced by light in its design. However, in this case it seems that light and Chinese building codes shape an overall form. In prior smaller works, the Chapel of St. Ignatius for example, so many of the specific instances where light infiltrates the interior or meets a surface are each heavily considered and calibrated. Is there a certain threshold, whether of scale or other factors, where a high level of attention to the intricate details of natural light becomes difficult? I find it extremely interesting that where so many of the earlier works are highlighted through photographs of the interior, the Chengdu project in particular never is seen through an interior image.
SH: We actually didn’t do the interiors. We did the plaza, the buildings within buildings, the art, the Lebbeus Woods piece, and the history pavilion. Below the plaza there is a large shopping center. We shaped the section of that space but did not do any further work on the interior.
The project is a piece of a city. Being able to shape the public space is as much as you can hope for. If you had a singular client who was building a headquarters then you could have the chance to do the full project. That’s not what this was.
1 Otero-Pailos, Jorge. Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. University of Minnesota Press. 2010
2 Holl, Steven. Pallasmaa, Juhani and Perez-Gomez, Alberto. Questions of Perception. William K. Stout. 2007