Steven Holl, Architect of Light, Space, and Watercolors

b. 1947

Architect Steven Holl in 2011
Architect Steven Holl in 2011. Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

I was in the Washington, DC convention center when Steven Holl accepted the 2012 AIA Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Institute of Architects. I listened to Holl's watercolor-like speech over the loudspeakers, as I rushed through the hallways, running late.  "Architecture is an art bridging the humanities and the sciences," Holl said. "We work bone-deep in Art—drawing lines between sculpture, poetry, music and science that coalesce in Architecture." That, I thought, is architecture.

Steven Myron Holl is known for his strong viewpoints and his beautiful watercolors. He is constantly painting, both in words and with brushes. He also is known as the thinking man's architect, an intellectual philosopher who connects disciplines.


Born: December 9, 1947, Bremerton, Washington


  • 1971, BA, University of Washington
  • Postgraduate study in Rome, Italy and the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, UK

Professional Experience:

  • 1976-present: Steven Holl Architects,; Twitter at stevenhollarch
  • 1981-present: Tenured Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University, NYC
  • Chris McVoy, Senior Partner at Steven Holl Architects, co-designs with Holl in addition to his pracitce with Beth O'Neill, O'Neill McVoy Architects

Design Philosophy:

" Rather than imposing a style upon different sites and climates, or pursued irrespective of program, the unique character of a program and a site becomes the starting point for an architectural idea. While anchoring each work in its specific site and circumstance, Steven Holl Architects endeavors to obtain a deeper beginning in the experience of time, space, light and materials. The phenomena of the space of a room, the sunlight entering through a window, and the color and reflection of materials on a wall and floor all have integral relationships. The materials of architecture communicate through resonance and dissonance, just as instruments in musical composition, producing thought and sense-provoking qualities in the experience of a place."

—About Steven Holl Architects, website at, accessed September 22, 2014

Selected Architecture Projects



  • 2014: Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award, Japan Art Association
  • 2012: Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • 2010: Jencks Award, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
  • 2009: BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award
  • 1998: Alvar Aalto Medal, Finland
  • 1998: La Grande Medaille d'Or, Academy of Architecture, France
  • 1990: Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters

In the Words of Steve Holl:

From the "Five Minute Manifesto," 2012

"The essential power of Architecture is PARALLAX: the horizontal and vertical movement through forms and light over time, as we—our bodies—pass by, walk up, go inside, walk through inspired space."
"The joy and ambiguity of SCALELESSNESS excites the imagination through Mysteries of Proportion like Fibonacci's - 0, 1, 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 … - which wakes us to Geometrical Feeling."
"Forget mono-functional buildings! Make Hybrid Buildings: Living = Working = Recreation = Culture"
"Make a New Fusion of landscape, architecture, and URBANISM, a fusion of luminosity and porosity into Cities of Matter with spirit. Make New Cities—our greatest artwork—with the same urgency as we restore the natural landscape and biodiversity."

Selected Writings and Paintings by Steven Holl:

  • Anchoring, Princeton Architectural Press, 1989
  • Edge of a City, Pamphlet Architecture 13, Princeton Architectural Press, 1991
  • Parallax, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000
  • Written in Water, Lars Muller Publishers, 2002
  • House: Black Swan Theory, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007
  • Steven Holl: Architecture Spoken, Rizzoli, 2007
  • Urbanisms: Working with Doubt, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
  • New Haiti Villages, Pamphlet Architecture 31, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010
  • Scale, Lars Muller Publisher, 2012
  • Horizontal Skyscraper, William Stout Publishers, 2011

Who is Steve Holl?

"Holl is viewed as assertive by people who are trying to be complimentary, and as a bull in a china shop by people who aren’t," comments architecture critic Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker magazine.

Arguably, Holl's Vanke Center in China is the architecture that fulfills his philosophical vision. Imagine the Empire State Building on its side, with giant piers cradling the structure several stories above a ground prone to natural disasters. The multi-use "horizontal skyscraper" incorporates sustainable design and urban planning. "Mr. Holl has designed a building that pushes its users to stop and think about the world around them," says Nicolai Ouroussoff in The New York Times. "It is an architecture that opens doors to new possibilities."

"The answers he supplies in all of his designs draw from architecture, of course, but also from engineering, science, art, philosophy, and literature," writes Zach Mortice, Managing Editor of AIArchitect. "Holl is the rare architect who can combine these gentlemanly pursuits (he often develops designs by painting them in water colors, for example) and use them as source material and method for buildings that aggressively push the edge of what’s possible."

Sources: Lenses on the Lawn by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker, April 30, 2007; Five Minute Manifesto, Steven Holl, Washington, D.C., AIA Gold Medal Ceremony, May 18, 2012 [accessed October 31, 2014]; Steven Holl, 2014 Laureate in Architecture, The Japan Art Association at [accessed September 22, 2014]; Turning Design on Its Side by Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times, June 27, 2011 [accessed November 1, 2014]

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Steven Holl, Architect of Light, Space, and Watercolors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). Steven Holl, Architect of Light, Space, and Watercolors. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Steven Holl, Architect of Light, Space, and Watercolors." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2021).