Most people see buildings as things made of steel and glass, wood and stone. Steven Holl sees them first as things made of space and light. Just as the Moors cultivated the trickle of water everywhere in their desert palaces, Holl, who grew up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, designs buildings that cherish and supervise every sunbeam. Light gathers in the alcoves of his Bellevue Art Museum in Washington State. It sweeps across the arcs of his Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. It pulses through colored glass in his Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, a building he once described as "seven bottles of light in a stone box."
Holl's other signatures? One is a unique husbandry of space. Each building is not so much a discrete object as a complicated succession of vistas. He called his plan for the Helsinki museum "Chiasma," a Greek word for "intertwining." That describes how the museum's curving outer section enfolds a straighter-lined companion structure. It also refers to the complicated lines of sight and movement by which his intricate design reaches out to the surrounding streets. Moving among the museum's 25 galleries, visitors wind between the two portions and upward toward a concluding level of--what else?--sunlight.
Holl, who teaches and practices in New York City, is famous too for a fine-fibered sense of materials. One of his organizing principles he describes as "the stone and the feather," that being his notion of how weight and weightlessness are best understood in the presence of each other. You understand them better yourself at the Chapel of St. Ignatius, where thin sheets of zinc roofing meet rough concrete walls along knife-edged junctures. The heft of the concrete accentuates the fine metal, which reciprocates by pointing up the raw mass of the heavier material.
All of Holl's principles and intuitions have culminated in his plan for a major addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., scheduled for completion in 2004. This time he comes as close as possible to working in pure light--a sequence of "light wells," translucent structures strewn across the museum grounds like giant crystal boxes, each of them admitting sunlight to galleries underground.
After decades of played-out Modernist formulas and goofy PostModern replies, we have entered a moment of exciting American architecture. Richard Meier has refined the rules of Modernism to high brilliance. Frank Gehry has exploded those same rules to make some of the great buildings of our time. Why should Holl, at 53, be counted the best of them all? Because his buildings epitomize an architecture alert to emotional needs and the spiritual properties of space. Because he conforms his designs so adroitly to their surroundings. Because he knows how to speak through understatement. For all those reasons, his work is more than beautiful. It's illuminating.