Steven Holl, FAIA, Awarded the 2012 AIA Gold Medal

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Steven Holl, FAIA | 2012 AIA Gold Medalist

By Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors on Dec. 8 awarded the AIA Gold Medal to Steven Holl, FAIA, the New York City–based architect known for his humanist approach to formal experimentation. The AIA Gold Medal is the highest honor the AIA confers on an architect. It acknowledges an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Holl will be honored at the AIA 2012 National Convention and Design Exposition in Washington, D.C. Because of his selection as a Gold Medalist, Holl was automatically elevated to the AIA College of Fellows.

AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, notified Holl by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. "I am really surprised and happy. It's an amazing day," said Holl. "I am definitely going to have a good birthday tomorrow!"

Daring driven by scholarship

Relatively recently, Steven Holl and his eponymous firm have completed projects that tackle the urban-scale planning and development conundrums that will define the success—or failure—of most the built environment throughout the world. Two projects of his in China completed in 2009 are emblematic of Holl’s approach to architecture and his innovative method of adventurous design inquiry. His Linked Hybrid, in Beijing, is a series of circularly arranged towers filled with 700 apartments and enough ancillary programming (hotels, schools, restaurants, park spaces) to form its own micro-urban community. The towers are linked by a system of 20th-floor skywalks that trace a ring of public programs. In contrast to the mega-block street walls typically erected by Chinese developers, the Hybrid invites the city in with green space, public programs, and playfully varied porous massing. With it, Holl hopes to create a more humane model of urbanism for cities in developing nations, where millions stream into urban centers from the countryside every year.

The Vanke Center (named after China’s largest property developer) in Shenzhen is quite literally a horizontal skyscraper: a long rectilinear mass tipped on its side with arms and branches reaching out from its main stem. Holl’s building hovers above garden and park spaces on eight legs, creating a shaded microclimate and quality public outdoor space that’s sorely lacking in developing-world cities. Making the building coexist and interact with the green space below necessitated that this developing nation take a fundamental symbol of its burgeoning prosperity—a new shimmering high rise tower—and tip it on its side. Such depth of inquiry and lack of presupposition in Holl’s work make this kind of audacious gambit almost common in his buildings.

The questions being asked by these two buildings, and seen in the rest of his work as well, involve global demographic shifts, economics, sustainability, and the role of urbanism in the developing world. The answers he supplies in all of his designs draw from architecture, of course, but also from engineering, science, art, philosophy, and literature.

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. His ideas about the give-and-take of urban objects and their context, material contrasts, and the materialization of light have been crafted into singular buildings that have formal wallop to spare and shine a light ahead, daring other architects to follow.

However, there has always been a subtlety and decency to Holl’s architecture. Formal gestures large and small are always subservient to a purpose beyond the building itself. Holl is a master of blending abstract sculptural elements with recognizable and functional building cues; he consistently leads people somewhere new and invigorating by offering them something comfortable and familiar. The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp praised Holl as “[exploring] new possibilities of form without fetishizing the new.” In a letter of recommendation, Toshiko Mori, FAIA, called Holl “a public intellectual” and “poetic.” “In every project he imbues a thoughtful meditation on the site and the condition of humanity, thereby constructing a well-developed thesis at the highest intellectual level.”

Literature, art, philosophy, and architecture

Holl’s practice has taken him to China, Europe, and across the United States. Examples of his work include:

The Nelson Atkins Museum Bloch Building in Kansas City, Mo., a subterranean art museum expansion that pierces the ground plane with five translucent boxes that materialize light like blocks of ice.

MIT’s Simmons Hall in Cambridge, Mass., a dormitory that Holl used to develop his ideas about urban porosity later seen in his Chinese projects. Based around the conceptual motif of a sponge, the building features irregular volumetric gaps and transparencies, as well as vertical, funnel-shaped incisions that act as light and air chimneys.

The Knut Hamsun Center in Hamarøy, Norway, a historical museum honoring the Norwegian writer that takes cues from Hamsun’s work to create a wooded, vernacular-referenced façade pierced by walkways and glass observation decks—literary symbols of hidden impulses.

New York University’s Department of Philosophy in New York City, which redesigns the interior of a historic masonry building and inserts an open six-story light shaft, taking formal and conceptual guidance from the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Pratt Institute’s Higgins Hall Insertion in Brooklyn, N.Y., an addition to Pratt’s architecture school that joins two red brick buildings with a glowing, bar-shaped volume of varying opacity.

Design excellence and social responsibility

For all his ambition and innovation, Holl has never been merely a paper architect unable to get his work built. He’s able to work with diverse clients to get projects executed, and bring his lessons to the academy. (He’s a tenured professor at Columbia University). His explorations have served as an inspiration to his colleagues. “What in my view especially commends him as a candidate for the Gold Medal,” wrote Henry Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, in a recommendation letter, “is his brilliantly demonstrated capacity to join his refined design sensibility to a rigorously exploratory theoretical project.”

“Steven not only improves the built environment, he improves the field of architecture by constantly moving us forward,” wrote Olson Kundig Architects’ Tom Kundig, FAIA, in his recommendation letter.

In a recession-plagued climate where many architects are questioning the purpose, intent, and meaning of the formal extravagance that ran architecture from Bilbao to the fall of Lehman Brothers, the selection of Holl as a Gold Medalist is especially significant. His work proves that great architecture can, and must, serve to answer questions about how to live in a more sustainable, healthy, happy, and equitable world. It invalidates the imagined binary distinction between social responsibility and design excellence, and validates the career of a man who’s understood this longer than most.

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Photo Credits

  • The Vanke Center/Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, China image courtesy of Iwan Baan
  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri Image courtesy of Andy Ryan
  • The Linked Hybrid in Beijing, China image courtesy of Iwan Baan
  • The Higgins Hall Insertion at Pratt Institute in New York City image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
  • The Knut Hamsun Center in Hamarøy, Norway image courtesy of Iwan Baan

(Photo credits at bottom of page)

Holl is the 68th AIA Gold Medalist

In recognition of his legacy to architecture, his name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Holl’s previous awards include:

  • 2 RIBA International Awards
  • 9 AIA National Honor Awards

Visit the AIA Honors and Awards website
View Past Gold Medal recipients
Go to the current issue of AIArchitect

2012 Gold Medal and Firm Award Advisory Jury


Susan Chin, FAIA, Chair
NYC Dept. Of Cultural Affairs, New York City

Lane J. Beougher, AIA
Office of the State Architect, Columbus, Ohio

Robert J. Berkebile, FAIA
BNIM Architects, Kansas City, Missouri

Mary A. Burke, AIA
Burke Design and Architecture PLLC, New York City

Steve L. Dumez, FAIA
Eskew+Dumez+Ripple Architects, New Orleans

Arvind Manocha
Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Los Angeles

Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA
Richter Architects, Corpus Christi, Texas


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