“My Favorite Material Is Light”: Tour Steven Holl’s Stunning New Visual Arts Building

Take a walk through the architect’s second building on the University of Iowa’s campus.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

This feature was created in collaboration with Spirit of Space. Spirit of Space is an award-winning filmmaking collaborative seeking to communicate the spirit of the people and places that build contemporary architecture, art and design.

If anyone knows how to manipulate and maximize light, it’s Steven Holl — so much so, in fact, that Senior Partner Chris McVoy calls him a “master of light.” It is therefore unsurprising to learn that, like many of Steven Holl Architects’ world-renowned designs, light is the key element highlighted in the firm’s latest completed project, University of Iowa’s Visual Arts Building.

Located directly across a meadow from the firm’s 2006 Arts Building West is the new, 126,000-square-foot, sun-soaked cubed structure, which features seven of Holl’s signature migrated cutouts. The contemporary design both seamlessly complements and provides a stark contrast to the adjacent older project, a planar, COR-TEN steel construction whose design references Picasso’s Guitar.

Arts Building West (bottom) and Visual Arts Building (top) courtesy Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

While the former project is horizontally porous and promotes maximum circulation and socialization within the structure, the new building is vertically porous. Its taller, compact design allows for a large central atrium to serve as the main social space in the structure.

Architizer sat down with Holl and McVoy to talk about their new Visual Arts Building, its relationship to Arts Building West and why they decided to go where not many firms have gone before: spending nearly two decades working on two visionary projects in the same location for the same client. The conversation below comes in conjunction with an exclusive film on the project by A+Award-winning architectural filmmakers Spirit of Space.

Sydney Franklin: At the beginning of the video, you mention that the Visual Arts Building exists as a catalyst for people to pass through and be inspired by the arts no matter their area of study. This project hosts a program for students in numerous visual arts fields, but it also clearly connects with students from other departments. Was this idea of connectivity something you and the university recognized at the beginning of the project, or did that manifest during the design process?

Steven Holl: Right from the beginning. One of the big ideas for the building is that you pass directly through it. The concept, with multiple centers of light and the central space becoming one of light and connection, is a social condenser where anyone walking through the building might stop. There’s a gallery there, and passersby can get inspired by what’s going on. The building can act as a catalyst for connecting people that aren’t involved in the arts.

“I never do a building that, in 200 feet, you can’t go through it.”

Was the largest migrated cut, or skylight, a design decision you made at the beginning, as well? How does that central void make the building even more dynamic and encourage connectivity?

SH: This building is essentially a shortcut because it connects a passage of people. It also connects two different elevations. You come in on a high side and come down to catch the other elevation on the other side. It’s a natural way to walk through the campus. The building is a very large footprint, and that’s why these carve-outs of light work so well, because they bring light down.

More importantly, the porosity that exists in the structure allows you to walk right through and feel the openness of the largest cut in the center. The building is dynamic in section, but it’s also that campus connection that really makes the building porous. I always talk about how porosity is important in architecture and the way the body moves through a building. I never do a building that, in 200 feet [of an elevation], you can’t go through it.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

“I had someone ask me, ‘What is your favorite material?’ And I said light.”

Can you expand on that?

SH: My first major building was the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki. If you’ve been there, you know that after 200 feet, you can pass right through it to the other side of the site. That’s an urban, open passage. That kind of porosity is something that I’ve been philosophizing about in architecture and that’s key in both campus life and in urban life. This is a fundamental principle that I think is very important to the movement of people on a ground surface, a campus and a city.

Kiasma Museum courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Pirje Mykkanen

The Visual Arts Building is so successful because it does this in a dynamic way. There are three entrances, but they all intersect on this big diagonal movement through the middle of the building. When you go in, you feel like you were drawn through the building.

Your concepts for the Shanghai COFCO Cultural and Health Center as well as the Hunter’s Point Community Library in Queens incorporate the same idea, using giant cutouts for light infiltration. This idea is very compelling. What exactly is your attraction to this feature?

SH: I had someone ask me, “What is your favorite material?” And I said light. My favorite material is light. To me, it’s a principle of connecting a building to the seasons, to the times of day and to psychological well-being. We know that natural light has an aspect that really does affect us physically and mentally.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

One of the greatest things about working with the University of Iowa is that they understood this, and we achieved it somewhat in Building West, but even more so in this Visual Arts Building. Building West has natural light in all its areas, but this new project faced a greater challenge because of its larger footprint. It’s a big square. This condition of carving the structure to bring natural light in became the entire concept of the building. What’s really exciting about being inside of it is you don’t have to turn the lights on anywhere. It’s all naturally lit. For such a huge building to be nearly 99 percent naturally lit, that’s a great achievement in my opinion.

“For such a huge building to be 99 percent naturally lit, that’s a great achievement in my opinion.”

In November, I won the Daylight Award from The VELUX Foundations in Denmark. This is an honor about the artistic employment of natural light in architectural space. For me, this is the lifelong pursuit. In a certain way, light gives a spirit to architecture that you can’t take away. When I built in Scandinavia, the low angle of the sun was very important for the design of the Knut Hamsun Museum. We had to account for the horizontal lines of light. With the Queens Library project, the cutouts not only provide natural light, but also the incredible view to Manhattan. The major diagonal cut in that building is about the balance between the digital and the book.

Hunter’s Point Community Library by Steven Holl Architects

Chris McVoy: In my opinion, Steven is the best architect that’s been practicing since Le Corbusier with light, period. This project is also about how that light meets density, the material matter and darkness. By bringing mass and light together, light became volumetric in this building.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

It’s impossible to tell the story of the Visual Arts Building without shining a light on Arts Building West. When the call came out for the competition, why were you attracted to building on the university’s campus again, and how were you trying to both complement and get away from the design of the older structure?

SH: It was one of the most challenging projects we ever did because I had a very successful, award-winning building that everybody loved. Then the flood destroyed the original arts building that we were supposed to add on to, and suddenly, we had a new, massive plot we had to build on adjacent to our 2007 building.

As an architect, that’s challenging and enormously frightening because you have to do better than you did before. In a certain sense, you’re up against a building that everybody loves being in and now you have to build something bigger, better and cheaper.

How did you decide on the perfect design?

SH: We did over 30 design schemes. It was a very long process, but we were very dedicated to finding the right fit. I’m very, very proud of the result. It‘s a very economical building, which was another big challenge.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

I have to say, it was a pleasure working in the center of Iowa with wonderful, very knowledgable people who are engaged in the arts, culture and the art of architecture. On that campus, they have a Charles Gwathmey building and a Frank Gehry building. That campus is a special place in the heart of America that cares about architecture as part of an education contribution. I think that’s part of why you can achieve something like this.

You won the competition to design Arts Building West nearly two decades ago. You’ve spent so much time thinking about how to design for this campus. Now that you’ve got two complete projects there sitting beside all those other architectural achievements, how do you feel about your work there?

SH:It’s amazing and so rare. We also did dance sets for Jessica Lang Dance called “Tesseract of Time,” a piece that took us six months. That piece is playing now at the University of Iowa. For one moment, there are three pieces of my work on that campus. I’m very honored.

The most amazing thing is that dance might be the most ephemeral of the arts. It’s over in 20 minutes; whereas architecture is the most permanent of the arts. In a way, they’re both given a kind of life through music. I always say that light and space is like sound and time and music. That’s what happens when you move through a building: Space and light become almost equivalent to how music exists in time. I think this building achieves that. You feel that when you walk through it from either direction.

32BNY: Dance With Architecture (Jessica Lang & Steven Holl) from Steven Holl Architects on Vimeo

Speaking of light, the transition of the building’s façade from day to night is amazing. How do you think the personality of the building changes throughout the day?

SH: That’s really by design. We put a perforated, sun-shading screen up on the south and west façades where you need the sun protection. If you look up close to it, the design is just a miniaturization of those multiple center shapes. On the street side, you see the actual different openings into the studio spaces, which are all organized around a golden section. There’s a kind of dynamic asymmetry to the way the openings work.

The mystery — and I think this is nice given the scale of the building — is that when you look at the building from the south during the day, it’s kind of scaleless. As the sun goes down, it takes on the scale and you see the sizes of the windows. If the students are up there working in their studios, they’ve got their lights on and you see that same dynamic asymmetry of the individual studio and their openings. That’s kind of a magical moment.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

CM: I interviewed one of the students in his studio when the building was completed. I didn’t tell him who I was. He told me: “I like that I can be in here all day and without feeling bad about not being outside. In this space, I can see the transition of the day, and I feel like it’s active.” The psychological condition of light and time are connected. When you make a building that’s engaging light as much as this is, the light gives you back even more than you were hoping because of all these different conditions.

“I had a professor that told me: ‘Buildings must always be more when you go in it than when you look at it.’”

That’s something that’s captured beautifully in the video. In what ways do you think Spirit of Space adds life to your project? What has been most surprising to you since working on the video?

SH: I expected them to do a genius video. My average building takes eight years from the first sketch until the realization of the building. If you put something up on the web, it only stays up there for eight minutes or then it’s gone. One of the saving graces of video is that it’s respectful to the depth of what the work of architecture is about.

It gives students and anyone who’s interested in architecture a much better window into what a building is. You can’t just look at a piece of architecture in one or two digital images that flash on the screen and think you understand a building. I had a professor that told me: “Buildings must always be more when you go in it than when you look at it.” A video at least gives us the chance to then desire to physically go in it. The real story is only found by your body moving through the space.

Visual Arts Building courtesy of Steven Holl Architects; photo by Iwan Baan

Is there anything you’d like to add about the project?

SH: Architecture is a very fragile art, and I’m very grateful for people like Rob Lehnertz and Dorothy Johnson at the university who care about architecture. Good clients are rare, and close collaboration is very important in order to realize an educational space.

One of the greatest things you can do is give something that can be a teaching tool for students in the future — something that lives on and has a positive atmosphere, positive light and positive environment. That’s the kind of contribution I can make.

CM: We really aimed for this building to be as open as possible to future kinds of art-making through its porosity and its ability to create chance interactions between students thanks to the generous social space. The building is an unconventional piece of art in itself, so maybe that can give students the confidence that they could do things differently. These joyful moments of surprising light hopefully also encourages students to be more aware of their basic environment and less focused on their day-to-day grind.

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