A Conversation With Steven Holl

On Friday January 31, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with architect Steven Holl, who created the Memorial Square plan for the World Trade Center site:
Gotham Gazette:
Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to architect Steven Holl, designer of the "Memorial Square" plan for Ground Zero.

GG:
Good afternoon, Mr. Holl.

Steven Holl:
Hello.

GG:
Mr. Holl, how did you, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, and Charles Gwathmey decide to work together on the "Memorial Square" design for Ground Zero?

Holl:
I believe that making the tallest building in the world on this site is an inappropriate response to the gravity of the situation. Our response was to make a sacred precinct. We envisioned a large public space -- you can imagine it as a cube with 1000 feet on each side with direct access to the Hudson River, so the urban space is more important than the object of the skyscrapers.

GG:
Much of the discussion about all of the new plans for Ground Zero has indeed focused on the towers. What are some of the ground level elements in your plan?

Holl:
Our ground level plan is made up of (on a grade connecting with all parts of the city) fingers of special paving that reach out to the adjacent neighborhoods. They unite the giant memorial square space, bounded by cultural facilities such as an opera house, a dance theatre, cafes, the new train station, and a museum dedicated to the history of the site. This would be a new public urban space of activity comparable to Rockefeller Center, on a much grander scale. In fact it is important to study the ground plans of the schemes and remember that quite possibly the vertical components might never be completed.

GG:
The newspapers have reported that rebuilding officials have picked three finalists to design Ground Zero. Your team’s plan has not been mentioned as one of them. Have you been formally notified?

Holl:
We have not been notified, so this is a rude way to learn the bad news!! However, we did this work as a dedication to New York City, therefore I still have the conviction that this time is well spent on a very important cause.

GG:
What details and concepts do you think rebuilding officials were looking for when evaluating all of the nine plans?

Holl:
I believe this process was not run with the sophistication that, for example, a European architectural competition would be run. Normally a competition has a stated jury with at least a few respected architects among the decision makers. The outcome of such processes in Europe and elsewhere have produced exemplary architecture.

GG:
How could architects have been more involved in this process?

Holl:
Respected architects should have been among the final decion makers. Architecture is a very complicated and very fragile art, it should be studied and deeply understood before making a choice on a scheme or a concept.

GG:
How do you think press coverage and public opinion have affected rebuilding officials’ decisions?

Holl:
Unfortunately the media coverage is really what they had to respond to . They should have had professional advisors who could bring up more than media-fast aspects of the different schemes. Most of the media images, for example, are only showing the projects from the 20th floor on up. The ground plan, the most important urban factors, were ignored by the media.

GG:
Rafael Vinoly said much the same thing in our chat last week. He complained that the process did not allow for anyone to learn enough about the plans to make an informed choice.

Holl:
I would certainly agree and add that this is an important and very unfortunate aspect of the way this process was carried out.

GG:
In a recent Newsday article, you said, "I hate to say this is a moment when we need a Robert Moses, but we need someone who can make a decision." How could the current process have benefited if a Robert Moses had been around?

Holl:
For example if Governor Pataki would come down, look at the schemes, and with a good professional advisor, simply choose one scheme, that would have been a better and more productive use of all this energy.

GG:
Are you saying that the public should not have been as involved as it has been?

Holl:
Not at all! The public made the greatest contribution of all in this process so far. Remember, we would not even have the chance to make these designs if the public had not created the uproar in July over the first plans.

GG:
GP says: "Paul Goldberger's article suggested to me that Governor Pataki was waiting for more resolution before he stepped in -- in fact there is a funny diagram of Pataki as emperor above a coliseum."

Holl:
I would not trust what Paul Goldberger says, he wrote an article describing our scheme as requiring a "super block" which shows he did not look at the plan .

GG:
GP replies, "OK -- but do you think his assessment of the political scene is fair? He says a lot about that."

Holl:
I feel the politial aspects are even more complicated and arcane than what he described.

GG:
Your team has said that it created a new building "typology," which is more "feminine". What do you mean?

Holl:
For example, the skyscraper as a building type is, in our scheme blended with the large horizontal section in a way that balances big horizontal space with thin skyscraper spaces. This has never been achieved in a tall building. The other project which attempted this typological breakthrough was in the scheme by the team of Gregg Lynn (United Architects). I feel that attempting to forge a new building type, a new way of urban space, was a central hope of the work we made. Historically architectural competitions are one way of producing the next stages in architecture and urbanism.

GG:
Gilbert Gjersvik asks: "Your buildings look like a tic-tac-toe board on the New York skyline and do not fit in at all with anything else in the city. Were you trying to be controversial?"

Holl:
The problem is in the media image. If you look at the garden spaces in the upper voids, if you imagine the different views from these radically urban spaces, you can imagine these as portals and thresholds giving onto a new century.

GG:
Alex Butzinger says, "Quote from the July Listening to the City: ‘Buildings are too short - looks like Albany.’ Why are your buildings even shorter [than the original six plans], against the wishes of the public?"

Holl:
Our buildings are 1111 feet tall, and they are full of openings,with a play of sunlight and shadows. They are a frame around the public space. I am sure that if the public were to understand the shadows, and consequences of the openings our scheme would be understood as much more positive than a couple of thick tall towers.

GG:
Even if your team is not chosen as finalists, do you think that elements of your plan – such as the memorial groves of trees in the shadows cast by the Twin Towers before the attack – could be included in the master plan or in the layout for the memorial?

Holl:
I am not sure about mixing the design elements scheme to scheme. It does not work in most carefully planned urban geometries. I do believe that a large memorial space floating on the Hudson River would be a brilliant place and a reflective space outside the bustle of the square.

GG:
A member of your team, Peter Eisenman, designed the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, now under construction. Does the team (or individual members) plan to submit a design for the memorial competition?

Holl:
We have not talked about that yet. I do not imagine we will.

GG:
In previous chats, we asked architects Rafael Viñoly and Barbara Littenberg whether they think any of the new designs will be built at Ground Zero. While Vinoly believes that one of the visions will be built, Littenberg said that the "complexity of the issues will require consensus forming around partial ideas, not whole visions." What is your view?

Holl:
I certainly would hope that one would be built. However with the current politics I imagine that unless the decision process is radically revised, we will see nothing from this work.

GG:
Thanks for dropping by, Mr. Holl.

Holl:
Thank you, I enjoyed this.


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