Life & Architectural career of Steven Holl

Steven Holl

Steven Holl is an American architect and artist whose built work draws on contemporary theories of phenomenology. He is best known for designing buildings that marry perfectly with the site they are placed in. He belives that instead of imposing a style on a site, the design should allow the site itself to generate the “architectural idea” applied to it.

Quick Facts

  • Born: Steven Holl, December 9th, 1947, Bremerton, Washington, US
  • Nationality: American
  • Occupation: Architect, artist
  • Practice: Steven Holl Architects
  • Website:


Steve Holl was born on December 9, 1947, in Washington, US. Today, he is one of the world’s most influential architects. The highly acclaimed America architect owes his claim to fame to his unique architectural design philosophy, where he allows his buildings’ form and character to be defined by the site on which they will be built.

This has earned him recognition and awards over the years. He continues to lead the industry through his innovative ideas.

Interesting facts

  1. Steve Holl is a proficient watercolorist.
  2. He is an avid art collector and trader. He regularly swaps his own art and collections for works by prominent artists.
  3. He is a founding member of T Space, a non-profit summertime arts center in Rhinebeck, New York.
  4. He is close friends with many prominent architects, including the late Zaha Hadid, who he went to school with at the AA school in London. He was actually one of the last people to see her alive. They met on the 16th of March 2016, she unfortunately past away on the 31st.
  5. In 1991, Holl was named Time Magazines’s world’s best architect.
  6. For 10 years after establishing his practice, Holl slept in his office on a plywood shelf above the entrance. He showered at the nearby YMCA.

Family & early life

Steve Holl is a very private person, and not much about his personal life is available to the public. What we do know is that he is married to spouse and fellow architect, Dimitra Tsachrelia, and they have one daughter together.

He grew up in Bremerton and Manchester in Washington, and he is an avid artist. He enjoys water coloring and collects art pieces from artists and architects that he respects.

Stadgenoot Pavilion, Amsterdam
Stadgenoot Pavilion, Amsterdam


After attending the University of Washington (B.A., 1971), Holl continued his architectural studies in Rome.

He then attended graduate school at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. On returning to the United States, he established a practice in New York City, where he also served on the faculty of Columbia University from 1981.

He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000.

Early training & influences

Holl won first prize in the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek International Library Design Competition in 1988, for an expansion and renovation of the American Memorial Library in Berlin.

In February, 1989 Holl’s work was exhibited in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. MoMA later purchased twenty-five works by Holl for the museum’s permanent collection.

In a 1992 competition for a new contemporary arts museum in Helsinki, Finland, Holl’s entry, entitled “Chiasma,” won first prize out of more than five hundred international entries. The museum opened to the public in 1998, having permanently adopted the name “Kiasma,” the Finnish transliteration of “chiasma.”

In designing the Chapel of St. Ignatius (built 1994-1997), Jesuit chapel at Seattle University, Holl addressed the campus’s need for green space by siting the chapel in the centre of a former street and elongating the building plan. New green campus quadrangles were formed to the north, west, and south, and a future quadrangle is planned to the east.

The plan of the chapel won a design award in the American Institute of Architects of New York.

Holl designed the Chapel around St. Ignatius’s vision of the inner spiritual life, “seven bottles of light in a stone box”, by creating seven volumes of different light. Each volume represents a different part of Jesuit Catholic worship, and has differently colored glass so that various parts of the building are marked out by colored light. Light sources are tinted both in this way and by indirect reflection from painted surfaces, and each is paired with its complementary colour.

Architecture career

Holl’s work includes large buildings in many cities around the world, among them the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, China, an addition to and renovation of the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek (American Memorial Library) in Berlin, and an annex to the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

His later work concentrated on urban-scale mixed residential and commercial projects in China, notably the Linked Hybrid, a building complex containing apartments, hotels, schools, and restaurants in Beijing, and the Vanke Centre, a “horizontal skyscraper” in Shenzhen.

Among his many honours are the Alvar Aalto Medal (1998), the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for architecture (2002), the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (2012), and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture (2014).

Linked Hybrid, Beijing, China
Linked Hybris, Beijing, China


Holl is a tenured professor at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1981 with Dimitra Tsachrelia. He frequently teaches on the relationship between music and architecture.

Architectural style & philosophy

Holl’s architecture has undergone a shift in emphasis, from his earlier concern with Typology to his more modern style of Phenomenology. He has been inspired and influenced by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and architect-theorist Juhani Pallasmaa.

Phenomenology, a philosophical movement originating in the 20th century, the primary objective of which is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions.

Top 10 buildings

Some of Steven Holl’s most famous works include:

Practice profile: Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl Architects is a 40-person innovative architecture and urban design office working globally as one office from two locations; New York City and Beijing. Steven Holl leads the office with senior partner Chris McVoy and partners Noah Yaffe and Roberto Bannura. Steven Holl Architects is internationally-honored with architecture’s most prestigious awards, publications and exhibitions for excellence in design.

With each project the firm explores new ways to integrate an organizing idea with the programmatic and functional essence of a building. Rather than imposing a style upon different sites and climates, 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 endeavours to obtain a deeper beginning in the experience of time, space, light and materials.

Steven Holl Architects emphasizes sustainable building and site development as fundamental to innovative and imaginative design.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City


The biggest influencers in Steven Holl’s life are philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and architect theorist Juhani Pallasmaa. It is because of these two influences that he steered his entire design philosophy away from his earlier concerns with typology to his current more modern style of phenomenology.


In 1998 Holl was awarded the prestigious Alvar Aalto Medal. In 2000, Holl was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In July 2001, Time named Holl America’s Best Architect, for “buildings that satisfy the spirit as well as the eye.”

Other awards and distinctions include:

  • Best architectural design in New York for The Pace Collection showroom in 1986 from the American Institute of Architects,
  • New York American Institute of Architects Medal of Honour (1997),
  • French Grande Médaille d’Or (2001),
  • Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture (2002), Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (2003),
  • Arnold W. Brunner Prize in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
  • The 2008 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Arts category.
  • In 2007, Steven Holl Architects received the AIA Institute Honour Award and the AIA New York Chapter Architecture Merit Award for Art Building West for the School of Art and Art History (University of Iowa, Iowa City).
  • The Higgins Hall Insertion at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, New York) and the New Residence at the Swiss Embassy both received the AIA New York Chapter Architecture Honour Award in 2007.
  • In 2010, Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, (Herning, Denmark) was awarded the RIBA International Award.
  • The Horizontal Skyscraper-Vanke Centre received the 2011 AIA Institute National Honour Award, as well as the AIA NY Honour Award.
  • In 2011, he was named a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council., and Holl was named the 2012 AIA Gold Medal winner.
  • In 2014, Holl was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Prize for Architecture. In 2016, Holl was named the 2016 laureate for The Daylight and Building Component Award for Daylight in Architecture

Steven Holl quotes

  • “I choose work that is hard to pull off. And it’s scary how things can go wrong. But if there’s no risk involved, it’s not challenging. A good idea will survive any process.”
  • “I think architecture, to be really intense and fulfilling, doesn’t have to be large.”
  • “For me, the excitement in architecture revolves around the idea and the phenomenon of the experience of that idea. Residences offer almost immediate gratification. You can shape space, light, and materials to a degree that you sometimes can’t in larger projects.”
  • “You can say I’m not the easiest architect in the world, because I’m always trying to push the limits.”
  • “I’m sorry to say, but 85% of so-called ‘green’ firms make some of the ugliest buildings that were ever made. So for God’s sake, I don’t want to be categorized with them.”
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