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Fleeting phenomena

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Parallax By Steven Holl. Birkhauser, 2001. 384pp. £32 Steven Holl has always been one of those intriguing architects whose work is difficult to classify. His projects tend to be thoughtful and often not at all showy. This new monograph on Holl is taken from the standard lecture that he gives on his work and, as such, it acts as a useful resumÚ.

In theoretical terms it is hardly stirring stuff. Holl declares himself a phenomenologist indebted to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology is a strange fish, for it is a theoretical approach which seeks, somewhat perversely, to rescue lived experience from the abstractions of theory, and does so by asserting the primacy of visual perception.

So in this book we get not grand cultural ideas, but plenty of fragmented insights into what Holl regards as the stuff of architecture: light, shadow, colour, texture, weight, lightness and bodies in motion. For him, architecture fuses the subjectivity of the individual human consciousness and the objectivity of formed space. But what Holl does not mention is that there is a certain archness in this approach, as if the very articulation of architectural phenomena renders them as solid concepts rather than the fleeting or invisible ephemera they really are.

The other recurring trope in the text is that kind of popular science which wonders at amazing phenomena at the two ends of the scale spectrum: mind-blowing relativity theory at the largest, and the sense of tightheadness induced by quantum physics at the sub-microscopic. The issue of scale animates all of Holl's writings and projects, and so the photographs here range from giant colourful nebulae to highly magnified bacteria.

There is a clear debt to Charles and Ray Eames' stunning film, Powers of Ten. It is also rather reminiscent of Future Systems' eyecandy books, but done with more style.

Other cultural touchstones for Holl come in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the experimental music of John Cage, the dome of the Pantheon, and the poetry of Homer (not The Simpsons' one).

As for Holl's projects, the ones that stand out are the StoreFront Gallery in Manhattan and the recent Kiasma Museum in Helsinki - his most spatially complex building so far, with the Nike-like clarity of its swooshing plan set off by a gorgeous double-curved wall.

Set in a sliver of land on a corner site on the Lower East Side, the StoreFront, now showing its age a bit, was a truly superb design. The folding flaps of the street wall turned what was a small claustrophobic space into a place for genuine street activity.

Each flap was carefully and exquisitely worked out, and yet the whole managed to retain a matter-of-fact roughness in its detailing that suited the grunge-culture of that area of Manhattan. 'Rather than pure, minimal space, 'writes Holl of the StoreFront, 'this space is crossbred. It can be exact and then suddenly change into dynamic combinative space. It can be severe or easygoing.'

This monograph excels by showing the translation of ideas from early sketches and study models through to final designs. This is a real book for architects, and, for example, the careful lighting studies undertaken for a gallery in Holl's project for a Museum of the City in Cassino are exquisite. Much praise should also be given to the book's designers who, in an age of graphic overkill thanks to digitalisation, have gone for rich simplicity. It makes for a beautiful study, which is well worth poring over.

In the end, it is the honesty and painstaking quality of Holl's designs that will either win you over or not. There is much to admire here: his refusal to play the commercial game, his enthusiasm for the hybrid nature of contemporary cities.

There are no architects like Holl in Britain, and the closest I can think of among the new generation would be designers such as Niall McLaughlin and Alex de Rijke, with their intense materials-led approach. Holl deserves a wider audience and, judging from the projects mentioned in the book which are now on stream, he should get it soon.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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