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Steven Holl: Written in Water

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Lars Muller Publishers, 2002. 400pp. £30

Steven Holl is probably best known here for his Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, which attracted plenty of, largely positive, attention in the architectural press, writes Andrew Mead; and hardly a month now seems to go by without him being shortlisted in a competition somewhere in the world.An AJ reviewer last year praised 'the honesty and painstaking quality'of Holl's designs, saying that he 'deserves a wider audience' (AJ 17.5.01).

Written in Water, however - beautifully produced though it is - seems more of an indulgence for Holl than a source of insight for that audience.With the briefest of texts at front and back, it presents 365 of Holl's watercolours from the past 10 years, one to a page, like a bulky 5 x 7 sketchbook. 'In the meditations associated with the initial conception of a building, its first stirring towards form, space and light, the watercolours played a crucial role, 'he says, maintaining that they are 'not directed towards self-expression' but instead 'fuse intuition with a concept'.

So this is not Le Corbusier's Le Voyage d'Orient, full of responses to existing architecture and the works of other people; nor are these first sketches embedded in the full analysis of a finished project.Holl's watercolours have to stand entirely on their own.To do so in such quantity, they either have to deliver aesthetically, whatever architectural concepts they explore; or those concepts, and the forms they find, or the effects of light and space they indicate, must be unusually compelling. A very small minority meet that first criterion (the study for the Seattle chapel, pictured, is one); by no means enough meet the second; and do we really need Holl's 'Homage to Rothko'?

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