Lighting with Steven Holl
by Hervé Descottes
Architect Steven Holl spoke about his approach to architectural lighting in a conversation with Hervé Descottes of the lighting design firm L'Observatoire International, which frequently collaborates with Holl's firm. —Editor
Hervé Descottes: How do architecture and space make use of light?
Steven Holl: Space is oblivion without light. A building speaks through the silence of perception orchestrated by light. Luminosity is as integral to its spatial experience as porosity is integral to urban experience.
For our Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, the most important building material was light. Of the 25 galleries that make up the main function of the museum, all have a slice of natural light.
The behavior of light guided many decisions. The low angle of the Helsinki sun, never reaching above 51 degrees, helps give sectional form to the curved, "light-catching" aspect of the architecture.
Changes in natural lighting conditions are left visible — so passing clouds bring shadow, and brightness varies as the interior experience varies.
The exterior of Kiasma lacks conventional lighting — the building glows from within, projecting its own light outward.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art addition in Kansas City, a competition-winning project in 1999 that opened in 2007, takes this idea of night luminosity to the extent that at night the building seems to be completely constructed out of luminous material. Appearing as luminous shards of glass in the landscape, the "lenses" form courtyard sculpture gardens.
Descottes: What is the relationship between artificial and natural light in architecture?
Holl: Sometimes we try to integrate the source points of natural light and artificial light. Working together on the Kiasma galleries, this was the intention.
The 25 galleries in the building have a range of sizes, but all have natural light, and at these geometric cuts, the artificial light appears when the sun goes down.
Descottes: At what point do you begin to conceive of light in your design process and in what ways?
Holl: We conceive of the space, light, and concept of a work from the very beginning. Often in concept watercolors, the aspects of light are there in the first sketch, integral to the concept of the architecture, unique to the site and place.
Descottes: What is the role of the lighting designer in collaborations?
Holl: Often the lighting designer — you — is part of the design collaborations from the very beginning. We have pin-up critique sessions on the various schemes for an ongoing competition together with many consultants.
Descottes: How do you negotiate the effects of light with the presence or concealment of the fixtures that generate this light?
Holl: Each project is different, however in our museum spaces we have often managed to integrate the natural and artificial light sources with the geometry of the space in order to conceal the sources. We have aimed for washes of light that emanate from the folds in space.
Descottes: Are you ever surprised by the effects of lighting on your architecture?
Holl: The surprising things about light are often experiences in seasonal changes or daily changes.
For example at the New York University Department of Philosophy, the prismatic light in the main stair only occurs at certain times of the day. Suddenly there might be a burst of prismatically refracted color washing the walls and stairs.
The infinite possibilities of light have been evident from the beginning of architecture and will continue into the future. The revelations of new spaces, like interwoven languages, dissolve and reappear in light.
In magnificent spaces, light changes and appears to describe form. An eclipse of white clarity suddenly gives way to a pulse with color; light is contingent, its shadows intermittent.
Steven Holl, the founder and principal of Steven Holl Architects, spoke with Hervé Descottes on October 14, 2009.
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This article is excerpted from Architectural Lighting by Hervé Descottes with Cecilia E. Ramos, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.