Work of Steven Holl Architecture Essay

Pages: 8 (2535 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Architecture

Steven Holl's Kiasma

Kiasma, the Musuem of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, takes its name from the Finnish word for chiasma, which was the original title of architect Steven Holl's winning design. Representing the convergence of disparate architectural, historical, and cultural themes, the name is a fitting entryway into an understanding of the work's importance in the history of architectural phenomenology. By examining the process by which Kiasma was designed and built alongside relevant critical texts, one may begin to understand how Steven Holl's design embodies the focus on simplicity and personality lauded by architectural phenomenology and its proponents, such as Christian Norberg-Schulz. As an art museum, Kiasma attempts to provide the ideal space for reflection and interpretation by seamlessly integrating the functional aspects of the building into its aesthetic design, thus allowing visitors the opportunity to focus on the works of art while the building recedes into the background, centralizing the perceptive space of the interior.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Essay on Work of Steven Holl Architecture Assignment

Before discussing the way in which Kiasma represents the intersection of architectural theory and production, it will be useful to discuss the building's historical and cultural context as a means of placing this analysis in a larger context. Finland initiated a competition in 1992 in order to find suitable designs for "an awkward, historically important site in the center of Helsinki," which was wedged between one of Helsinki's principal squares and Toolo Bay" (Ingersoll 1998, Lord 1998). The site itself necessitated a creative interpretation of space and continuity, because it required the eventual design to simultaneously fit into central Helsinki's square grid of streets as well as the asymmetrical lines created by the meeting of terminating rail lines and the aforementioned bay. Furthermore, the location meant that the eventual design would almost certainly be compared to the "building's well-established neighbors -- Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall (1971) to the north, J.S. Siren's Finnish Parliament (1931) to the west, and Eliel Saarinen's railroad station (1914) to the east" (Lord 1998).

Thus, it created something of a shock, and nearly a scandal, when the committee judging the design competition awarded the project to Steven Holl, making the museum "the first significant public project designed by a non-Finnish architect since the nation's independence in 1917" (Ingersoll 1998). However, the skepticism which arose out of this decision was ultimately answered with the simple, unobtrusive, yet captivating nature of Holl's design, because the fears that "importing design talent" would somehow disrupt the architectural landscape of the city were ultimately unfounded due to the fact that Holl's dedication to the precepts of phenomenology essentially precluded a design that did anything but integrate itself into its found context. However, before discussing how Kiasma both interprets architectural theory through actual architectural practice, it will be necessary to briefly discuss the design itself.

Holl's original design was dubbed Chiasma, and because "the term defined the selection committee's expectations so well that the moniker stuck," so that "with transliteration, the museum was officially dubbed Kiasma" (Lord 1998). The Kiasma website explains its moniker by noting that the original word "stands for an intersection," and "particularly the crossing of optic nerves," suggesting the "neurological configuration that links perception and conception" in a nod towards the distinctly phenomenological conception of space transforming into place (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011, Muschamp 1998)). The name alludes to the visual and physical intersection of shapes as well, because the design is essentially "a simple weaving of two shapes " (Lord 1998). The southern facing portion of the building is "a long rectangular volume that serves as an extended entrance, " and as the building extends to the northeast, the sharp lines which contain the rectangular face drop off on one side, causing the roof to transform into a curved, almost bulbous swoop (Lord 1998). The blending of these two shapes serves both an interior and exterior purpose, and aids the building in both assimilating itself into its surroundings while visually mirroring the artistic and cultural space contained within.

From the outside, the building manages to seamlessly integrate itself into its surroundings by embracing the "awkward" nature of the site, such that "the boxy part aligns to the city's grid and the rounded shell addresses the indeterminate areas of an adjoining park and railyard" (Ingersoll 1998). Similarly, the overall shape of the building serves to highlight the cultural space contained within, because as visitors enter through the rigid, rectangular entrance, they gradually move towards the open, curved section containing "the flowing gallery rooms [...] with curved walls and seamless, scratch-coat plaster surfaces animated by shifting light patterns" (Lord 1998). The interior is mainly plaster and tinted concrete, providing a simplicity necessary to allow the art contained within to "dominate the realm in between " the larger scale of the structure as a whole and the intricate details, such as the hand-sandpapered aluminum elevations which serves to refract the ample natural light (Lord 1998). Light is crucial to the interior of Kiasma, and "the amount of light is controlled electronically to take into account seasonal and daily fluctuations" so that the natural and the artificial are seamlessly combined (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011).

The enormous curving glass walls are made from Reglit glass blocks, which have had ferric dioxide specially removed so as to allow in only clear, natural daylight, because otherwise the glass would retain a green hue (Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki 1998). The design's commitment to convergence and integration is perhaps most obvious in the massive curving roof which creates one half of the combined shape of the building, because while the zinc (with hints of titanium and copper) undoubtedly marks the building as much newer than many of the historical edifices filling Helsinki, the roof will gradually feature a rich patina as it ages in Helsinki's maritime climate (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011). Thus, while the musuem may still appear relatively new comapred to the older architecture surrounding it, it is primed to become more and more integrated into the urban landscape as time goes on.

Having provided a description of Kiasma itself and hinting at some of the ways in which its design and material choices reflect the theoretical underpinnings of the building and the cultural space contained within, one may now discuss the way in which Kiasma represents an enactment of phenomenological ideals. In particular, one may look to the work begun by Christian Norberg-Schulz, arguably the founder of architectural phenomenology, as well the theoretical writings of the associate architect of Kiasma itself and designer of the outdoor lighting for it, Juhani Pallasmaa. The foundation of Norberg-Schulz's theory was a belief that "people invest meaning in the palpable character of specific natural and man-made environment," such that "mere spaces thereby become places" (Landforms 2000). This is a crucial observation, because it allows one to understand the relationship between perception and human meaning and identity by noting the centrality of "image' as a foundation for the question of the 'human being'" (Asso 2009).

Architecture, then, at its most essential, is the artistic practice of creating one half of human experience, because the intentional ordering of matter in space serves to impose certain perceptual limitations on those who experience that space. Thus, phenomenology seems to favor an architecture that seeks to work in concert with the natural tendencies of human perception as "an active interaction with the architectural form or the form of art in general" rather than impose a structural rigidity onto that perception (Asso 2009). This includes a rejection of architectural style that abandons any sense or ornamentation in favor of bleakly sterile material, like the International style, but also those efforts to directly imitate nature which, far from representing the open, expansive element of life, simply serve to structure the experience of nature such that any vitality or relevance to the biological and emotional experience of humanity is stripped away.

Because human beings, as a result of their biological and physical limitations, experience both time and space, and through consciousness imbue both with meaning. Although in theory there often exists a divide between the narrative arts and physical arts, in reality, "when a writer, painter, or a film director presents a scene, he or she must define a setting for the act," thus must "unknowingly perform the task of an architect," and conversely, while an architect constructs an ostensibly static object by changing space into place, that place is not free from time (or narrative) either (Pallasmaa 1994).

This feature of architecture is celebrated and highlighted in Kiasma, because the design imbues the building with a kind of dynamic tension through the always-already-happening transformation from rigid box to amorphous curve. The roof only serves to highlight this process, because as the patina develops over time, the changing color connotes the passage of time while simultaneously, paradoxically giving the building the sensation of continuity and timelessness, due to the fact that humans have a tendency to equate "old" with "eternal." Furthermore, the use of natural light throughout Kiasma serves to include the more immediate passage of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Work of Steven Holl Architecture" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Work of Steven Holl Architecture.  (2011, October 27).  Retrieved March 1, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Work of Steven Holl Architecture."  27 October 2011.  Web.  1 March 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Work of Steven Holl Architecture."  October 27, 2011.  Accessed March 1, 2021.