Steven Holl and the “Universal Language of Art…”

The Winter Visual Arts Center at Franklin & Marshall College, located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a commission that Steven Holl found to be a very good fit for his aesthetics and the values of his architecture practice. Holl is a strong believer in the relationship between the built environment and nature. “The large diameter trees, the oldest elements of Franklin & Marshall’s 52-acre arboretum campus, were the conceptual generator of the building’s geometry. As a lightweight building, its man floor is lifted into the trees on a porous ground level open to the campus and the adjacent Buchanan Park. The reflections of the hovering building at night glowing in the water of the large reflecting pool add to the special articulation of this place.” (Steven Holl Architecture webpage)

Oftentimes, Holl starts visualizing a project through the ecological lens of his eyes! In the finished working drawings for the Winter Visual Arts Center, Holl and his team called for the following: operable windows and skylights at every studio, natural light to all studios, radiant floor with heating and cooling, reflecting pool doubles as a stormwater overflow, and, most importantly, all existing trees preserved on site.

What are your thoughts on using ecological innovation design elements to connect the Winter Visual Arts Center’s physical plant to its site in such a way as to enhance the “Universal Language of Art” for aspiring students operating within the creative arena?

Franklin & Marshall Entrance Gate (Lux et Lex is a Latin term for Light and Law)

Steven Holl, Winter Visual Arts Center, Franklin & Marshall College

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

20 Comments

20 thoughts on “Steven Holl and the “Universal Language of Art…””

  1. I think when there is an opportunity for preservation, designers should always be informed of their decisions. In this case, Holl was able to fully preserve the ecology of the site, while delivering a project that is connective. The curves that are implemented reflect the volume of the pre-existing trees nearby. Based on the interior shots, this creates a calm environment that individuals will enjoy being in. The usage of natural light through skylights and translucent walls (insulated) highlights the context of the site. The form is derived by natural elements, thus being one that is not predictable, featuring spaces that intersect on axis, and through section. Art students will appreciate the abundant gestures towards outdoor spaces, and natural ventilation. This is a project that was mindful of the experience, and one that is restorative rather than destructive. I agree, that the project enhances the universal language of art for aspiring students. It pushes boundaries, and where there is opportunities, creates a contrast of light and volume. Form meets function, in a way that it becomes in itself a piece of art.

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  2. First off, I was surprised at first when reading that Steven Holl designed all his approaches for his project in watercolor. Usually, I thought that most architectural sketches and prototypes are very methodical with sharp and fine lines. The watercolor technique may have been used to convey how light moves throughout the building and to also convey how lightweight it is. Another thing that caught my attention was that he based his designs on the existing trees around the building site. Instead of uprooting the ancient trees and shrubbery, he maintained their place and adapted to their placements. I thought it was quite mesmerizing how the channel windows reflected light across all the art studios, and how they also pictured nature outside. The pool reflection outside makes the building appear more massive, and the combination of both nature and modern designs was a top notch decision.

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  3. To me, the idea to include the plant life into the architecture is pure genius. Especially given the modernist architecture of the bottom building. As time goes on, I have noticed that there has been in increase in the number of people who dislike modernism. I guess in the past, the idea of this simplistic future looked great but now people want to retain certain features of the past. There’s even memes about “reject modernity, return to *blank*” that exist now. I for one really like modern architecture, but I think most of the issue comes with the dislike of the removal of nature around modernism. In many concepts of modern work, even trees are too naturalistic to be accepted in modern works. Being able to place modernism within a natural environment and also being able to keep the surrounding environment could fix many of these dislikes towards modernism. Though I believe a new dislike would rise towards the fact that the modernism may feel like it is intruding on nature. In terms of the fact that it was built for the universal language of art, this type of surrounding area is perfect for artists. Making art of things from nature was where art originated, and now there is a lean towards modernist art as well. Placing these two areas together is quite the juxtaposition but rather than feelings jarring, it feels complementary, In short, I love the decisions made for the completion of these areas.

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  4. I am nothing more than happy to see artists or architecture using ecological innovative designs in anything. It makes things eco-friendly and doesn’t need to add any harm to the nature around it that can kill it off. Not only is preserving the nature around helpful to the environment, personally, I find it aesthetically pleasing to have a calming nature scenery around the area. I always loved photography with beautiful nature sceneries or places that have nature surrounding it and blending in with the design.
    These elements connecting to the Winter Visual Arts Center’s physical plant to enhance the “Universal Language of Art” is definitely aspiring for students to become more creative where nature CAN and should be used more often in their designs! Nature doesn’t have to be in the way of anything since it’s already great at it’s natural state. It adds a nice organic feel to the buildings surrounding it and can save so much more energy than tearing it all down and wasting gases that spew into the atmosphere. It creates such a calming environment that’ll get everyone to come back and probably never want to leave the place. At least, that’s how I’d be if I were to visit such a place and bask in the beauty of nature end eco-friendly elements that are beneficial for both humans and the environment.

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  5. Ecological innovation design, in my opinion, plays a vital part in bridging the gap between the existing built form, nature, and new development. Every time an architect has the opportunity to keep elements of the same area they are developing, instead of demolishing everything to start on a new canvas is commendable. At first glance, designers may feel compelled to create all new things but in the scope of sustainability, integrating nature with new buildings helps in the rejuvenation of the built form.

    In regard to, Steven Holl’s, Winter Visual Arts Center, Franklin & Marshall College, I believe the manner in which the form of the building encapsulates the old existing trees without disturbing them, alludes to how we should all coincide amongst all other things in life. Everything we do affects all that is around us. Whether it is an architect’s design, an artist’s vision, or an author’s writings once it is experienced it cannot be undone. The Winter Visual Arts Center generates many different thoughts in all of its many different rooms. The skylights and the channel glazing encourage new ideas by allowing the eyes to scan what is on the outside. To be aware of ones surroundings allows one to have them in consideration when in the creative process. This holistic approach encourages all to think outside the box.

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  6. I find Steven Holl’s approach in designing elements to connect the Winter Visual Arts Center to the nature surrounding it is an extraordinary idea. The images shown capture the simplicity and calm energy that makes visitors feel one with the nature around, creating a welcoming environment that can put one in a peaceful state of mind before continuing on to their daily tasks. As a creative myself, I find that I create my best work when I am in a safe and quiet space, so to achieve this on a campus all while preserving the natural environment, and not disturbing said environment, can help other creatives create their best work possible with a clear mind and stress-free energy.

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  7. I think Holl has a good sense of judgement of incorporating the natural elements in these studios. It’s more so that the studio is there to be one with these elements rather than disrupt them. Natural lighting and being able to get as much out of it with numerous windows and skylights sounds like the perfect environment to be in everyday. If you want to enhance this Universal Language of Art, it’s best to do it in a bright and inviting place instead of someplace dreary. This would definitely change the tone in an artist’s work depending on where they place themselves to work.

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  8. I personally love what Holl is doing by integrating ecological design with his architecture. In fact, this is something that I wish I could see more of in all buildings.

    I love the idea of working in a studio that has rich, natural lighting, open spaces, and views of natural greenery outside the windows and surrounding the building. I think that it makes a place seem more comfortable and inviting because you feel more connected to nature. A studio – or really any building – with natural lighting seems much more inviting than a corporate building with overhead fluorescent lighting and 2 windows overlooking a street. This is especially important when making a creative space. It is very hard to get into a creative mindset when you’re not in an environment that promotes that type of thinking. For me, I find it very hard to get into my work if I’m not comfortable with my surroundings and my workspace. I’m sure that most other creatives would say the same as well.

    This is also why I think so many big tech offices are going with the warehouse-feeling office spaces these days, because they’re a lot more inviting than the generic office space.

    I hear so often how people in the graphic design field, especially, need to remember to stretch, step away from their computer screens and take some time in nature to recenter. Not only is this good for our physical bodies, but it helps with our mental health as well. Designing ecologically like Holl is doing helps solve this issue, and I hope that this is the direction the future of architecture is going.

    Not only this, but I think that designing ecologically can make for more exciting and beautiful workspaces. Instead of tearing down trees, we should do as Holl does and make use of the trees that are naturally already in the area. It not only saves money, but it also helps our environment as well. We can get creative with how to make use of the already given space and make the architecture work with the surroundings instead of the other way around. I think that in doing so, the environment is just overall more organic and promotes the idea of creative cultivation rather than forced work.

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  9. Personally, I do favor architectural practices connective with the environment as plants or other nature came before any architecture. Due to the fact that Buildings account for a large amount of land, energy and water consumption, and also contribute hugely to air pollution, I appreciate Steven Holl’s architecture practice as I believe that his architectural approach aims not only artistic aesthetic, but also can reduce the environmental impact buildings have on the environment.

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  10. Lizbeth Ramirez | ART 434
    I think it’s wonderful that they were able to not only follow through with a project but preserve the environment around it. It really pushes artists to be innovative yet mindful. There is a certain stigma that accompanies modernism, but I think In this scenario it works very well. I think the design is unique but isn’t so intruding on the space. It rather complements the scenery. The windows are also very inviting for natural light. Personally, Natural light is so happy and a motivator for me. I would say it enhances the “Universal Language of Art” because it’s all so inspiring. Even at night, I think the view would be just as beautiful and uplifting.

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  11. I love nature involved in architecture. I hate areas of pure asphalt, bricks, and cement. I love green areas and I encourage them in any building. His decision for an ecological approach to this design is appreciated and great. Goes without saying that this decision didn’t seem to affect the visual appealing of the structure in any way, but enhance it. I hope more professionals go for this approach as much as it is possible or take the challenge on their creativeness and innovation.

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  12. This college looks really pretty, and I’m sure that the students who are able to afford it could be inspired by the natural surroundings of the building and the attempt at blending it into the pre-existing space. As a person who has lived most of their life hovering precariously above the poverty line, I immediately thought of the cost of attendance to experience the inspiration that Franklin and Marshall College offer their students. For my undergraduate experience, I went to the state university within the state that I grew up, because out-of-state tuition was not an affordable option for me, and my parents are unable to contribute to the cost of my education, so I am the only one responsible for paying for my college experience. My experience of lack of access to these institutions because of my financial situation makes me think about how much harder it must be for someone else to gain access to these resources if they are in a similar financial standing as me but they are not white or male or heterosexual or cis. There are so many complex factors that determine whether or not someone will achieve higher educational training, but the general philosophy is that of achievement being linked more to personal gumption and determination and moxie rather than a more realistic framing of the ability to access these institutions based more on identity and class than hard work or willpower. The “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that drives educational pursuits discounts availability to funds; I don’t think that expensive colleges really offer a more inspiring art-school-experience than schools that are more affordable, however, the opportunity to network with others that are financially powerful and connected is the main benefit of attending a more expensive school.

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  13. Using the environment and tying it into the architecture is something I wish more architects would do. Holl was able to create visually stunning work while also considering the environmental factors as well. For example, having a reflection pool double as a stormwater overflow is a brilliant way to combine beauty and convenience. I also like the fact that Holl made sure that no pre-existing trees were cut down or damaged during his planning stage. I wish there was more architects who would begin their work through an ecological lens. I also believe it does enhance the “Universal Language of Art”, because from my own experience at UNLV, I’ve enjoyed being able to sit under the large trees on the grass during or between classes to create work, and I think that other students feel similar.

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  14. My thoughts about ecological innovation design elements connecting the Winter Visual Arts Center’s physical plant include the concepts of mixing eco elements into landscapes. The innovation of having the reflection pool reflect the building and landscape adds to the eco beauty of the site. The shapes of the trees around the buildings and site add an additional beauty element to the site. Considering some parts of the Unlv campus where the grass, flowers, or trees, shape the buildings is an example of how the environment around buildings adds to the art elements of sites. Thinking of popular parks that people visit for the flowers and trees is another example. “Universal Language of Art”, can be experienced in many ways when experiencing artworks. The Winter Visual Arts Center’s physical plant can inspire future students to create and surround themselves with a new type of ecological innovation.

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  15. I believe that using ecological innovation design elements in general is a way to effectively enhance the universal language of art for an area and its people. It can be obvious sometimes when a design keeps ecological surroundings in mind compared to one that doesn’t, which can make an area appear odd in the grand scheme of things. Holl’s design appears as a holistic design, where the Winter Visual Arts Center appears cohesively with its natural surroundings. Design choices such as natural lighting through operable windows and skylights to include natural lighting, the reflecting pool which operates as a stormwater overflow, and the preservation of all trees on site show Holl’s clear thought process and care when creating his ecologically innovative design. I really like how the design turned out and appreciate how cohesive it is with its surroundings, something that I and aspiring students should always keep in mind for the future.

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  16. I think that ecological innovation is a really great way to preserve the environment while still letting the architects think creatively. The Winter Visual Arts Center is a good example of how architects can work around the environment while blending in the building that still serves its purpose. I also like how it’s a center for students because it gives them the motivation to think more creatively in their future work. It’s important that humans start working around our natural environments rather than destroying them because our natural resources are nonrenewable- it can be harder to try to bring back all the life and natural forms rather than working around them. I hope that in the future all of our buildings can be built like this so that humans can still coexist with planet earth.

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  17. Nowadays it is essential since an architect or designer not only respects the construction environment but also that his work has a dialogue with the environment. Tired of concrete and asphalt environments, everyone seeks to connect with nature in some way, it is relaxation, it is health, and even motivation (necessary for work and academic environments as in this case). If today we are already on the verge of an ecological collapse, and it is proven that art or architecture when it speaks and respects the environment is better, it is already imperative that this type of approach in design is the minimum necessary.
    Without reaching the extreme of the RCR Arquitectes constructions, with for example its Tossols Basil Athletic Stadium, this work by Holl through the simplest and clearest language there is, that of nature, provides what is necessary for this experience for its users, a respectful construction, and the intelligent use of natural “materials”, such as natural light and natural ventilation. It gets the desired mission of studying there is pleasant, motivating, and even beautiful.
    Of course, I agree that this project improves the universal language of art, creates opportunity, creates good feelings, and is not destructive and I believe that it places art in its essence of what it is (or should be), a natural, simple expression, of the work of man

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  18. I am always happy to hear of artists/designers that use a more ecological approach when coming up with designs in architecture. A lot of modern architecture today shaves away the natural parts of the environment for a more clean and sleek build, without considering the environmental impact these structures are actually giving out. Most houses that are built nowadays are always so full of things for convenience and modernity. It is easy to forget that there are many things in nature that could be easily provided if our houses allowed them to be enabled, such as skylights for example. Holl’s approach not only have an artistic aesthetic to it, but is incredibly environmentally friendly as well, which is something that more people should incorporate as we move on into the future.

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  19. I think it is always great to see designers use eco-friendly things whenever coming up with a design like Holl did. Having a unique building like this is something I believe is what we need more because having that natural light come through is always nice to have when studying or working. To have such wide windows built like Holl imagine gives us a little reminder of how nice it is to just look at the beauty of nature we have surrounding us 24/7. In fact, I like the design Holl came up with because it has a very futuristic feeling to it, and seeing buildings like that, especially built on a university will grab my attention always.

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  20. I think Steven Holl is particularly amazing to take into account the environment when designing and creating the Winter Visual Arts Center. He took the space and created something to no only compliment the natural aspects of the land but to also create a space that can radiate calm and relaxing emotions. I for one find nature quite calming and to incorporate the buildings design to allow for integration with nature and natural lighting is quite ideal in my eyes. Instead of cuttings down trees he worked with them and allowed the building and trees to work together for not only the earth’s sake, but for human emotional and aesthetic benefit. I think this was a great opportunity to encourage others to try doing the same and work with nature. I know it has me trying to think of creative ways to take nature into consideration.

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