Friday through Sunday later this week is a good time to visit the Bellevue Arts Museum. Steven Holl is back, and all things Holl fill the third level until next Sunday. Holl designed the landmark building two decades ago.
BAM, the brick-colored abstraction right across from Bellevue Square, is reopening for limited visiting, and Holl’s career now fills the light-filled third level. (Through October 11. Hours are Friday through Sunday, 11-5, with current times available only on Saturday and Sunday. Make reservations for visits of up to one hour at bellevuearts.com, or call BAM, 425-519-0770. Walk-ins will not be accommodated.)
Go there to see collections of his watercolors and decades of architectural models, all together. Also, you can see exactly what the celebrated architect looked like as a teen growing up in Bremerton, and where his father’s custom ventilation shop is located in relation to the ferry dock. I learned that even then Steven Holl had a very large head.
The exhibit—launched and organized by Holl’s New York office in collaboration with BAM—places Holl squarely in the pantheon of modern and contemporary architecture. He stands among the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid. Models and videos on display at BAM show some of the work behind this: Maggie’s Center Barts in London, the X of In House in Rhinebeck, the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. The exhibit emphasizes the importance of watercolor as a conceptual tool in Holl’s work as well as that of the architects and artists he most admires.
Best of all, the architect himself holds forth on his own brand of anti-modernism in a video for the project. Although much of the time is dedicated to promoting his own protegees, some minutes distill the essence of his theories. Form follows form, says Holl. That’s right: function is just not that important. Abstraction is a human need. His projects and their enduring attraction support this statement and put the lie to much of the gobbledygook spoken by our modernist masters to deflect attention from their ambitions as artists.
Holl is known internationally as a New York architect, and he has been a professor at Columbia University. His namesake firm turns up among candidates to design major landmarks around the world, including the one-time competition for the downtown Seattle Library (Rem Koolhaas and his team won that one). Museums and universities are typical clients. Earlier works include the Chapel of St. Ignatius on the Seattle University Campus (1994-1997). Holl won the coveted Alvar Aalto prize in architecture right around the time he was selected to design BAM.
Holl designed the Bellevue Art Museum just before the Millennium. For many years, the museum building itself was the sole artwork on permanent display. It was designed around the concept of impermanence, where art is reproduced for display or simply projected on walls and arrayed on the floor.
Perhaps most important, Holl has been a prolific writer and source of international architectural theory. His avowed concerns include housing, urbanism and, most of all, the many connections between art and architecture. Titles include Anchoring (about the connection between architecture and site), Intertwining, about connections between architecture and philosophical phenomenology, and Paralax, an anthology of his own “primary structural thoughts.” Books laid on a table at BAM include “Pamphlet Architecture,” a series which includes other authors. If they were alive, his teachers at the University of Washington, notably Hermann Pundt and Astra Zarina, would be very proud.
But Holl’s building remains the most important work of art in the collection of Bellevue Art Museum, and that may be because the original program, developed by then-director Diane Douglas, was based on the fact that the museum has no permanent collection. Holl’s building was always intended to be like an enclosed screen where voids carved in the brick-colored shell become worlds of inverted space where images can be projected on walls. Like many of Holl’s buildings, BAM is an uncanny vessel for contemplating the nature and uses of all the spaces we inhabit.
These days, as he grows more gray, the celebrated international architect from Bremerton and U.W. seems to grow ever more weary with high-minded excuses for the sheer joy of spatial and material imagination.
In one audio sequence at BAM, Holl carefully explains how he learned to bend sheet metal to make custom ductwork in the 1970s in his father’s Bremerton shop, where he worked as an apprentice. That would be the very same type of ductwork that laced the ceilings of rising towers like the ones then being built in Bellevue at the time. It would have been part of the huge, wasteful air conditioning and heating systems that developers and their customers demanded. In those days, the East Side was a hideous place for architects and design fans. Those were the days of flourishing highways and slick, reflective curtainwalls, hardiboard McMansions on the plateau and apartment buildings that mimicked those mansions with punched windows.
Inside Bellevue itself, the namesake mall was the de-facto downtown. Later, prescient planner Mark Hinshaw (fellow writer at Post Alley) would join the city staff and advocate for a large park south of Bellevue Mall and new emphasis on development and density around the original retail core, Main Street. That future is now.
Then Holl was brought in to design the art museum by the visionary director Diane Douglas, who got a grant from Microsoft. At that time, Bellevue was rising rapidly and searching for a heart to offset its reputation as a bedroom community centered around luxury malls.
Regrettably, we do not acknowledge the key importance of bold institutional clients in the realization of great architecture. I’m thinking of Douglas, who engaged with Holl for the design and realization of the BAM building, and also Deborah Jacobs, the upstart from Oregon who took the job of library director and saw the Seattle Library through its downtown project and many others, and her visionary supporter in the project, boardmember Betty Jane Narver.
Holl’s architecture is still the main reason for visiting BAM, and maybe even for visiting Bellevue. Even though the institution has had its ups and downs and existential crises, that should be good for pride in the Sound’s second city. For over two decades, his building has been an anchor of visible creativity in a sea of luxury branding and parking.
So the Steven Holl exhibit is very timely, even though there’s not much time to see it, and the pandemic has cut the crowds. Still, it’s not quite too late.
I too admire Holl’s architecture, particularly the new library in Queens. But the BAM has not really worked as a museum. It’s too small, too devoted to its exterior sculptural form to create good rooms for viewing. But more than that, BAM had a difficult birth. Fearful that Eastside collectors might give their artworks to BAM, it was stipulated from the first that it would have no collection of its own. Ultimately some key Eastside collectors withdrew their support from BAM, putting it in another tailspin. The saga points to a sad fact in the region: the stunting of cultural growth on the Eastside, in part because of the financial shakiness of Seattle’s major arts institutions. The long, too long, effort to raise the money for a performing arts center in Bellevue (PACE) is one more chapter in this “colonial” story. Only the Ballet, by opening a teaching center on the Eastside, has broken the Seattle protectionism.