“The last thing we needed here were more McMansions”
It’s dawn at a small, tranquil lake in a wooded corner of northern Dutchess County — more of a pond, really, bordered only by a few houses on rustic plots. The water is still; the sky is bright with birdsong. In a small hut, mere steps from the shore, a white-haired man sits at a simple wooden table making watercolor sketches. Surrounding him on the walls of the hut are dozens of sketches he has done here on previous mornings — some geometric in feel, others more organic, several more inscribed with lines of poetry, like these from John Ashbery, on a sheet depicting the arc of the passage of the sun or some other celestial orb:
“The summer demands and takes away too much.
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”
Silently, the man paints. There is no phone or computer. Then he puts away his brushes, leaves the hut, and follows the path back up to his house, not far away. Later that morning, he will be sitting in his New York office a hundred miles south of the lake, supervising the design of buildings to be built or proposed on major sites on most of the world’s continents. In the office are more watercolors — sheaves of them — along with architectural drawings and models. While exploring issues of form and composition with the curiosity of an artist’s mind, many of the watercolors echo an inscription I found written in pencil on one of the raw plywood walls of the lakeside hut, when I was invited inside it, later that day: “The Zen sense of the alone”
That afternoon, in the woods across the road from the property leading down to the lake, I stepped out of a car with a friend and began a hike that almost instantly reestablished the strong connection to nature I formed when growing up in a small town nearby, in Ulster County. All was silence, except for the crunch of our footsteps on leafy groundcover and the echoes of birdcalls in the canopy of old-growth trees. In a way, the experience of hiking there produced the kind of aloneness that lets you feel you can encompass all of humanity — or should at least try harder to do so.
We were at the T2 Reserve, a rocky, 30-acre forested preserve in Rhinebeck, New York, which was recently created by architect Steven Holl, the man from the hut. After several minutes amidst the greenery my friend and I found ourselves delighted by the seductive way in which the path gently reveals itself in front of us, moment to moment. Not with the primal logic of an ancient Indian trail, insinuated centuries ago into the landscape’s dips and rises, like so many other paths in upstate New York. Nor with the Cartesian clarity of a now-abandoned road that was carved out for motor vehicles in the 1920s, still discernible even after new greenery has encroached upon once-clear path. And certainly not with the elegant definitude of a Zen garden walkway, where, with elliptical grace, a string-wrapped stone on the ground might signal, “Not this way, that way.” No, the directional signals to be found in the T2 Reserve reflect the esthetics governing Holl’s architectural work in general: sophisticated but subtle and unpretentious, and all about the rich possibilities any of us can find in the simple experience of being alive — walking through the woods, looking at nature, breathing deeply, gratefully; thinking in a relaxed way about nothing and everything.
When I met Holl for the first time, a few days after my hike and peek into his hut, I was eager to tell him what a restorative experience it was for me to visit his preserve — and how much fun it was to discover the path forward.
“I made the path with my landscape designer,” said Holl, whom Time magazine once called America’s best architect. “It was a sculptural cut. We only needed to clear a few trees.”
The land from which Holl created the preserve was once slated for subdivision into five suburban residential plots. Holl bought the land and turned it into what he calls an experimental topological landscape.
“The last thing we needed here were more McMansions,” he said.
It was also a delight, I told him, to come upon the pieces of sculpture he had so cannily placed along the path — discoveries that seemed to draw power from the quiet magnificence of the setting: Chapel of Mosquitoes (2015) by José Oubrerie; SUSTAIN/VISIBILITY (2016) by Dimitra Tsachrelia, Eirini Tsachrelia, and Nicholas Karytinos (1987); and Cold Jacket (2016) by the architect himself, among others. Holl nodded when I said this, having designed this patch of land to express his belief in the close connection between nature and human creation. Also on site are the T2 Studio, an exhibition and working space for participants in Holl’s fellowship program for students and young professionals, and a gem of a residential case study, Holl’s Ex of In house, a 980-square-foot retreat for artists, visitors, and students, which is also now available (mainly through word-of-mouth in architecture and design circles) for Airbnb stays.
Visiting this place, it’s impossible not to get a strong sense of the motivating energies — the hopes, beliefs, convictions — that imbue Holl’s work with such humanity. His museums, galleries, libraries, performing arts centers, and other works are widely noted for gratifying both spirit and mind. “Architecture is bound to situation,” he has written. “And I feel like the site is a metaphysical link, a poetic link, to what a building can be.”
Holl’s T2 Reserve is an extension of a cultural project that he founded in 2007 called T Space, a minimalist “T”-shaped forest gallery whose purpose is “to unite the architecture, art, poetry, and music of our time.” Holl told me that the impetus for the gallery, the reserve, and the site’s other installations recall the curiosities and creativities that he was feeling even as a child, growing up in Bremerton, Washington. Then, he explained, he and his brother were building tree houses in their back yard and playing a game they called “Property,” in which they were cutting little roads and making little villages in a bank of earth — a kind of real-life SimCity.
“We had a two houses up in the tree and a one-story cabin,” said Holl. “Then, underground, we dug a hole and put logs over it and carpet, and put dirt on that, so it was a cave in the earth. And so we had what I call the four kinds of architecture: under the ground, in the ground, on the ground, and over the ground.”
The house that Holl grew up in was largely hand-built by his father, he added — a man “who was a maker.” By the time Holl entered architecture school, he was an admirer of great humanist philosopher-architects like Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn — the latter whom hired Holl for his firm but died just before Holl would have begun working there.
When I asked Holl how the elements of his architecture conveyed this essentially human spirit, his smile broadened. This aspect of his work is clearly at the core of his professional drive. He spoke of form and scale, of course, but also of natural light.
“Light is enormously important in connecting us to the cycle of the seasons and times of the day — which for me brings a deep bodily connection to time. It’s a spiritual thing. Sunrise is one of the most amazing times of the day. I’m always getting up before sunrise and working on my watercolors, almost like a religious exercise. Maybe it’s my form or meditation. It puts me in a frame of reference that’s really important to thinking and being.”
Holl’s lakeside hut is a small, wood-frame structure with large windows but no plumbing, heating, or insulation. The interior is noiseless but feels tacitly in harmony with surrounding nature — indeed, that is its chief function. Those eloquent, swiftly made watercolors that grace the wall inside represent a wealth of thought, observation, existential interrogation, and esthetic investigation. Unsurprisingly, Holl’s working environment, an expansive office floor in New York’s West 30s, is a correlative of this hut — only populated by the 40-some professionals of his busy architectural firm. In a former industrial building, towering windows admit a wash of light; an atmosphere of charged quiet prevails. In front of computer screens the firm’s designers concentrate on projects ranging from a library in Malawi to a major expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Elsewhere in the office, 3D architectural studies and models are printed. In Holl’s private office, some of the 30,000 watercolors he has made over the years are at hand, in folders and notebooks, many out and available for contemplation and inspiration. On a table sits the shell of a lighting fixture that the architect designed for his Ex of In house — a white, scalloped object that looks like it might have been modeled on the four chambers of the human heart.
The house started as an investigation of intersecting spheres within a more rigid grid, explained Holl. And, in fact, the T2 Reserve’s Fellows Studio, just down the road from the Ex of In house itself, contains several small-scale models from which the house’s final design grew: a series of boxoid toys riddled with bubble-like hollows, clearly resulting as much from inspired play as from calculated manipulation. As Holl describes it, “The Ex of In house explores a language of space, aimed at inner spatial energy strongly bound to the ecology of the place — questioning current clichés of architectural language and commercial practice.”
Strolling down a forested country road and coming upon the Ex of In house — a decorous composition of geometry that barely contains its boisterous energy — is a thrill: Culture complementing Nature. And the public is invited to experience this for themselves. Past programming has featured poet Ann Lauterbach, artist Pat Steir, and musician Don Byron.
Entering Holl’s world means more than embracing Nature with a capital N. It means giving yourself back to your own human nature apart from screens and media and a frame of mind often too distracted — actually, too constricting — to allow the deepest kind of breathing that human bodies are capable of.
Architects may be known for manipulating materials like stone, glass, and steel in the creation of structures we can successfully live and work in; and good architects inspire us, too. But the best architects, like Holl, also create places that help amplify not only cogitation and inspiration, but, indeed, respiration itself…
Season events at T Space tspacerhinebeck.org/seasons