City in a City: A Decade of Urban Thinking by Steven Holl Architects opened at LA’s MAK Center for Art + Architecture in late January. Do not be fooled by the title. The exhibition is not about any particular city. Instead, it profiles a suite of projects by Holl’s office across China. The urban thinking in question, then, plays out in the scale of these built works and proposals, which express themselves over huge swaths of landscape and dazzle with their square footage. Consider the numbers:
In order, they correspond to the square footage of the following projects: Linked Hybrid, Beijing (2009); Porosity Plan for Dongguan (2013); Tianjin Ecocity Ecology Museum (2012); Horizontal Skyscraper–Vanke Center, Shenzhen (2009); and, finally, the Schindler Chase House (1922) on Kings Road in Los Angeles, home of the MAK Center. And just to put those numbers in comparison, the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York City clocks in at 3.5 million square feet.
The Porosity Plan for Dongguan is two thousand times larger than Schindler’s residence. I mention the figures not necessarily to underscore bigness, but rather to emphasize the almost tactile intimacy, the lingering domesticity that comes with mounting a show in the space. Nothing is neutral in this context. Visitors coming to see City in a City must first reckon with the question of Why? Why is a New York City–based architect showing artifacts from the design of supersized Chinese cultural commissions in a house in West Hollywood? Still, the question is as cloying as the answer is elusive.
In Urban Hopes: Made in China by Steven Holl, edited by Christoph A. Kumpusch, which covers similar terrain as the exhibition and was launched at the opening, Holl lays out five points of a manifesto. The first is “Hybrid Buildings,” structures that bring together living, working, recreation, and cultural amenities. On this point he writes, “Each project is like a city within a city.” The phrase, shortened and edited for the exhibition title, suggests internal connections rather than context-based urbanisms. As such, there is a case to be made for a domestic setting.
Six SHA projects fill four Schindler rooms in reverse chronology from 2013–2002. In each room, Holl’s concept watercolors line the walls and beautiful handcrafted models, some milled out of walnut or mahogany, perch on tables in the middle of the room—toy-like wooden sculptures. Some projects are accompanied by bound construction drawing sets in various stages of development. Absent is any overtly didactic material. (In each room, info sheets are discretely tucked into a tray below the model). Without wall texts or labels to identify each building and site, visitors must contend with each watercolor sketch as cryptic gestures: modest aquarelle pages washed with diagrams and vignettes. The paintings suggest dynamic form, but not scale.
MAK Center director Kimberli Meyer commented that the decision to hang the architect’s watercolors, over photographs or larger drawings, was in response to the homey galleries. The choice, however, frames Holl’s work in China as quixotic. A video monitor set up in the sunroom plays a loop of the architect describing his projects. Of the winning design for Qingdao Culture and Art Center and the long, twisting galleries of the Light Loop he remarks that the horizontal galleries “tell stories like those found in Chinese scroll paintings and create a line along time and space.” We are asked to understand SHA not as a robust global architecture firm, but as an aesthetic endeavor tied to the conceit of a single author.
The accompanying video montage, slow pans across mammoth facades, glinting pools of water, and impressive plazas filled with people, offers a viewer a tightly-curated peek into the reality of Holl’s designs, albeit one devoid of the socio-political and economic context that comes with building in China today. These glimpses confirm that Holl is working at the top of his game on large, complex structures. Indeed, SHA’s buildings, such as the mega mixed-use Linked Hybrid or super-eco Horizontal Skyscraper–Vanke Center, have been published and publicized extensively in endless digital outlets. The exhibition, in its reliance on watercolors and object-like models, confines the firm’s work to concepts and diagrams that border on platitudes. In a sketch dated 10/15/12 of the Ecology Museum in Tanjin, Holl dashes off a wash of green paint and three ecologies: “1. Earth to Earth, 2. Human to Earth, 3. Earth to Cosmos.”
City in a City frustrates because it holds its representational cards so close. Over a decade of urban thinking, Holl’s office has created a refined, even domesticated, narrative around creative gestures and ideas, even as SHA produces millions of square feet of enviable architecture.