“Power of Arts vs. Coronavirus Pandemic” Praemium Imperiale Laureates Speak Out

We have been fortunate to be able to do all our work with remote zoom meetings. Our projects in China have now resumed construction.
I believe the role of the arts is more important than ever during global crises such as this via active social networks, the arts can inspire and help us define our current lives. As the great poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote, “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense – the creative act.”
With the creative works produced under any circumstance, we realize the central meanings of culture and the core aims of our existence.
Every day during this current pandemic, I have painted a watercolor inscribed with poem fragments, trying to reflect on our moment in time on this fragile earth.
I’ve attached here some reflections I wrote recently for Lotus magazine in Milan.
– Steven Holl, (July 8, 2020).

Transformation of Consciousness:
“Modern Philosophy, starting with Hegel, has succumbed to the strange illusion that man, in distinction from other things has created himself.”  – Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
“When we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”  – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
“A breath is enough to invoke the realm of religious experience.” – Paul Klee

I imagine the coronavirus, this strange breath – robbing plague engulfing the global today will change humanity on earth from now on in some ways. On this earth, being alive is a gift. Today, we are humbled and shocked by the unknown. Our vulnerable species – humankind – has in recent decades, caused the disintegration of ecosystems of nature at “cataclysmic rate.”
Going forward our species must re-value itself – we must have a transformation of consciousness including at least eight points:
1. Respect of the power of nature.
2. Our species actions primary focus on protecting earth, home.
3. Recognize we are a global community – not nationalistic parasites on this earth.
4. Planning for all environment and architecture should embrace our codependence.
5. Privatized and political tribe-like divisions must be abolished
6. We should collectively enforce intolerance of power abuse, lies, and manipulation of media.
7. Deep appreciation for workers in healthcare, farming, food supplies, and all community supporting actions.
8. The primary of creativity and the spiritual optimistic force in all the arts.

The Future Rethought:
Instead of a future which we determine via the human will, a future which is approaching us shifts our understanding. As the composer, Arvo Pärt said recently, “Coronavirus has shown us that humanity is a single organism… in a way it has sent us all back to the first grade.”
As a single organism: flora, fauna, the oceans, the atmosphere, and humanity is a codependent interconnected life force. We must transform our values for all planning, environmental, and architectural works. We must ask, “How shall we live? What is architecture?”

The Transformation of Consciousness involves a “turning against the self-assertion of humans” – but embraces the knowledge and future discoveries of the natural sciences. It involves a deeper question of the meaning of “being”. Hannah Arendt wrote, “Life is an experiment of cognition.” Our global crisis today must shake us to our foundations in new understandings in thought and experience – as it disrupts how we think we can re-value all our values.
The phenomenal power of architecture to put essences back into existence. The potential of architecture’s deep interconnection with environmental and natural physics, and the power of architecture to re-spiritualize life on this fragile planet are all part of a transformation of consciousness. This transformation must include poetry, music, and the arts – essential to the art of living one’s life.

Architecture and Existence
The Latin narrative poem, Ovid’s Book of Transformations was published in 8 A.D. It is a secret of the gods that the tears which turn into amber “ride the chariot of light.”
Today, the relations of the natural world and the human made world require the highest focus. The current global pandemic reveals the interconnected phenomena essential to our existence. Months of human immobility have halted hyper development globally, presenting a tranquility filled with bird calls, clean air, and blue skies.
Our architecture is intertwined with our existence in daily life in a way that architecture can put essence back into existence. The fusing of architecture with landscape embraces a core value of fundamental importance.
Urbanites fortunate to have a green roof terrace suddenly cherish its essential value. Astra Zarina, urbanist professor and my teacher as an architectural student in Rome in 1970 wrote the book, I Tetti di Roma, about the fundamental value of the roofscape of that great city (currently, the book is being translated and republished by MIT press).
In the near future, perhaps we will see urban planners proclaiming, “anti-density” as a new goal. I believe this could lead to a wave of suburban sprawl further consuming a natural landscape – disastrously aggravating the already serious issues of climate change. We need instead a new creative balance – a balance of the natural landscape with light, air, and the human made architecture. Perhaps “the culture of congestion” will prove to be as wrong-headed as the tuberculosis Paris-induced “Tower-in-Park” of Le Corbusier. Crammed together towers in hyper-dense development is most recently exemplified by the Hudson Yards pile of dense towers in New York City; championed by planners following the “Culture of Congestion” manifesto. This certainly will prove to be no fine model for future cities.
Three projects we made over the last two decades suggest balancing and merging landscape and architecture. The Lake Whitney Water Treatment Plant in New Haven CT, (1998-2005) formed the largest green roof in the state and is powered by 88 geothermal wells.
The Nelson Atkins Museum Extension (1999-2007) in Kansas City fuses the landscape of a public sculpture garden with an art museum extension preserving and interconnecting with the 1938 original museum.
A third example which we opened six months ago, the extension of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts turned an existing parking lot into a public landscape with. As the largest green roof in Washington D.C, it has many levels bringing natural light to spaces below.
In a future rethought, working with doubt, we may rethink our current attitudes regarding urban density, placing higher values on natural sunlight and essential qualities of natural landscapes and parks. We have the technology now to eliminate fossil fuels and run our cities entirely on renewable energy – we only need the political will.
Around 3400 years ago Ra, the sun god, was at the center of worship in the Heliopolis of ancient Egypt. A few miles away in Memphis, the god, Ptah, ruled as creator of the universe, then the power of invention, that is creative imagination was a core value. Now in 2020, creative imagination will be essential in our Transformation of Consciousness.

S. Holl
Rhinebeck, NY