Malcolm Holzman on Design Inspiration

April 27, 2009

Distinguished architect Malcolm Holzman is inspired by the exploration of unique and conventional building materials

With no shortage of passion or inspiration, Malcolm Holzman continues a 42-year legacy of innovative architectural projects that can’t be characterized by a signature style. The only similarity among the buildings that Holzman and his associates design is their function – almost all of them are public or academic facilities. “I've been involved in many projects that have been very rewarding and play important roles in their community. It's one of the nice things about the work I do – none of [my buildings] look like each other. In fact, none of them look the same because of where they are, who they’re for, and what they’re made of,” says Malcolm Holzman, partner, Holzman Moss Architecture, New York City.

Given the long career and accolades he has been awarded, fellow architects and lovers of architecture may be surprised to hear that it wasn’t an epiphany that launched Holzman’s career in the field. “As a teenager, I could draw, and that allowed me, as a young person, to work in architectural offices … [that] helped me understand what architecture was about,” he says.

His days at Pratt Institute were grueling, with only 10 of his 100 classmates in the architectural program graduating. When he finished his coursework in the early ’60s, the prevailing style of architecture was Modern. Holzman partnered with Hugh Hardy and Norman Pfeiffer, and abandoned the movement. “We realized the most enjoyable buildings had a richness that was not found in the starkness of rational structures,” explains Holzman.

Technology: Boon or Bane to Inspiration?

Malcolm Holzman praises technology for its ability to help architects better execute buildings, and is concerned that it might decrease professionals’ observation and intense scrutiny of designs. Too much drag-and-drop can be a hazard, leading to design by repetition vs. inspiration. Talking about BIM and CAD, he says: “You can almost do it all on your computer. You can drag and drop it from another project and not need to consider it again … rather than thinking through and reinventing things. Technology can make some aspects of what we’re doing much too easy.”

The three architects worked together to prove this theory across 37 years, before the firm was dissolved in 2004. According to Holzman, “The Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer practice was founded on making buildings that were environments people would feel comfortable in and be excited about being in, and that were lively.”

For the last 5 years, in partnership with Douglas Moss and the 40-person team at Holzman Moss Architecture, Holzman is continuing to make rich and inviting environments for the people who use them. He hopes his projects connect with users and the community, encourage public interaction, and provide a sense of discovery. His insatiable curiosity to learn about materials that are (or can be) used in a building project has inspired some of the most inventive applications of metal, wood, glass, glazed tile, and stone in architecture today.

The Nature of Inspiration
As an urbanite, Holzman finds exploring the nearby communities and geography of building sites to be especially inspiring. On a hike in Palo Duro Canyon (the second biggest canyon in America) during a recent trip to Texas, the architect was awed by the beauty of the canyon walls and the horizontal layering of stone. “When it came time to construct the auditorium project in Amarillo, one of the materials that seemed obvious was red sandstone,” he says. “Sometimes, inspiration can come through observing the local environment you’re in.”

Not only does referencing area geography and including local materials visually root the architecture into its surroundings, but users are also immediately connected to this place because it feels familiar. In addition to being good for the local economy, choosing materials native to the area is also green. “We have, for a long time, been a proponent of using local materials before today's focus on minimizing the cost of transportation,” he says.

Process, Not Product, as Inspiration
Field trips for Holzman and his associates aren’t just limited to nature hikes. Discovering where and how building products are made can ignite a creative fire, too. “[Inspiration] can come from going to a fabrication plant and watching how rolls of copper are made from ingots,” he says. During his trip to the Revere Copper Products’ factory in Rome, NY, Holzman learned that copper, as a raw material, is most commonly a sheet metal (not unlike the aluminum foil used in household kitchens). A better understanding of the manufacturing process and the product’s innate characteristics enabled an unconventional application.

For the WCCO Television Communications Center in Minneapolis, Holzman worked with an area roofing contractor to create copper shingles to sheath part of the Nicollet Mall structure. The patina of the façade is striking, making this facility a standout in downtown Minneapolis.

From Refuse to Reuse: Scrap-Pile Inspiration
What can you do with discarded, defective, or scrap material? A lot, says Holzman. Not only is this environmentally friendly, but it’s also economical. “Frequently, materials that are put in a scrap pile, or in a boneyard where things are discarded … can be used if they’re reconstituted and reconsidered as a new building product,” he says. From the 4-inch remnant strips left over when bathroom vanities and kitchen countertops are sized, Holzman made columns.

During a trip to Omaha Brick Works Inc. in Omaha, Holzman eyed the irregularly faced bricks in the scrap pile with interest. The architect left the visit with a few in hand. Several months later, he proposed their use in the façade of the Del & Lou Ann Weber Fine Arts Building at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

From Conventional to Inspirational
Sometimes, it’s not the material itself that’s unique – it’s how Holzman uses it that is extraordinary. A small budget and desire to add wood to concert hall environments led the architect to explore oriented strand board (OSB). “Musicians are particularly fond of wood. But, up until about 6 months ago, it was very difficult to imagine making the interior of a concert hall out of solid wood boards unless you had a really big budget,” he says. The Carol Bush Emeny Performance Hall at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts in Amarillo, TX, illustrates just how strikingly beautiful OSB can be. Using conventional materials in an unexpected way can result in the desired budget and aesthetic.

Holzman has been able to stretch his creativity and his clients’ budgets to continuously deliver architecture that begs to be touched, explored, and revisited. While the materials he uses, both on the interior and exterior, can make a building feel rich, they come a cost that can be surprisingly reasonable. “Not only stone, but clay, wood, and metal products, can be used inventively to make wonderful spaces and places,” he says. “I think we could make far richer buildings for the same amount of money that we’re now spending on them, be much more resourceful, and also much more sustainable.”

Because his unending quest to discover new building materials and inventive use of conventional ones has resulted in a fulfilling career and an abundance of successful projects, he hopes that more of his peers will find similar inspiration. To this purpose, he has written A Material Life: Adventures & Discoveries in Material Research, which will be available in May.

Jana J. Madsen is a Cedar Rapids, IA-based freelance writer with nine years of experience in writing about the commercial buildings industry.

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