What Ramps!?

A whole lot of people who are not me should have been paying attention a lot sooner.

A few weeks ago I found myself at Princeton University for my twentieth college reunion. As I wound my way from the train station toward Poe Field, past what seemed like nothing but construction, I looked left at a white building with all sorts of geometric things going on and thought, oh, that’s the Steven Holl. I say this not to brag about how good I am at recognizing buildings, but just to say that Steven Holl’s work is kind of extremely recognizable, almost Libeskind-ian in some ways in its adherence to funny angles and weird cutouts and just a lot of wacky stuff going on. I was like, oh, yep, that’s the Holl, and then I thought about an article I wrote a hundred years ago about his dorm for MIT, whose principal idea was “porosity” and which, it turned out, most of the residents didn’t really like. The curves on the inside were bad, and everyone’s extralong twin bed didn’t fit very well. So, as I walked to wrist-banding/check-in, just across from the new Yeh College (equally recognizably designed by Deborah Berke Partners, which should never be wrecked, in my opinion), I thought about Steven Holl.

I thought about how he married his very young employee and runs an Airbnb in the Hudson Valley, and I thought about his sketchy watercolors, and I thought about how he’s one of these architects who has just steadily kind of kept doing really similar things and just stays around, indestructible, still getting commissions, even after fuckups like the porosity thing. I don’t know how much the students at Princeton like his new building there (an arts complex), but—segue alert!!!!!!—I do know that I love reading court cases and hearing about people getting sued over real estate.

The week before my reunion the City of New York sued Steven Holl Architects, with a couple of causes of action specifically naming Holl and Chris McVoy, the design partner behind the Hunters Point Library, for basically completely fucking up their design of the forty-some-million-dollar Queens Public Library branch that opened to significant fanfare in 2019 and then was immediately thrust into the limelight for, oops, totally failing to make the building accessible to people with almost any kind of physical mobility issue. I read the lawsuit, because I love the law and I love conflict, and I counted five areas alleged to be inaccessible—including the famous five-tiered central staircase (tiers 1 and 5 are accessible, we should note), the rooftop, and, most horrifyingly, the children’s area. The library is described by Holl’s office as a structure that “reimagines the traditional library model, providing diversity of spaces from intimate reading areas to active gathering spaces” and was supposed to be part of a big push to make libraries good again.

I can’t figure out how an architecture firm could just completely forget to make significant elements of a building ADA compliant, though actually—having been through architecture school—I can.

Whoops! I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve certainly whoopsed a couple of things in my professional life: a misplaced quote here, a profound misunderstanding of what a person was saying there. Writing books is awful because you write them in one mood and then you publish them in another, and then people read them in a third, and you react in a fourth, and so on and so forth, and it’s all very stressful, but as the City of New York (the plaintiff in this case) points out, Steven Holl Architects signed a contract saying they’d adhere to all laws, including ADA laws, and then they just… didn’t. So the city wants $10 million in damages and also wants all of his compensation back. According to Zoominfo, SHA’s annual revenue is less than $5 million annually, while according to RocketReach it’s more like $7 million. The firm has around fifty-one employees, which means if there were literally no other overhead or other costs at all, each employee would make $137,000 a year, which seems unlikely. On Glassdoor, reviewers rate “compensation and benefits” at 2.5 out of 5 stars. As you can see, I’m trying to do the math on how long it would take Steven Holl Architects to pay $10 million to the City of New York, but I guess that’s what insurance people are for. Ignore me!

I can’t figure out how an architecture firm could just completely forget to make significant elements of a building ADA compliant, though actually—having been through architecture school—I can. Maybe ADA compliance is one of those things that, like climate, used to be considered a last-minute add-on. Like, OK, just make sure the tables are x distance apart so a wheelchair can be used. If I use my imagination for just a second I can basically see that Holl or someone at Holl’s office was like, hey, guys, what if we used stairs to be a central organizing force? and then everyone just ran with it. The library’s press materials and website and etc. also say that a vertical library is a new idea which, hello, Seattle??? Rem Koolhaas??? The turn of the 21st century??? Computers???? Anyone??????? This is the problem with architecture, or a problem with architecture: ideas, particularly coherent ideas, are so hard to come by that the minute an architect lights on one they’re like I got it! No notes! What ramps!

And then you have a library that cost so many millions to build and that’s going to have to be dramatically reconstructed on the interior, and once they add the structures they need to make it ADA compliant, that central idea probably won’t be so central or even legible anymore, at which point the building will just be kind of a mishmash of whatever, some cuts in the facade (Holl!) and some staircases with… lifts? I don’t know. A whole lot of people who are not me should have been paying attention a lot sooner. At this point I say they just tear it down and let WORKac do it the right way.

Eva Hagberg’s love of WORKac is independent from the firm’s sponsorship of NYRA.