The Pantheon: A Lesson in Designing With Light

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The Pantheon in Rome features an oculus: a circular opening, or “eye,” that allows natural light into the interior of the structure’s dome
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Steven Holl is an architect known around the world for his modern, light-filled buildings, such as MIT’s Simmons Hall and the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Time magazine called him “America’s best architect” in 2001.

Holl grew up on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he and his brother built elaborate tree houses in their backyard. “We had all these constructions going on all the time,” he recalls. “It was a natural transition to keep going with architecture.” Holl attended the University of Washington, and then went to study architecture in Rome. “I didn’t leave the Pacific Northwest until I was 20,” he says. “I was basically airlifted from Seattle to Rome.” The change came as a shock. “The dimension and the beauty and the space of the architecture in Rome — for someone like me, that was a revelation,” he says. The building that made the biggest impression on him was the Pantheon, the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman temple.

“I had an agreement with the guards,” Holl says. “They would let me in before the tourists, and I would study how the light changed” through the oculus, the hole in the building’s dome. “It was enormously interesting because every day was different,” he recalls. “If there was a rain through the oculus, there would be silver elements in the light, or if it was a humid day, there was a shaft of light. As it progressed toward summer, the light would project at different angles every morning. You could tell the changing of the seasons by just going in there every day.” For Holl, visiting the building was “like falling in love.”

The way the Pantheon changed in response to its environment went on to influence all of Holl’s architectural work. “Someone asked what my favorite material was, and I said light. I really believe in a certain sense you can sculpt with light. I think architecture should connect, like the Pantheon does, to the atmosphere, to the seasons, to the sunlight, to the air, to the wind. That, to me, is essential.”

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