Steven Holl’s Sports Complex For Columbia Looks Like A Transformer

Steven Holl’s first building in New York is packed with the architect’s signature, whimsical flourishes.

After designing buildings all over the world, from Helsinki to Beijing, the New York-based architect Steven Holl has finally completed his first freestanding structure in the city. Unfortunately, it’s on a neglected corner lot at Manhattan’s northernmost point–a less than prominent location for Holl’s belated New York debut.


In New York, his adopted city of 35+ years (Holl was born and trained in Seattle), Holl has only done a few small galleries and interior renovations. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Holl has been involved, in varying capacities, in many of the city’s most significant urban projects: the High Line, Hudson Yards, and the World Trade Center. In each case, Holl’s proposals were either disregarded as architectural reveries or passed over for less inspired alternatives.

Holl’s Campbell Sports Center, built for Columbia University, is home to the school’s athletic corps–in particular, its football team. (Yes, it has one.) The building stands at a wildly trafficked intersection at the corner of West 218th Street and Broadway: At street level, cars zoom by, crisscrossing under an elevated bridge that carries a subway line. The muted steel structure of Broadway Bridge visually anchors the site to the north. The surrounding buildings are mainly low-lying brick-and-mortar tenements; some high-rise housing blocks rise in the distance.

The sports center, designed by Holl with partner Chris McVoy, is perched at the foot of a sloping lot, which the 48,000-square-foot structure, partially perched on stilts, navigates with some grace. The building’s muscular forms, rotated in multiple directions, wrap around the perimeter of the site, buffering the neatly manicured sports fields from the nit-and-grit of the city just across the way. The stacked volumes, which Holl’s office refers to as “arms,” gesture toward the rock-faced hills that rise from the other side of the river.

“The building engages these very different conditions with manifold form shaping space around and under it,” McVoy tells Co. Design. It’s accurately put: The architecture consists of a series of moments and transitions: Voids notched into the side of the steel structure cradle “partial urban views” to the river, street, and neighborhood and coalesce into a consummate urbanscape.

The architects say their design grew out of a study of field diagrams (X’s and O’s connected by arched arrows) you’d find scrawled on a locker room blackboard. The exterior staircases that cling to the corner facade are “lines in space,” while the columns that lift up one corner of the building can be seen as “points on the ground.” The metaphor doesn’t correlate–the building looks more like a Transformer–but it’s in keeping with Holl’s penchant for whimsical and delicate metaphors (a sponge, the yin-yang, and lines of poetry have all found their way in the Hollian canon) that are often at odds with the actual architecture.

Regardless of what it looks like, the building is masterfully crafted. The grayish brushed aluminum that clads the building initially seems like a provocative jab for attention, but it’s quite a contextual choice. The material evokes the neighborhood’s rustic industrial past, without mindlessly aestheticizing it. The zigzagging catwalks are perforated with artful patterns that reveal themselves at night, when they’re backlit. It’s then, after sun-down, that the building really comes alive and asserts itself.


“The building re-frames what was previously considered a neglected corner of the city,” McVoy says, “bringing a new awareness to the movement and diversity of the city’s pulse and an appreciation of this northern end of Manhattan.”

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.