For most people in the UK, Steven Holl is the best architect they’ve never heard of. Now he’s tackling the world-famous Glasgow School of Art, that’s about to change

Late last June the man Time magazine described as “America’s best architect” could have been found walking the streets of Glasgow, notebook in hand, sketching furiously and taking notes. Up and down Renfrew Street, looking at the scale of the buildings, the quality of the light, the fabric of the city, returning again and again to the red stone facade of number 167: Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

Steven Holl comes across as a quiet man. Not for him the flamboyance and chutzpah of Frank Gehry; the corporate polish of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the minimal whiteness of Richard Meier. Which may explain why, despite completed buildings in the US, Europe and Asia, and an order book running into billions of dollars, he is relatively little known in this country. It doesn’t help that he has never built anything in the UK. Until now.

Last September Steven Holl Architects won an international competition held by the school of art to find a design team to redevelop its campus and design a £50m building housing studios and student facilities on a site opposite Mackintosh’s arts and crafts gem. Work is well under way on the three-stage masterplan, which was estimated to cost £118m when the project was first mooted in 2007; the aim is to consolidate the school’s accommodation, which is divided between its rather defunct sixties and seventies studios and “found” spaces such as a territorial army hall, a former hospital and an old laboratory. Plans will be submitted in August for the first phase of building work, which has secured help from the Scottish Funding Council.

“It’s an incredible opportunity and honour to make a new architecture for a 21st-century school of art across from Mackintosh’s inspiring masterwork of the early 20th century,” says 63-year-old Holl from his New York office, a former warehouse on the western edges of Manhattan. “Since my student days the Mackintosh building, with its tremendous light and magical scale, has been a seminal reference.”

Holl was the unanimously chosen to tackle the design. “He is clearly a great architect,” says professor Seona Reid, director of the Glasgow School of Art and client for the project. “He’ll definitely be better known after this.”

She’s not letting on, yet, what the building looks like. But she does say traditionalists will probably be appalled that it will “absolutely not look like the Mackintosh”. Instead, she says it will be “a wonderful counterpoint”. By way of reference she cites Holl’s ethereal glass extension to the neoclassical Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City. “I found that I almost wanted to cry when I saw it. It’s something about the quality of the light and the way that Holl’s extension is subservient to the museum’s historic fabric while being completely different from it,” she says. And she’s not the only one to get dewy-eyed. Tough-talking New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger described the building as “one of the best museums of the last generation”; Time magazine rated it 2007’s “number one architectural marvel”.

Success has not come easy, though. “I had a very slow start,” Holl says. “I was a professor of architecture and I was also making projects and competitions. I had no money. I slept on a plywood shelf over the entrance to my office. People didn’t know I lived there because I could only afford this office space. It was a cube, 21ft on the side and it cost me $275 a month. For the first 10 years, I was just making projects and visions. One of the dangers today is that there is so much work. The young architects start out so soon that they can run out of gas and out of ideas, so they start repeating themselves.”

It was another competition win – for the Kiasma museum of contemporary art in Helsinki in 1993 – that propelled him from small-scale academic architect to international fame. This sinuous complex of intertwining spaces is a piece of sculpture in its own right, the galleries bathed in the kind of natural light that curators dream of.

Today the practice builds all over the world. The map on its website marks the location of projects across the US, Europe and Asia. Holl won’t be drawn on the value of the work he has been commissioned to carry out but – to get some idea of the scale – his order book in 2008 was reported as being worth $1.4bn. This year sees the opening of the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, an oceanographic museum in Biarritz, France, and the Nanjing Museum of Art and Architecture. Buildings in Beirut, South Korea and Chengdu, China, are scheduled to open next year.

China has been a particularly good market. The 48-strong practice has a Beijing office that accounts for about half its staff, many of whom have been working on the recently completed 1.3 million ft2 Horizontal Skyscraper development in Shenzhen. This gargantuan building, which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall, contains offices, apartments, a hotel, a conference centre and a public park for China Vanke, the country’s largest listed property developer.

What links these projects? What thread runs through a sensitive addition to a historic Scottish masterpiece and an up-ended skyscraper? It’s not easy to spot a specific style; he’s not high-tech, he’s not organic, he’s not minimalist. “Rather than imposing a style on different sites and climates, the unique character of a programme and site become the starting point for an architectural idea,” Holl says. “While anchoring each work in its specific site and circumstance we try to obtain a deeper beginning in the experience of time, space, light and materials. The phenomena of the space of a room, the sunlight entering through a window and the colour and reflection of materials on a wall and floors all have integral relationships.”

“He’s incredibly articulate – quite poetic,” says Reid. “But we also saw that he could build with a tight budget. He showed us two projects – one with higher budget than ours, one with a smaller one. In both there was a wonderfully imaginative detailing with simple, inexpensive materials.” Henry McKeown, design director of Glasgow-based partner designer JM Architects concurs: “Their work is incredibly pragmatic. I’ve never seen an architect work the design team so hard in terms of cost and engineering. The execution of ideas is informed by a highly sophisticated and well-informed team.”

It was McKeown and his colleague Ian Alexander, both of whom also teach at the Glasgow School of Art, who suggested to Holl that he might enter the competition with them. They’d long been interested in his work and had taken students to visit his studio, which is so full of models, they felt like “architects in a Christmas toy shop”. “Holl is a real idea maker,” says McKeown. And at a time when we’re all looking to move away from icons, that may be just what we need.

Three works

The Vanke Centre, aka the Horizontal Skyscraper (above), was completed last year in the southern Chinese province of Shenzhen. Holl’s aim was to produce a building that looks as if it once floated on a sea, but has now been stranded. The underside of the structure contains glass cubes that offer 360º views over lush tropical landscape.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art extension (above) consists of five glass “lenses” connected by a meandering path through a sculpture garden.

The Kiasma museum of contemporary art in Helsinki (above) was won in a 1992 competition against 516 competitors. It houses Finland’s national modern art collection, and is sited in the centre of Helsinki, next to the Finnish parliament building. It was opened in 1998.