For an architect who erects megalithic complexes of interconnected high-rises in China, Steven Holl, FAIA, sure spends a lot of time in his own head. Every project that issues from his studio comes bundled with an idea—some myth or metaphor, or scientific concept that he translates into an eloquent watercolor on a 5-by-7-inch sheet of paper. For the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, he dreamed up a collection of seven colored bottles of light in a stone box. That image evolved into a grouping of windowed volumes emerging from the chapel’s low, flat roof.

“They wanted to cut it down to four or five,” he remembers, with a satisfied smile. “The campus ministry said, ‘No, Steven’s concept is seven colored bottles, there are seven days in the week, and there shall be seven.’ ”

Holl sits at a conference table in his idea nursery—a sunny office overlooking the West Side of Manhattan, a view entwined with his history. Holl was the first architect to float detailed proposals for reusing the elevated railroad tracks that eventually turned into the High Line, which winds past his building. He also entered the competition to design Hudson Yards, the massive waterfront development that will one day block his sight line to the Hudson River. He professes no regret that both projects are proceeding without him.

“I’m delighted!” he says. “While others were doing the High Line, I was working on a horizontal skyscraper in Shenzhen, [China,] and I still get to walk on it from my apartment to my office.”

Besides, he says, just because his designs won’t be realized doesn’t diminish his contributions. This is one of his core credos, and he enunciates it like a catechism: “It doesn’t have to be built to be architecture. A play can exist without being performed. A piece of music can exist without an orchestra playing it. The creative act is the most important thing.”

Holl grew up in Bremerton, Wash., about an hour’s ferry ride from Seattle across the Puget Sound. In that working-class town, the most interesting architecture he remembers was an immense hammerhead crane looming over the dock like some robotic dinosaur. He and his younger brother James (now an artist) turned the family’s backyard into a construction site, mapping out model cities and building an assortment of refuges: a tree house, a two-story clubhouse, and a foxhole camouflaged by a rug covered in dirt and sod. “Several years ago, I gave a lecture in which I said that there are only four kinds of architecture: under the ground, in the ground, on the ground, and over the ground,” Holl says. “And I realized, I was doing all of those when I was five, without knowing it.”

In high school, he kept building. He fashioned complicated ductwork in his father’s sheet-metal business, grabbing a broom whenever the union rep came around, since it was a closed shop and he wasn’t a member. He also assembled hot rods. First came a ’39 Chevrolet Coupe that he worked on for a year before he was old enough to get a driver’s license. That car was his pride and joy—until he swapped it for a 1931 Model A Ford that he equipped with a 283 Chevy V8 engine. “I’d trade it, and build another one and trade that, and do another one. I had the fastest car in my high school.”

Holl’s life revolved around cars, football, and surfing, at least until he entered college in 1966, and put away childish things. “I decided to focus on architecture and art and philosophy. I got a ’59 Volkswagen and quit thinking about cars. Just turned it off.” Decades later, he designed a surf museum in Biarritz, France, and a sports center for Columbia University’s chronically underperforming football team. “I’ve come full circle,” he jokes. “Now I guess I have to do a drag race track.”

As a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Holl fell under the spell of the architectural historian Hermann Pundt, who guided students through a two-year survey, lingering for weeks on the works of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Holl remembers the rest of the architectural faculty as “terrible, boring professors,” workaday technicians “who couldn’t grasp larger ideas” and who nearly drove him out of the department in despair. It was not the last time that Holl would feel alienated from the world he had chosen. Fortunately, Pundt recommended him for a semester abroad program in Rome, which rekindled his zeal.

After graduating, he rattled his way to San Francisco in his dying Beetle and landed a job building models for Lawrence Halprin. He stayed in the city for five years, followed by a fertile year at the Architectural Association in London. When he returned to San Francisco, he moved in with a fellow architect, William Stout, and persuaded him to start selling some of the books that were overflowing the apartment shelves. That experiment turned into the now venerable bookstore, William Stout Architectural Books.

But Holl was restless, ambitious, and adrift. “I never really decided to move to New York,” he says. “I came on New Year’s Eve, 1976, and I just never used the return half of the excursion ticket.” It was an inauspicious time for a talented young architect with minimal experience to hang out his shingle. The economy was stagnating, cities were disintegrating, potential clients were making for the suburbs—and, anyway, Holl had nothing but contempt for the period’s incipient love affair with Postmodernism. He picked up adjunct teaching gigs at Columbia University, the Pratt Institute, Parsons the New School for Design, and the University of Pennsylvania. He bunked (illegally) on a plywood shelf above the entrance to his studio in an office building on West 21st Street. For 10 years, he had only tiny and rare commissions, and he spent his days in raptures of theory and speculative designs. “It was a long period of development,” he reflects. “Very long.”

In retrospect, Holl claims to be grateful for that extended professional drought. For one thing, it taught him to be patient. “Having a hard time is absolutely necessary. It gives you the strength to just blink and move on when a project gets canceled.” Even now, he says, only about one in every 30 projects he designs gets built. “You really have to love the work for what it is.” When he did get a small project, he had the leisure to fuss over every light fixture and door handle, until each little house or apartment became a perfect microcosm of his aesthetic.

Holl also cultivated the unrealistic—but ultimately useful—self-assurance of an artist who had never become accustomed to pleasing clients, because he hardly had any. Finally, in the late 1980s, a Dallas couple that had seen Holl’s work in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art asked him to design their house and gave him the instruction that every architect longs to hear: Do whatever you want. What Holl wanted was a different site. “On my first visit, I said, ‘That site’s too tight. You’re going to have to put the swimming pool on the roof.’ Next morning, she took me around, and I said, ‘There: Tear that house down and it will be a great site.’ And that’s what they did. That’s an ideal client.”

The Stretto House, as Holl called the Dallas home, is a spectacularly detailed and intricate work based on a classic of modern music, Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, in ways that could be evident only to scholars equally comfortable in architecture and in music. By the time he hit maturity as a practical architect, he had been teaching for nearly 20 years and refined an approach that hunted for specific, discoverable meaning in each design. Many architects attach verbal labels to visual ideas, but in Holl’s case, pithy, sometimes mystifying titles such as “Sliced Porosity Block” or “Horizontal Skyscraper” have a precise task: to unify disparate elements, resolve contradictions, seduce clients, and generate distinct spatial experiences.

Those ideas can hit him immediately on his first visit to a site, or else they get collectively squeezed out of meeting after laborious meeting. Either way, Holl distills the idea into a sketch that is a combination of seed, marketing tool, and artifact. He has amassed more than 10,000 of these bejeweled pages, a record of intellectual ferment preserved in a format that can never become obsolete.

“The watercolor informs the logic of the design at the level of fantasy,” says the architectural historian and critic Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA, a longtime champion of Holl’s. “It’s a very oblique approach, but his charismatic enthusiasm can carry things forward. He has enormous charm.”