Interviewed in Basel, 27th September 2012
As the initial impetuses for Jacques Herzog’s and Pierre de Meuron’s architectural considerations we could mention Basel modernism in its particular continuity, the ideas (but not the forms) of their teacher, Aldo Rossi, the conceptual arts, especially the work of Joseph Beuys, whom they had a chance to collaborate with in their younger years. The methodology of their work is investigative; within each project, they seek to develop the rules that would give the project its own identity and enable its physical, sensory presence. At the same time, the materials have neither a symbolic dimension nor are there any hierarchies among them: they are an inseparable part of the structures. Herzog & de Meuron believe in the energy of the architect's thoughts, but also in the perceptive energy of the observer. They believe in the role of a building as an urban magnet, in its iconic quality–so essential for urban scale architecture.
ORIS: During your education at ETH in the class of Aldo Rossi, he and his architectural and urbanistic theory and practice had an impact on your professional attitude. Could you please outline this period of education and its relation to your practice’s first projects? How does this knowledge influence your work and especially what value does it have today?
Herzog: It is great for every student to have a good professor. And Rossi was a good professor. He was not only a great architect, but also a very good teacher. He had the talent to inspire and attract young people. He was a good looking man, elegantly dressed and spoke very carefully. He played with words that he pronounced in German with a very strong Italian accent. He enjoyed that like a performer. We were spellbound by him as a person and as an architect – so we tried to imitate and make drawings and plans in his style. I think that this is an experience that many students share with us.....a strong influence that lasts for a while before it stops and other influences become stronger – in our case it was Lucius Burkhardt, who represented just about the opposite of Aldo Rossi. Other influences came from the art world, from minimal art and from Joseph Beuys.
ORIS: When speaking about your earlier works two important projects are memorable: the Goetz Art Gallery with its innovative and ambiguous character, and the Koechlin House where you made an incredible invention putting the windows outside and more, letting them slide along the façade. But the interesting thing is you did not stay, you abandoned these innovations to move forward. Which were the motivations for this ever-changing process?
Herzog: Indeed, the Goetz Gallery was perhaps the first building where we materialized our thinking almost perfectly: a kind of ‘minimal’ architecture. The term ‘minimal architecture’ did not exist before and we first pro-actively used it to describe what we tried to achieve through this building. We were very impressed at that time by Judd’s sculptural concept of ‘specific objects’ that were both rational and ambiguous. Judd was still speaking modernity, but much more a kind of broken modernity. I think that was a key learning process, kind of our own personal gateway to enter the world of architecture. The architectural tendencies at the time were neo-constructivist and postmodern, and we clearly couldn’t associate ourselves with that. We were 27 at the time we started our practice and needed to find our own path into architecture....our own. In traditional periods, that path was given by your father and grandfather, but modernity had wiped out all those paths. Modernity itself was a project that was trying to become a new tradition, but we all know that this project failed.
ORIS: Perhaps we could take the issue of continuity in your work. In the text ‘The Hidden Geometry of Nature’ from 1984 you speak about the presentation of architecture which should not be naturalistic but has to be developed from the structure of architecture itself. More than 20 years later, the plans for the Serpentine Gallery showed a very similar character. Or another example would be your interest for the ‘Ur-type’ houses, as you designed Das Blaue Haus in 1979, and then the Vitra Complex in 2009.
Herzog: ‘The Hidden Geometry of Nature’ is an attempt to understand how nature creates complexity through the combination and recombination of ‘abstract’ particles, like atoms or molecules. What we perceive as the beauty of visible nature is the result of complex processes and configurations which are invisible, but looking through an electron microscope reveals their beauty otherwise hidden from our human eyes. We find it interesting that natural objects are conceived not from outside in but from inside out. The production of artificial objects, e.g. art or architecture mostly appears as if created and dropped by an author from the outside. We tried to adopt the strategy of nature, in that we rejected personal style from the beginning and often try to develop a conceptual plan for a project which then generates its form. That is also what we did in the case of the Serpentine. It is somehow very figurative, it’s like a story, but it comes from a conceptual source, and not from an idea of a figure. That’s what I think is at the heart of that early text.
Now about the second part of your question, the house. This is of course a figure. But it is so common, almost banal, a standard. It’s obviously the most common architectural form. That is why we like it and have used it several times. So even if it sounds paradoxical, that standard form of the ‘house’ has become a non-iconic, almost abstract tool for us... Abstract in that it does not reveal any authorship. It leaves us invisible as architects. The attempt to remain invisible behind a work of architecture has become stronger and stronger lately... not as the result of increasing modesty on our side but for the sheer reason of survival in this business of surpassing iconic production. Architecture has to be in some way authorless. Nobody is interested in the person of the architect, except for the time during the process of designing and producing a building. Afterwards the architect has gone and a building stands for itself. If it is a successful building, then people will continue to love it and use it, and if not the building disappears. I honestly find this a very comforting perspective!
ORIS: You also said that a building of importance for a city must have some iconic character to really attract people and give them something. For example, your Caixa Forum in Madrid, if I can recount my personal experience with it, was like a path from the darkness into the light. When you come under it, it is like a cave, a bit dark, even a bit threatening, and then you go up, you come to the light of the roof terrace, to the restaurant with a beautiful play with the light of this ornamental outer skin, it is something that gives you emotions which make an impression on all your senses. Is this your intention to influence all the senses, not only to have an intellectual impact on people?
Herzog: I think your question already contains the answer. Actually, we are not interested in a building’s intellectual message. Architecture does not have a message, but it has a direct impact on people, and that is why it works or doesn’t work. We have always stated, and that’s perhaps the most important thing, that architecture is made by and for the people. As simple as that. People are human beings, and human beings are human beings because they have these five senses. If there is something that puts our contribution in an antagonistic position to a contemporary trend in the world, it is that we insist so much on that holistic perception with all our senses. Our culture tends to be more and more visual and to neglect the other senses. The speed which is imposed on all of us has a fatal influence on the perception of our own physical condition, on our sense of gravity, on our tactile perception or smell and taste. The obsession with fitness and gyms is a reaction to the very fact that we have lost our body somewhere in the mad rush of our daily activities.
ORIS: Your work is not limited to the architectural scale only; you also work in the field of industrial design, urban design and urban planning. Could you please tell us why this kind of approach in architectural practice is important today?
Herzog: Architecture is always architecture of a concrete city, therefore urbanism as we practise it is a large-scale architectural project. Urbanism as it is practised worldwide is mostly based on purely technocratic issues and recently and increasingly based on profit-oriented development. All these approaches are limited and bound to fail; that’s also why there are so few good examples anywhere in the world one would suggest as models. In the last twenty years we have established a research laboratory at the ETH Studio in Basel that we co-founded and has since then helped us gain an insight into the urbanity and the urbanism of the contemporary city. We published books on the metropolisation of Basel, an urban portrait of Switzerland, a book on Belgrade, on the Canary Islands, on Western Sahara and currently on ‘Specificity’. We could only do this research project with the input and experience from our architectural projects; on the other hand we were learning things that daily practice as an architect doesn’t provide.
ORIS: As you said, you’re working with the people for the people, perhaps we could mention here some very human and soft projects – Rehab Basel for people unable to move, and the Laban Dance Centre for the motion of young, healthy bodies. How different are the architectural instruments you used to embody these different programmes, one of perhaps despair, but also hope, and the other of optimism and happiness?
Herzog: In the case of space for the handicapped, it is important that you think of the limited spatial outreach. For this reason, we wanted to maximize the sensual experience you can have as a human being in a given patient’s room. That was determining the density of different surface qualities, different visual impressions and different ways daylight reaches each bed in that clinic.
ORIS: Recently you won a competition for a children’s hospital in Zurich.
Herzog: It’s a very large project and it’s not more developed now than the competition project. It starts with a similar horizontal typology like the REHAB in Basel that we believe is an interesting one for a hospital, to make it more into a landscape than a building. We took that idea of landscape very seriously, because contemporary hospitals have so many lab functions, so much technical space that you cannot squeeze it into the narrow, classically proportioned footprint that old hospitals once had.
ORIS: The reality of architecture would, of course, not be just the materiality of built objects. How important is the other, unmeasurable, spiritual quality in the realm of architecture for you? So, William Curtis writes about the mysterious Ricola Storage Building which has a ‘strong visual tension, haunting ambiguity of an overall form’.
Herzog: That’s a difficult question! Why is it that some buildings attract people almost magically? If you stand in front of Chartres Cathedral or inside the Mezquita in Cordoba or if you approach the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco you feel this shivering… a sensation somewhat between religious reverence and excitement. I don’t know whether we can achieve that but it is exactly what I meant before when I said that architecture is made for people, successful architecture will be adopted by them, eventually loved or even revered by them.
ORIS: An important achievement still with wide influence today was to bring back ornament. Was this the outcome of your interest in materials, experimenting with them, as for example printing on glass or concrete? But the difference from many epigonic works would be that your use of ornament always has several functions and meanings, unifying surface and space.
Herzog: Our influence in this respect has been a disaster, because it has created a lot of bad production, but nevertheless, I think that ornaments and architecture have a very long and interesting history. There’s a big difference between ornament and decoration. We have never been interested in decorating buildings, and also we have never been interested in Venturi’s ‘decorated shed’, although we admired his texts. The roots and origins of our own research in this case was not Venturi, but rather Semper. Not only was Semper a great architect, his use of ornamentation is interesting because it is more holistic than decorative. We would look at ornamentation in a very broad sense. For the Eberswalde Library we collaborated with an artist, Thomas Ruff, so it also became an artwork and not just the illustration of an idea.
Eberswalde or Ricola are obvious projects where ornamentation is applied on the surface of the building. Other projects like the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, Prada store in Tokyo or the Miami Garage are also to be seen in our holistic approach to ornamentation in that these projects expose all they have and all they are in one thing that integrates structure, space and appearance inside and outside. This radical approach to ornamentation has become more and more what we want to do – the fully integrated ingredients a piece of architecture is made of surely are also what we have often admired in historic buildings.
ORIS: In relation to one of your most remarkable projects (at least for us), the Dominus Winery, you were experimenting with existing elements, gabions, otherwise used on highways – metal cages filled with stones. But an important thing seems to be the voids between the stones that produce unexpected and ephemeral light effects in the interiors, like the effects seen in the wonderful images by Margherita Spiluttini. What made you decide to use a ‘poor’ material for such a ‘rich’ architectural quality?
Herzog: Dominus is a winery that produces one of the great wines on this planet. The winemaker is Christian Moueix from whom we learnt a lot about wines, terroir, smell and taste related to cultural habits. The decision to go for local material, volcanic stones that we found on that originally Indian site came quite soon. How we then found this amazing construction of the stones, filling them into gabions, was certainly a great moment for us. As always we experimented a lot, took smaller and larger rocks, discovered the gaps between the rocks that would be filled with light and almost dematerialize the walls which on the other hand are so incredibly heavy and ideal for keeping the climate inside the building stable.
ORIS: What about the process of making architecture? You are definitely not architects who will bring a sketch of the project and put it in front of your collaborators. First of all, you work with the artist, we already know, so can you tell us how the artist is a productive part of the design process. How are ideas brought into your office, not only to the two of you?
Herzog: We are involved in every project, but as we get older we cannot always do this and we will see how large the office remains. We have younger partners who are very strong designers, so it is a bit like in an academy or school; we go from project to project and try to inspire the teams, that’s what we do. Quite a few architects, and also artists, work like that. Rémy Zaugg, Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson and others. Some artists have real architectural talents and ambitions others prefer to delegate. Thomas Ruff understands architecture intimately but nevertheless trusted us to do his house and studio and now recently his new studio. He preferred to let us do the job but he was a great help, almost a third design partner.
We also did a studio for Remy Zaugg and he was very present like Thomas. We worked with Zaugg for twenty years. He was a very intellectual artist, a conceptual artist. Ai Weiwei is a more independent artist architect with his own design studio. We developed many things together on our many trips through China some of which materialized, some not. Unfortunately, we could not meet in person during the last thing we did together, the Serpentine Pavilion in 2012, so we decided to work via Skype which is maybe not ideal but in the end led to a great result thanks to the long years that we had spent previously, travelling and talking.