The São Paulo Pavilion by Herzog & de Meuron represents a type of building that has not yet made history. Its function may briefly be defined as delimiting a specific group of items within a larger exhibition. Architecturally this might take the form of several small, separate buildings either standing outside or grouped together inside an immense exhibition space. The need for delimitation arose with the rise of major events in the 19th century, such as the world fairs and the huge, annual or biennial art exhibitions like the Salon in Paris and the Venice Biennale. The first artist’s pavilion was in fact designed by Gustav Courbet. Having been rejected by the jury of the 1855 World Fair in Paris, he built himself a makeshift pavilion nearby. His exhibition, including the famous Atelier painting. was a great success. The world fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries were actually seedbeds of experimental exhibition architecture, whose design in this context gave priority to national representation rather than the content of the pavilion. The design of the pavilions erected for the first Venice Biennale in 1895 still had an unmistakably representational intent in spite of the fact that they served the express purpose of displaying works of art. In the 20th century, the artworks and the artists themselves were instrumental in shifting the architectural emphasis to the content of the pavilions.
Since the sixties in particular, new artistic forms that had by then gained widespread acceptance - forms that were neither pictures nor sculptures - called for spaces that would allow them to unfold. The partitioning system at art fairs, and largescale exhibitions of contemporary art like the Kassel documenta no longer satisfied these needs. It was not until quite recently that large-scale attempts were made to develop small, temporary structures specifically designed to house particular works and groups of works. The first major event to expressly incorporate architecture - designed in this case by architect Hermann Czech - into an overall concept was the exhibition von hier aus organized by Kaspar König in 1984 at the Düsseldorf trade center.
The pavilion in São Paulo was built specifically for Pipilotti Rist’s video installations and Hannah Villiger’s large-format photographs. The two floors that host the São Paulo Biennial are 200 meters long and about 40 meters wide. Within this space the pavilion for Rist and Villiger not only had to do justice to the character of their work but also to set it off against the bulk of the other contributions. Further parameters were defined by the techniques these artists employ. Hannah Villiger’s photographs, often mounted as large units, require extremely spacious, light surfaces; Rist’s videos must be viewed in relative darkness. Moreover, Pipilotti Rist wanted to project some of her work onto a transparent wall from behind. This would allow perfect frontal projection unimpeded by the shadows of viewers.
The first design by Herzog & de Meuron proposed a rectangular ground plan. Hannah Villiger’s photographs were to be mounted along the outside walls, while inside Pipilotti Rist’s projections would cover not only walls but ceiling and floor as well. The ramp-accessed interior was to be surrounded by a hollow space several meters wide to allow projection from behind. Visitors would approach through a narrowing corridor to enter a dark room in which the “transparent” outside surfaces, as in an aquarium, would cancel out the sense of space defined by gravity.
This design clearly reflects the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron. The combination of simple stereometric structures with dividing walls, mostly facades, dematerialized to form membranes or projection surfaces, has been a preoccupation in projects over the past few years. Their unexecuted design of 1989 for a Greek Orthodox church in Zurich is particularly enlightening in the context of the São Paulo Pavilion. The plans called for a free-standing, windowless cube clad in glass and ceramic panels. Its translucent interior walls of marble, covered with silk-screened photographs of ancient icons, were to be transformed into luminous membranes.
The initial design for the São Paulo Pavilion was technically complex and would have been extremely costly. Even more important, the strict distinction between outside and inside and the attendant separation of the two presentations did not meet with the artists’ expectations. The second stage of design, which led to the final product, aimed at enhancing the interplay between outside and inside, light and dark. The point of departure was an element developed by Pipilotti Rist for her show at the Shedhalle in Zurich in 1992/93. There she had three approximately nine-meter-long, pyramid-shaped wooden elements horizontally mounted next to each other on a wall. Circular openings underneath allowed viewers to insert their heads in order to view the video pictures projected on the inside. The elements. adjusted in height to the visitors’ eyes, might be perceived as solidified cones of light emitted by a projector or rays of vision that have taken on a sculptural reality. The act of poking one's head into a hole to view the pictures brings out the voyeuristic potential inherent in the act of seeing. By incorporating these "visual pyramids" in the design of the pavilion, a formal element was allowed to predominate, whose allusion to the subject matter of seeing touches on a motif that is central to both artists' oeuvres.
Decisive to the next stage of development was the shift from a closed, rectangular ground plan to one defined by several acute angles. Several preliminary designs led to the final plan for the pavilion. The structure consists of a metal frame clad in wood and painted a light, skin-colored ochre. It is divided into six enormous points. Three of them are pyramid-shaped, each with several holes underneath, through which viewers can watch Pipilotti Rist’s video projections. The three remaining points are pie-shaped with one plane flush with the floor. Their outside walls form a sequence of six spacious, but self-contained surfaces for Hannah Villiger’s blocks of photographs. The forceful, objectlike thrust of the structure is more unfamiliar than it is aggressive. Visitors are playfully drawn towards the pavilion by two distinct attractions - the picture surfaces and the peep holes. Their passage along its bulky contours is interrupted at one point by a black curtain. On entering, visitors are immersed in shapeless, undefined blackness, broken by luminous pictures. Hollows in the pie-shaped points on which Villiger’s pictures are hung provide space for Rist’s large-format, three-part moving picture to be projected into the darkness from behind. On the opposite wall hang three photographic works by Hannah Villiger, designed for the first time as transparencies specifically for this occasion.
The Herzog & de Meuron pavilion blurs the distinction between outside and inside. The outer skin of the pavilion conveys a sense of both exterior and interior space. The actual interior, on the other hand, is no longer stereometrically defined. There the pictures, embedded in a spaceless black, seem to be supported only by their own technically produced luminosity. The subtle transition between inside and outside rests on the consummate mutual penetration of architectural structure and picture surfaces. The latter have waived their autonomy, or rather, the two together have become a new autonomous whole. We are confronted here with a perfect marriage of architects’ and artists intentions. The subject matter of seeing, addressed by the artists, is enhanced through the choice of (visual) pyramids as the main structural element of the pavilion. The active and intentional perception required to view Hannah Villiger’s blocks of photographs and Pipilotti Rist’s peep-show projections on the outside of the pavilion is set off against the sense of passive submission on being immersed in the pictures inside. The São Paulo pavilion has indeed found an architectural vocabulary for the subject matter of seeing.¹