Gerhard Mack: What was your first impression of the Park Avenue Armory?
Ascan Mergenthaler: The building was full of the wiring left behind by the emergency unit set up there after 9/11. It formed a network on top of the architecture. The historical rooms were still pretty raw, often dusty and gloomy because they hadn’t been cleaned up yet. And since there aren‘t many openings in the building, there was not much daylight. It was an odd atmosphere; you instantly felt the historical weight of the structure, the importance of its social role in New York up until 9/11. The building has a tremendous sense of power and authority, and even now, it‘s still like a fortress.
Gerhard Mack: How did you react?
Jacques Herzog: Our first thoughts were about volume. The Armory is on Park Avenue, one of the most expensive locations in Manhattan. The building is a historical monument but from a real estate point of view it's an unexploited quarry. So we thought about extensions, about adding new building elements. We dropped the idea because of zoning laws and the building code but also because the client did not want to take that approach. Looking back, the decision not to make any landmark modifications proved crucial. We are treating the Armory like a monument, preserving it for the future and above all reinventing it. When European architects build something in New York, they're expected to design a tower or a superstore. Our work on this project is more subtle, almost microscopic. This is not just about the historical architecture of the United States; it’s about the country’s history. Conspicuous gestures of our own would not be appropriate.
Gerhard Mack: What brought about this change in direction?
Ascan Mergenthaler: To be precise, there were two projects. Initially we took an approach similar to the way we developed the Tate Modern in London or the Caixa-Forum in Madrid: How could we breathe new life and energy into this structure with a few dramatic interventions? The client shared this approach. They had certain projects in mind and had come to us for that very reason. From the beginning, the PAA wanted to use the building for purely cultural purposes. The new beam that we planned to add to the Head House would have been like an extra large white cube that could also have been used as a dance rehearsal space. We worked out a very efficient mechanism that unfolded like a flower and would have transformed the Drill Hall into a fully functional stage. We gave those projects serious thought.
Gerhard Mack: Why weren't they realized?
Ascan Mergenthaler: The project was put on hold and the client consulted with artists, curators, and advisors. They all loved the spaces just as they were. They liked using the Armory precisely because it had these absurd rooms that are not white cubes and that are not perfect stages. There are already plenty of white cubes in New York. They wanted to work with the historical substance. Theater people and performers like the Drill Hall because it has a flat floor and you can set up the stage in any corner and place spectators high up along the walls or have them walk around. This kind of freedom is exciting and inspiring. It led to unanticipated possibilities and redefined the profile of the project. The new requirement was to work with the historical substance of the building rather than adding a distinctive sign of our own.
Jacques Herzog: This conservative approach to the building is actually what makes the project so radical. We have gone so far as to preserve the historical status of the rooms instead of adapting them for a specific use. They are found spaces, comparable to the former oil tanks that we opened up to be used for exhibition purposes at Tate Modern. It doesn't make sense to modify these rooms to meet the conventional requirements of a gallery space.
Gerhard Mack: Then what do they need architects for? If it's just a matter of historical restoration, BCA experts could do that.
Ascan Mergenthaler: Well, for one thing, we were interested in the new challenge. People are clearly tired of white cube galleries. The rooms in the Armory suddenly became anchor spaces. We had already worked with that in other projects. Our first project for the Parrish Museum on Long Island incorporated the studios of artists who were living there. For the Goya Museum in Zaragoza, we proposed adding four other rooms that had been painted by Goya to the museum to generate tension. And for the artist’s choice at MoMA New York, we thought about what else an exhibition space can consist of besides four white walls. So the Armory offered further incentive.
Jacques Herzog: In doing renovations, it's natural to wonder whether you need an architect. Of course you do. You need authors because there is no such thing as logical, obvious, self-evident decisions. Every corner raises new questions. The rooms in the Armory building are very distinctive and each of them has to be treated individually. The preservation authorities want us to use a specific reference point. But that's rarely a clear-cut situation and there are so many nuances between reconstruction, restoration, renovation, and simulation. You need to enlist a variety of methods that overlap and that work differently in each of the rooms. In this respect we are very much on-site. Incidentally, in Europe an architect is always involved in renovations.
Ascan Mergenthaler: In the United States as well. Without us, they would have done a 'snapshot' of the Armory. That's a model that is often used for historical buildings in the United States. You try to get as close as possible to the historical original; you do research and then recreate what you have found. It's a kind of sculptural reconstruction. Everything is new. In Europe, a much livelier treatment of historical substance has evolved. It is no longer necessarily a flaw if something is damaged. It's almost like in the Far East. If you break a teacup, it is glued together again, the traces of the glue are gilded, and the cup becomes even more valuable. The same applies to the Italian palazzi of the Renaissance. The original is in evidence but it shows signs of age and imperfection. We have introduced that approach in working on the Armory, which was a great challenge for the conservators. They needed American examples to submit the steps they planned to take to the Preservation Office. All the examples they found were related to the restoration of paintings. Damaged areas remained empty or were hatched to make them blend in better with the overall picture. We have used those procedures as well. The strength of our project lies in the fact that we have not restricted ourselves to a specific method or technique.
Jacques Herzog: We avoid and hinder the usual procedure of simulative reconstruction. But we also define how each of the methods is to be applied because we don't want all the rooms to have the same homogenized look. Neither do we want the abrupt breaks or juxtapositions successfully advocated by Carlo Scarpa in the 1960s. He consolidated what already existed, juxtaposing it with something else that was radically different. That tied in with the identity of modernism as being new, and the resulting dialectics also had contemporary political and ideological connotations. We don't want our specific contribution to be obvious or conspicuous. We are in the process of trying to figure out how to preserve the existing elements for the future, of deciding which layers to uncover or supplement or restore or overprint, which also involves defining the overall impact of each room. Of course, uninitiated visitors will not notice this right away.
Gerhard Mack: You mention using a variety of methods. Which ones and how did you develop them?
Ascan Mergenthaler: We started out trying to reveal the original layer of 1880 and, at the same time, preserve the raw atmosphere that had struck us the first few times we visited the Armory. We even considered revealing all of the changes that had been made in a single room as a kind of palimpsest. However, we soon realized that the rooms each have a different identity, which is what makes the building so special: it's like an assemblage of individual characters. Different designers, companies, colonels, and donors made decisions that define the singular character of each room. Buildings aren't usually like that. We wanted to highlight this unique feature. That meant getting permission from the Preservation Office to uncover historical layers, which required a lot of persuasion to overcome the opposition that prevailed for a long time.
Jacques Herzog: Going back and preserving the original state of a room as much as possible is the aim of restoration, but it also represents an architectural approach. Originally the surfaces of each room gave it an atmosphere of its own that reflected the spirit of a specific age. In some cases, the rooms were modified at an early stage to reflect a new Zeitgeist. Gothic Revival decor was replaced, for example, by Tudor-style stucco work. The psychology of the decision-makers and the sensibilities of contemporary society seem to resonate in changes of this nature. We have chosen to reveal earlier layers because they express a mentality that stands in great contrast to the aesthetics of today's simulation architecture. The result is very fresh and new and entirely different from the aesthetics of superstores, the simulative aesthetics of hotels, and even the white cube of the museum. The ‘old’ layers have an innocence that we find more exciting than imposing a new design. The ceiling uncovered by restorers in Company E, for instance, is a little like rediscovering frescoes in an Italian palazzo.
Gerhard Mack: As work proceeded you came to the conclusion that you wanted to redo entire rooms and not just specific patches. Did that pose certain problems?
Ascan Mergenthaler: The great thing about a building like the Armory is that it's there from the beginning. It's like a gigantic model and we realized that we would have to use it as a model. We couldn’t just sit at a table and develop ideas; we would have to work with and within the rooms themselves. After the first, very small reveals—no larger than a coaster—we suspected that there was incredible potential. In order to get a proper view, we wanted to uncover the entire room and use it as a laboratory. Only then would we get the whole picture. The historical layer would be revealed and we would be able to identify the damage that had occurred over the years. It took considerable persuasion to be permitted to reveal Company K. It was a testing ground. We simulated various lighting situations, developed lamps, and tried them out in full-scale. In addition, we worked directly on the walls to determine what we could do with them. We printed patterns on paper, cut them out of cardboard, put them on foil, and then pasted them on the wall in order to see which techniques worked best. That's how we came up with the idea of repairing damaged spots with plaster in a field color that matches the surrounding area. We gradually realized that it would be best to use the same hands-on approach for all of the rooms. We worked out a three-step procedure: first, delayer the original state as much as possible; second, stabilize the room along with the damaged areas, and third, think about how to reinforce and refurbish the room so that it best retains its original character. That may mean overprinting the wall, choosing specific furnishings or light fixtures, or reconstructing an element that has been lost, using the syntax of a different material.
Jacques Herzog: But it might also be a complete reconstruction. For example, we’ve decided to reconstruct a ceiling that had been torn out at one point because it is an important element of the original decor. Reconstruction is at one end of the scale and delayering to reveal the original at the other. On the other hand, we don’t eliminate all traces of later modifications. If the crust of a plaster frieze has been removed, its presence is still visible like a ghost on the layer underneath. We don't erase it. Traces of that kind are especially conspicuous in Company E, in contrast to complete reconstruction of the original where such traces are removed altogether.
Gerhard Mack: In some cases you have overprinted the walls in addition to delayering them. How does that work?
Ascan Mergenthaler: In many different ways. We start by carefully distinguishing between wall, frieze, cove, and ceiling. Then we ask ourselves what it is that defines the character of the respective surface. We choose and abstract specific features from different patterns. We go back to their basic geometrical shape, for example circular lines, but retain the size and proportions of the existing pattern.
Jacques Herzog: For the most part, they are patterns found in the rooms themselves. We just emphasize them, for instance by printing them in a metallic color or generating a specific spatial effect through mirroring.
Gerhard Mack: Ascan mentioned that you developed various lighting fixtures for your test space Company K. What did you focus on?
Ascan Mergenthaler: In the process of delayering Company K, we realized how crucial the lighting is. It has always been a key factor. Originally, the Armory was illuminated by gaslight. Electrification was the first dramatic change in the building because it meant destroying the walls by making slits and replacing the light fixtures. It also changed the character of the rooms. They had originally been extremely dark, which is not compatible with today's needs. We need more light today even if we only use a room for a dinner or a meeting. We have retained the existing chandeliers and added new lights to them, resulting in a variety of objects. In Company D, for instance, we wanted to highlight the central lighting fixture. It was too small in proportion to the room as a whole and had lost the architectural impact of the original chandelier, which was much larger. So we reinstated it in scale and function, but translated it into a contemporary form. We followed the path of the wiring, almost like a drawing, using simple tubes, bundling them and adding new lamps. The result was a compact shape, comparable to the scrollwork of the original.
Jacques Herzog: When you look at the chandelier, you don't realize at first sight that it’s new. It’s in tune with the rest of the room rather than being a distinctive modern element in the spirit of the Bauhaus or of contemporary design that cultivates an aesthetic contrast. For us, the central placement of the light fixture and the way it relates to the rest of the room are the most important factors. It’s hard to introduce entirely different lighting in these rooms because of the existing lighting fixtures and the fireplaces that are featured in almost all of the company rooms.
Gerhard Mack: You emphasize working from room to room. Ascan speaks of an assemblage of individual characters. How do you find a common denominator for so many different voices?
Ascan Mergenthaler: For one thing, by using the same procedure in each room, namely the three steps I mentioned above. Then there are some obvious things that apply throughout. For example we accentuate the metallic aspect. Metallic paints were developed around 1880 and our research showed that they were used in several places. A lot of the designers exploited the sparkling effect of copper, bronze, brass, and silver. Since metal oxidizes after a while, these effects are no longer visible and the patterns look dull and matt. We want to work with those effects and find different ways of implementing them on the walls that we’re planning to overprint. We've been thinking a lot about copper because it can be reflecting or matt; it’s rich in color and can also be almost black. We can use it as fabric, as a coating, and as metal. This diversity means that it will be very inconspicuous. In addition, copper is an element that ages very gracefully.
Gerhard Mack: You're not going to use any copper in the Drill Hall. Is there another similarly unifying element in the Hall?
Ascan Mergenthaler: We had to develop a different syntax for the Drill Hall. Since the program called for a flexible space, we designed it like a gigantic stage and equipped it with a new infrastructure. Architecturally, the Hall is like a railroad station concourse and we reinforce that impression by reducing it to the bare essentials. All of the new elements like chain hoists, catwalks, and strong bars have the same blackish green color, which is unobtrusive and resembles black copper. The Drill Hall is pure structure in contrast to the explicit emphasis on surface in the rooms of the Head House.
Gerhard Mack: How do you deal with the access zones? Do you use them to enhance the dynamics?
Ascan Mergenthaler: The way in which people circulate through the building is very important. For instance, we opened up interior passageways that we rediscovered. But circulation begins with simple things like the large new handrail on the staircase in the entrance, which echoes the existing scale of the surrounding fence. It is a minimal modification but it is something that you touch; it is your first physical contact with the building.
Jacques Herzog: Most of the modifications are determined by building regulations—unfortunately. As we see it, the building does not need more dynamics. It’s the understated dynamics that makes the Armory so interesting and different. The gravity of this historical building is very rare nowadays. Anything we add to liven it up would destroy that. We had to install the handrail Ascan mentioned to meet fire and security regulations. We don't want to emphasize the old by contrasting it with something new. That is certainly an option, but not in this case. In a similar vein, we are also thinking about whether we should leave the woodwork in the corridors, which has darkened over the decades, or clean it and make it as light as it was originally. The historical layers are what give the Armory its excitement. We want to ensure that they are not destroyed.
Ascan Mergenthaler: That's the hardest part because there are so many life and safety requirements, code requirements, and technical requirements. How can we integrate them into the building as inconspicuously as possible? We have to build in all of the services that did not exist before. We integrated the ventilation ducts into the woodwork or placed them above the doors in the form of trumpets that were already there. The luminous stair is a key element. The central staircase originally had overhead daylighting and was very bright; it only became a dark monster in the course of various additions. We wanted to bring the light back and in order to do that we replaced the coffers on the ceiling with light elements of perforated copper. They are barely noticeable and have a dimmer that ranges from a soft glow to very bright light.
Jacques Herzog: Outsiders often don't realize that renovating a historical building does not simply mean ensuring the physical survival of its original appearance; it also means adapting the structure to meet today's technical requirements and regulations. That may entail a certain amount of destruction. Anticipating that and finding specific solutions makes the renovation of old buildings a very challenging task. No renovated building will ever be the way it once was. We therefore have to reinvent it for the future while at the same time preserving the mystery of its irrevocable origins.
Ascan Mergenthaler: The handrail for the grand staircase is a good example. It had no handrail before. We had to install one because the balustrade is so low that you can't hold onto it to prevent falling down the stairs. But we did not want to undermine the solid impression made by the wooden balustrade. The old one is appealing precisely because it is so low and wide. The regulations for a handrail in the United States are extremely precise and restricted. It has to be strong enough to resist the pressure of a crowd leaning against it; the diameter is also defined to ensure that people with special needs and the elderly can hold on to it easily. The height was the only, albeit limited, leeway that we had. We exploited that by having the handrail dip down between the balusters, underplaying it so that it does not compete with the balustrade.
Gerhard Mack: We have spoken in detail about what you are doing inside the Armory. What have you done with the facade, how have you situated in its urban context?
Ascan Mergenthaler: We’re basically taking the same three steps as we did inside: everything that has been added and is not necessary will be removed, like the fire escapes. The exterior will be repaired; if the masonry is damaged, new bricks will be inserted. It is a patchwork approach. Copper will be used for any new elements that are required, like emergency exits and air ducts for machines, and also for the roof. In that way they will blend in and be almost unnoticeable.
Jacques Herzog: A crucial factor, in terms of the urban context, is that we're not redesigning anything—no café to liven up the boring brick façade. And no new windows so that you can see from outside what is happening inside. We will apply none of the devices ordinarily used today to make a building livelier, to open it up to the city, and to integrate pedestrians. This otherness is what gives the project its special appeal. Within the urban context, the Armory as a whole functions as a kind of anchor room, and we as authors stay backstage.