Recent Work of Herzog & de Meuron

Recent Work of Herzog & de Meuron

Two poles in our education remain very interesting and very important for us today. On one hand is a constant experimental interest in the field outside architecture, in what can be used to recreate architecture as a contemporary tool of expression. This can be traced back to the student movement of the 1960s. On the other hand is how this can be done so that architecture remains architecture and doesn’t become merely fashionable, a passing fancy that after a while becomes boring. This was Aldo Rossi’s influence on us. These two elements were the springboard for our work.

First, I will discuss an apartment building at 11 Hebelstrasse in Basel (1988). The street side features existing stone buildings, a medieval structure with partition walls. The new building was inserted in front of an existing wall.

It is a wood construction, in the tradition of stables and other similar structures, different from those facing the road. Twisted columns make the first layer of the facade. Not only the facade but also the structure has to do with the idea of something being put in front of an existing partition wall. All rooms, accessed from a corridor parallel to that wall, are oriented toward the garden. The staircase is located in the middle of the building, with two apartments on each side.

The cross section shows how the wood floor beams extend from the columns down to the wall. This construction thus directly expresses the structure on the facade. We wanted the floors to be part of the expression so were against solid concrete floors. The facade is made of solid oak panels that can be closed completely, like a wooden box or a piece of furniture.

The whole building is constructed like a piece of furniture, like a cupboard set in front of the existing wall. Yet it is not so much of a sculptural design as a storage structure, comparable to our Ricola storage building, the Schwitter apartment and office building or the SUVA building. The image of the building results from the structural idea.

We twisted the columns, turning them to give more resistance in the first facade layer. Straight, they would not produce the same tension. The idea of depth thus appears in the facade. This theme comes up in many of our projects: the facade is not only one layer, one level, but has a spatial dimension. One can pass through the facade physically and mentally.

Everything in this building is executed with considerable craftsmanship, which in this case was necessary to the building’s specific expression. It was possible because we found the necessary craftsmen to work for us; our client – the city of Basel – really backed us on that project. Other projects reflect the opposite: a total renunciation of craftsmanship. Our student housing at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, for instance, exhibits a total lack of craftsmanship; this stimulates us to enhance other architectural qualities of a project.

The Stone House in Tavole, Italy (1988), sits on top of a hill a few kilometers from the Ligurian coast. The stepped nature of that hill, which is somewhere between architecture and nature, fascinated us and suggested the theme of the project. The steps are stone walls erected to cultivate olive trees and vineyards.

As in many other regions, this way of life is vanishing. We conceived of the landscape as a painting. We didn’t want to operate in the traditional way, putting weight on the stones, but used them to fill in the geometric structure of the house. The stones are simply held in place by their own weight and the tension between the layers.

The plan is a cross, and this was the first time we used interior spaces not to divide the volume but to make the volume. It’s as if these spaces came together to create the building. We renounced corridors, serving and served spaces. This idea came from analyzing traditional houses. We think that there is a difference between a building created through division of one large volume into smaller volumes and rooms and one created through putting volumes and rooms together: the difference between explosion and implosion.

The Stone House results from implosion. Section, plans and facades are shaped in an almost identical way: concrete grid and stone layers. They are similar but not quite the same, from the main floor to the top floor, to the shape of the roof. Of course, this is not merely a pure geometric idea and a game of good proportions. We were ispired by the houses that one finds along the streets in Italy, built by the inhabitants themselves and never quite finished. One can still see some of the bare concrete structures, with no stucco on the walls, because the residents would have to pay taxes if they finished the house. In our Stone House building, we didn`t want to create a perfect, jewel-like object.

The windows are covered with slate and painted steel to protect the interiors from the strong sunlight. The site is about ten kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, and because the house is on a hill, one can see the blue horizon of the water.

The Signal Box Auf dem Wolf, a building covered with copper bands, is scheduled for completion in 1995. What was interesting for us was to develop an idea for a large building in which only few people work. It’s like a huge computer, a totally computerized building whose function is to survey the engines and railroad lines. In earlier times the people inside these buildings used to look out over the railway field to watch what was happening; now they watch screens. For this reason, the facade deals less with looking outside than with looking inside. The copper bands protect the computer equipment inside from any kind of radiation from the outside. They are not just decoration but a functioning faraday cage.

We tested this system first, to figure out how to operate it. It was a real struggle to convince the client that it wouldn’t be too expensive, that it really made sense. In the beginning we were skeptical that we could ever realize the building as planned, with this radical approach: no (real) windows, only metal bands for the facade and an expensive material like copper. It seemed almost too much for a client such as the Swiss Federal Railway Company. Yet we finally did realize this building and in an almost traditional method, with a lot of direct contact between ourselves and individual contractors, and less expensively than if we had worked with big companies. We wanted to prove that we could create this building using alternative methods. In the process we achieved a technical quality that can serve as a standard for the railroad company.

The signal box is part of a larger project for the railroad depot. It stands like a jewel in the middle of rusty fields of railroad tracks. The facade layers open and close to allow more or less light into the building. The areas with open copper layers look like giant eyes on the screen of a monitor watching the railyard.

Nearby, our large new engine depot is under construction. Its structural elements directly express what happens: linear concrete walls extend parallel to the rails; light beams of a different span project above these long walls in a regular rhythm. We wanted this simple construction – only walls and beams – to provide an analogical image of the railroad tracks.

In the office part of the depot complex, a building rests on top of the light beams, which here have become concrete beams. Elsewhere we used steel beams covered with translucent glass panels. This is also under construction at the moment. It indicates the size of the project and the contrast between this building and the signal box. The project has an urban dimension. In the initial study for the whole compound we proposed adding more buildings along the same line – beamlike buildings that would come together like tree trunks in a stream.

Several of our recent projects involve with the development of a whole city area, so that we cannot just focus on one building but must consider what will happen around it before we begin the architectural design. One such project is our master plan for the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France (1992). We received the commission through the artist Rémy Zaugg, who asked us to work with him on the Dijon campus. We often collaborate with artists, especially Zaugg, who is a very interesting theoretician and painter. It is interesting to have somebody from another field, who comes from somewhere else, be a part of and think about the project.

The university needed a master plan because many new buildings are going to be erected on the campus in the coming years. Most of the campus was built in the 1950s. There were some really large existing buildings, in a tradition somewhere between Le Corbusier and Stalinist architecture. We used these as a guide. This was one of the first times we dealt with the question of how to add new areas – not only single buildings – in a city. What can urban planning be today? As in our architectural projects, we very much based our ideas on the existing reality. Whatever we find in a place, natural and artificial, becomes the main subject of our urban projects. In philosophical terms, one could call that a phenomenological approach
We discovered that the city of Dijon is expanding in onion-like layers. The development of the campus was moving away from the city. We wanted to connect the campus with the neighboring areas, so we proposed a master plan with new buildings developed in bands. The bands connect with both existing structures and the layers ringing the city. The idea is to add on to the 1950s buildings pieces that generate another direction, creating courtyards or facing other buildings so that the old structures are no longer isolated gestures. We are trying to make them “speak” with each other.

The first executed project in Dijon is Antipodes I, a housing complex for students in a new street called rue du XXIème siècle (Street of the Twenty-first Century), a name which in the eyes of the university authorities expresses the importance of the operation.

We developed the design so that it reads like one huge mass, referring to the existing large buildings. At the same time this mass can be cut into pieces, making contact with smaller structures on the site. We wanted the building to have this double aspect, this ambiguity between a large mass and an addition of smaller units. At first sight it looks like a fifties or sixties speculative building. The longer one looks at it, the stronger its impact. It’s like stones on a field expressing the shape of the landscape.

We used black, locally cast concrete for the structure and pale gray, prefabricated concrete slabs as infill. The prefabricated concrete, aluminum window frames and glass panes work together to homogenize the facade.

We treated the corridors like long streets. We wanted them to be really wide, almost three meters, so that they can function as access space and as spaces for communication. The sizes of the studios were dictated by the client. They are quite small so the wide corridors work as enlargements of the studios. The corridor walls of the studios are covered with plywood slabs. We wanted them to be something like the “furniture” of the whole housing project. We would have liked to offer the possibility of opening up each studio even more, with garagelike doors, so that the corridor could be even more an area for communication and for extension of the narrow spaces inside the studios.

SUVA is a Swiss insurance company that wanted new Basel headquarters to replace an existing building. We proposed instead preserving the old stone structure and adding a new building to create a whole (1993).

We designed a glass structure in which the geometry of two streets comes together to make a corner building. The stone building remains underneath. With the change of light it becomes more of a modernist glass building like so many other buildings elsewhere.

The glass facade improves the thermal insulation, acoustics and lighting. Layers of prismatic glass allow daylight to enter the building while screening direct sunlight. Three layers of glass (prismatic, transparent and silk-screened) are operated by eight hundred computerized engines. The layers automatically open and close with changes in sunlight.

The traditional office organization, with the corridor in the middle, all covered and closed, was removed. We proposed combi-offices, an office layout with a large central area, a social area for communication in which one might also find the fax and Xerox machines and coffee tables. The glass office walls facing these new corridors correspond to the exterior walls. The change of light conditions runs through the building, not only into the office spaces right behind the facades.

The whole building, all of the glass layers, can open to reveal the stone building behind. The glass facade then seems to have been merely placed in front, like a storage system for glass and aluminum – a facade concept that recalls our storage building for the Ricola factory.

We tested the engines for each window for thousands of times, so that they would work perfectly. Our client was not very enthusiastic about our high-tech facade, and we had a hard time convincing him that it was not a fascination for high-tech that pushed us to propose such a sophisticated and complex facade system but a conceptual strategy intended to keep the old building while meeting the technical standards required by the city. In the SUVA project we wanted to keep the very heavy and almost sadlooking stone building and contrast it with a new and very technological element. We don’t prefer one building material or one technology a priori; we don’t judge any materials more contemporary than any others. Our buildings and projects feature copper bands, silk-screened glass panels, wooden boards, printed concrete slabs and stone walls. We don’t move from more traditional materials in early projects to more modern materials in recent projects, as if to evolve toward better and better materials. Our building materials and technologies are strictly bound to the concept of each project, and the quality of each concept makes a project interesting and specific and contemporary or not, and nothing else.

While on the street side the SUVA project should look like one thing, its back shows that it is made out of two buildings – one filled mainly with apartments, the other with offices. The balconies are covered with solid wood inside to contrast clearly with the glass panels on the outside.

In the Ricola Storage Building (1989), in Laufen, Switzerland, the structure and the image of the facade are (almost) identical: it is a pile of boards. We never use the structure of a building merely to serve or to help carry the image. We seek a balance between structure and image. This balance can create a positive ambiguity. People looking at a building will wonder: Is it a pile of boards or a building? How does it stand up? What is carrying, and what is being carried? What is a corner? What is a wall?

In the Ricola building the merchandise inside is stored in the same way as the facade pieces are outside. Facade elements such as the vertical wooden sticks, the wood cement boards and the consoles describe a storage system. The facade pieces are stored within their own system.

The building has a simple shape that generates very different appearances, depending on the weather and light. We couldn't change anything about the space inside – which is a ready-made storage installation – so we operated in the space between the existing wall of the former limestone quarry in which the building sits and the new wall of the storage building.

The building actually enhances the idea of the site, of the old stone wall. We could almost pretend that the building “invents” the stone wall. The space between the two walls has a very strong expression, which gives a special quality to the industrial site. Such an approach to the site can be compared on an urban scale to what we proposed for Stuttgart. In both cases we point out the sites’ qualities rather than hiding them with our own design. We push everything just a little so that the site reveals itself, shapes itself without too many of our fingerprints being left on the final design.

While the Ricola building shows the structural side of our approach, our design of a Greek Orthodox church in Zurich (1989) deals with photographic rather than structural images. In this competition project we used silk-screend images to express architectural forms. This is one of our first architectural projects of this kind after the Basel architecture museum show in 1988. We were very much inspired by Orthodox and Romanesque Catholic churches, the interiors of which are totally painted. One can find such churches in traditional areas all over Europe, including Switzerland. We always liked these painted spaces, which are like the insides of bodies, a bit like interior tattoos.

What is the icon in Eastern European tradition, compared with the idea of the image in the Western world today? The icon repeats from one generation to the next. It is not so much the person of the artist who is the main actor; rather it is the represented figure on the icon itself. This gave us the idea to work with a reproductive technique, silk-screens based on photographic information. The motifs for the new, silk-screened icons were to be found in photographs of old and precious icons now dispersed among museums and private collections throughout the world. Brought together they would form a new Orthodox church space.

This new space would consist of translucent marble slabs on which the photographs of these old icons would be silk-screened. Even in the maquette this contemporary orthodox space took on an expressive power, comparable to that of the painted churches. We made tests at a 1:1 scale with icons that we photographically reproduced on big marble slabs. We especially liked the natural lines and “image points” in the stone, which were overlaid with the artificial lines and points of the icon.

We recently finished a production and storage building for Ricola Europe SA in Mulhouse, France (1993). Here we used the silk-screening technique in a big building for the first time. We tested many different motifs in different sizes and finally decided to cover the whole facade with one image, a leaf by the famous nineteenth-century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt. His images, mostly based on plants, have an ambiguous character, between abstract and figurative. We were seeking exactly that borderline between the abstract and the figurative to construct architectural walls.

The abstract representation of the natural object (the plant) becomes even more abstract by repetition; due to that abstraction and repetition the photographic image printed on translucent facade panels loses the character of a photograph or even a piece of art and takes on the quality of an ordinary building material such as stone or brick. At the same time one recognizes that this wall is in fact translucent and very light and even resembles a textile.

This ambiguity suggests very old architectural problems like inside and outside and what is in between, questions that arose in older cultures such as traditional Islamic or Japanese architecture, as well as in the work of architects whome we have always admired, such as Louis Sullivan or Gottfried Semper. Semper’s and Sullivan’s work contains a lot of seemingly decorative, useless motifs carved in stone or painted on stucco, motifs which are applied with a precise intention to change the character of the natural surface of the material rather than to entertain the observer.

The facade of our Ricola Europe building is made of eight-meter-high synthetic (polycarbonate) slabs – a very ordinary industrial product. The intersection of these industrial slabs shows a vertical system of pipes, comparable to the canal system in living plants that allow water to circulate.

If one looks at the facade from the side, the printed images are almost invisible. The images come and go as one moves around the building. The wall seems to have a depth, almost filling the interior.

The printed leaves are not aggressively present, inside or outside. The atmosphere inside the factory is totally different from most industrial spaces; the surface of the wall is like a large curtain that mitigates the industrial character of the polycarbonate slabs. These printed translucent walls serve as interfaces between the natural site and the industrial site.

Our first building in Munich, Germany, is a small private museum for the Goetz Collection (1992). The museum sits in a garden of birch trees, parallel to a noisy street on one side and an existing villa from the 1960s on the other. The entrance space, which also serves as a library for art books and catalogues, is like a bridge running through the body of the building. The museum shows the collection of our client, Ingvild Goetz, who has been collecting contemporary art from the 1960s to the present. New exhibitions are installed every six months. The museum is open to the public by appointment.

From the library, one can access the first floor and the basement (both exhibition floors). The building is actually one big piece with two smaller pieces running through like bridges, one for the entrance/library, the other for technical services and storage. The structure also reads as a concrete piece partly buried in the earth with a wooden piece on top. Thus the building reads in different ways. This complexity of surface and space is what interested us most, once we figured out how best to present the pieces of art.

This is a rather small building, and we wanted to have the exhibition spaces, the basement and the first floor, look very much the same. Once inside it’s difficult to determine exactly where one is because the room remains pretty much the same throughout. The modest size of the building and the limited number of exhibition spaces prevents confusion, while the consistency helps to create an atmosphere of concentration throughout the building. The artworks have an incredible physical presence because the exhibition spaces have no architectural pretension beyond the presentation of art.

Here we used materials that are in some ways very similar to each other. The birch plywood refers to the birches outside yet also has a surface quality similar to that of the aluminum and sanded glass. The plywood slabs (structural pieces) and the sanded glass panes (covering material) are put together flush to the wall. These two architectural elements define the volume of the whole building almost like two spots of color on a painting, even though one is opaque and structural and the other is nonstructural and translucent.

In the first room is a work by Helmut Federle, the artist with whom we collaborated in Vienna. He also served as a consultant for the interior of this museum. For instance, he advised us on the wall treatment. We didn’t want to paint the walls. We left them stucco, slightly gray, brownish stucco, which enhances the minimal use of color in many of the exhibited works, such as Agnes Martin’s paintings. By renouncing the use of color on the walls, the color of the paintings emerges more strongly. The light quality in the exhibition spaces is very consistent whether the sun is shining or not. One is aware of the weather but not too aware.

An especially interesting moment in the day occurs when the daylight fades and the artificial light inside the building becomes stronger. The balance of the pale facade materials then vanishes while the structural concept becomes more visible: (nothing but) an (elevated) box standing in a garden of birch trees.
Lecture held by Jacques Herzog at the Columbia University’s Wood Auditorium, 8 November 1993.

Herzog & de Meuron: Recent Work of Herzog & de Meuron.
In: Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (Ed.). Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory. Vol. No. 4, New York, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, 1995. pp. 5-25.