Conversation between Jacques Herzog and Bernhard Bürgi, Basel, 8th November 1990
Bernhard Bürgi: The basic facts are that many more of your building projects have come to fruition recently whereas earlier a number of plans remained on paper which meant that you did not have to face the realisation stages, with all the associated compromises and specific problems. Today, how do you see the field of tension between imagination, the creative base of architecture, and its realisation in tangible form?
Jacques Herzog: I understand your question on two different levels. On one hand, that the fact of our now being able to carry out our projects is forcing us to curb the creative potential we have nurtured over many years. That the result is inadequacy of a sort, because we have so many projects to execute in a short time, have to give attention to matters we had never confronted before and become stressed if we fail to organise ourselves properly and adapt to the changed situation. On the other hand, we also experience this new situation as a liberation, because we can at last measure these thoughts we have developed against the potentialities of the building site; make them visible in reality and make them public; and carry our creative potential along with this and enable it to grow.
B.B.: One general observation is that your architecture is very clearly distinguished for not forcing a standardised language on a specific locality; rather that you relate your projects very strongly to topographical, cultural and other factors, that is you react specifically and personally to certain circumstances related to the commission. Some of these were quite small commissions, a house for an art-collector or a garden pavilion for a hotel; today some of the commissions before you are quite different in nature: fairly large-scale buildings in much more urban contexts. In this sense one could say that your work is in smaller, more intimate projects on the one hand and large-scale buildings on the other. Do you see certain main orientations or groupings in your creative work or do you ultimately regard each building as a case in isolation?
J.H.: Until a short time ago I regarded each building as an individual task and also treated it as such. But when I look back at our work over the years and also look into the future, this view of individual projects gives way to one of groups of projects in which certain themes constantly recur. Another way I see things is that there are parallel alternatives for developing a building; that is, parallel constructional alternatives pursued simultaneously. Construction not in a real but in a transferred sense: how do I develop a house. Today it is becoming clear to me that these tendencies were inherent even in the projects of the initial period. On the one hand, then, there is a variety of main orientations and within these is the option of approaching, by means of these system, the particular and specific location.
B.B.: Do characteristics emerge in groups out of the fundamental requirements – for example, do the buildings in urban contexts stand out from specific building situations, such as, for example, the project for a Greek Orthodox church in Zurich or the storage building in Laufen? How would you in fact characterise the fundamental tendencies you have described?
J.H.: I think that these cannot been distinguished according to their appropriateness for urban or less urban situations. The examples which occur to me are the two projects for the stone house in Tavole in Italy on the one hand and the Elsässertor office building on the other. The one is situated in a remote rural area, 10 kilometres from the Mediterranean, the other in a high-density urban quarter near the French Station in Basel. These two projects are related to each other in their structural concept, in their lines of development. And nevertheless they ultimately find their actual identity as urban buildings on completely different sites.
B.B.: What for you then is the specific connection between the stone house and a project such as the Elsässertor?
J.H.: The Elsässertor project derived from a serial principle, from a repetitive sequencing of supports and beams. As such it can be extended infinitely in any direction; it follows an inner law, comparable with the spatial grid of a crystal structure. The limitation on external form – the height, the length, the breadth of a building, the large openings for the lightwell – all these formal decisions are only a limitation of the crystal grid: they are exceptions to a rule, interruptions in a sequence which is in principle continuous and infinitely extending. The external form of the building will bear the impress of urban, architectural and other considerations; the ‘crystal structure’ on the inside of the building will, however, always be present.
This could be compared with the external form of mountains, which bear the visible stamp of weather and vegetation but with a discernible mineralogical structure in their interior; a granite mountain will always take a different form from a limestone mountain or a metamorphic rock.
The house in Tavole is built on a grid structure of cast in-situ concrete beams; part of this grid structure is filled in with natural stones collected together by local masons. This architecture can of course be interpreted in different ways; but in fact we are here applying this serial principle for the first time, this ‘significance-free’ structure, and we attain the ‘significance’, the specific aptitude for the site through the limitation of this structure and through its cladding, or, in this case, its filling.
B.B.: Can you go into more detail about these basic themes, these different lines of development in your work; besides the serial principle you described?
J.H.: It is very difficult to answer this with an analysis of our own work. However, it is definitely the case that
for many years we have been developing parallel projects which are planned quite differently from each other. Apart from the Elsässertor, which belongs more to this category of a serial sequence, there is the example of the project for a Greek Orthodox church in Zurich, which externally gives the impression of a single self-contained body, but which is in fact constructed as a conglomerate of various precisely defined units. The Schwarz Park project also belongs to this category of conglomerates, by combining dissimilar ‘building lumps’ into a whole figure by means of materials, construction and function.
In another category is the Helvetia insurance company project in St.Gallen, which corresponds more to a composition in the traditional sense. This last principle of composition is admittedly rare with us, but in the case of St. Gallen it was just this which gave rise to the opportunity of incorporating the existing buildings and to correct its present irrational structure by building on the newer parts. With these differing principles of developing an architecture we have various strategic alternatives for self-expression at a site, without continually reinventing the whole architecture, but also without hiding ourselves behind a constantly uniform personal style.
B.B.: In various lectures and texts you have repeatedly stressed the intellectual and non-material value of architecture, as also the autonomy of architecture in the sense of sculptural solutions, and you are closely involved with the fine arts. You also work with artists on certain projects, whether with Helmut Federle for a housing estate in Vienna or with Rémy Zaugg for a university project in Dijon. On the other hand, however, functional considerations are a major part of certain large-scale projects in particular, and this multiplicity of practical questions surely contrasts with your emphasis on the intellectual and non-material aspects, which may indeed entail certain Utopian demands on architecture, and call for an aura, a presence. This interplay between artistic autonomy and the dictates of expediency seems to me to be very problematical, but on the other hand also most fascinating. The artistic questions of architecture do tend to be lost in the general operations of building.
J.H.: I believe you have raised two groups of questions, the apparent contradiction between artistic matters and functional expediency and a further question about collaborating with artists.The contradiction you spoke of appears less and less contradictory to us, the reason being that the very functionalism of architecture makes possible something which you define as an ‘aura, a presence’. This emerges in the first instance from the absolute impossibility of doing without architecture; it rests, so to speak, on the utilitarian character of architecture. Its indispensability and functionalism are actually the interesting things about it. I do not understand the intellectual and non-material aspects as something standing out like an aura, but as something ideational, inherent in the work and the product. The individual components which make up the architecture must come together on an ideational plane or condense to an ideational space, which then opens up to the perception of the user or the observer as the multiplicity and sum of the potential convergences. And I believe that the more such considerations are linked with each other incoherent form in a project, without all this formalistic and superfluous tinkering with details, the more strongly this architectural emanation is able to develop. I also think that this is always how things were. Functional expediency does not stand in the way of architecture; on the contrary, I sometimes rejoice in it, because it provides us with a means of entering into a project. This seems to me an advantage over a painter who stands in front of a blank canvas and has to devise the limits of his work by himself; even if the functionality and the necessary materialism of architecture are in every way comparable with the preconditions of wedged stretcher, colours and canvas. It has never restricted us, this functional and material side; on the contrary, we believe that an intellectual stance is very closely linked to this, indeed that it only arises and becomes visible through taking material form. The interest develops out of the interplay; I do not think that there is such a thing as good architecture which is not functional or even functionalistic to a certain degree, or which negates its material or constructive fact.
B.B.: But what was your specific motive in so unequivocally including artists in your work? I could interpret itlike this: that during the production of so many orders the artists, from their more autonomous standpoint, safeguard this artistic dimension of architecture, this aiming for the heart of the matter; and that discussion with them actually intensifies this. It is after all not simply a matter of getting them to develop some colour schemes, for example, I see this in a deeper context. But is this how you see it?
J.H.: The history of these two collaborations is very different and our association with both artists is based
on long-standing friendship over many years from which we were able to learn without ever having collaborated on a project.
Helmut Federle joined the Vienna project relatively late, in fact only when we noticed that the colour had almost completely vanished from our concept of the house facades and had suddenly thus acquired a quite profound significance, a great weight – like a material in its own right. This for us was the moment in which an artist who works with colour in such a specific and exclusive manner as Helmut became indispensable. It was simply a matter of course to include him, and he himself did it equally as a matter of course and so perfectly that we never had the slightest coordination or demarcation problems with him. This, however, was only possible because Helmut already knew us and our work well and was able to pick up the situation immediately and express himself, without having to defend himself against anything and without running the risk of his work being misinterpreted as applied, added decoration.
The background of the case of Rémy Zaugg and the Dijon campus was quite the other way about; there we as architects were sought out by him, the artist, in order to develop a project jointly with him from the very beginning, a piece of work for which he had been approached and which he could not manage on his own. But even in this case, even with the work being developed by the three of us together from the very beginning, there are no coordination or hierarchical problems, because our architectural designs can also be used for collaboration with Rémy, being in their turn influenced by his thinking, consciously and unconsciously.
Pierre and I have actually developed our collaboration over 30 years, and it works well without our having ever analysed it in detail. It has always been decisive for us, however, to develop a very strong planning concept, in which various people and collaborators can express themselves without our having to deduce every detail ourselves.
It is important for us in the future to extend this collaboration with people of disparate creative potential, such as architects, engineers, biologists and artists, down to the general industrialists and the cost accountants, in order to have any possibility of executing a growing number of projects on an ever-larger scale. We see this emphatically as an opportunity. We are not interested in in flating our own business to gigantic proportions, as experience has shown that this entails a disproportionate growth in organisational expenditure.
B.B: Don't you need great integrity not to use just any successful concepts, which can be identified with you and then repeated and scattered among the most diverse sites and countries, as we sometimes see with the ‘stararchitects’ system? It always comes back to a fundamental involvement of self, as the means of obtaining the basic energy. You indeed examine this core situation in your lectures, writings and exhibitions. For 1991 you are planning an exhibition in the Kunstverein in Munich, in which you can present yourself without constraint. Is it possible to say something about the plan of this exhibition at this early stage?
J.H.: The rooms in the Kunstverein in Munich are highly idiosyncratic, due to their linear and hierarchical sequence and to the fact that the daylight enters from two sides. Our exhibition concept is based on these spatial factors; each room will be clearly distinguished from the other in hanging/installation and medium (drawing, model or video), and this method will underpin the sequence of the rooms and the weighting given to each. The first exhibition room with the stairs is the most difficult room; this we found on several visits – none of the current exhibitions could offer us a sensible solution. For that reason we wanted to make the greatest changes here. For this site we developed a video installation on the wall opposite the stairs, consisting of 16 monitors which split up an architectural image on to each of these 16 screens, as if these images had been broken up, blown apart from each other. The wall with the monitors thus loses its intrinsic, real, spatial effect; it becomes fragmented and opens up towards the following exhibition rooms. The means we use to effect this architectonic change in the given rooms in the Kunstverein consists of selected images of our architectural work, which stand somewhere outside these rooms in the open air. However, our architectural work is not perceived via a perspective image, a photograph or a video, but through the actual exhibition space itself, which we are remodelling, converting·to our own use and making into a piece of our architecture. Our architecture is communicated not through reproduction and illusion but through the exhibition space itself. The video installation is being carried out in collaboration with the video artist Enrique Fontanilles, with whom we have already created an installation in Zurich – a video projection on an acrylic sheet 9 x 2.5 metres, which you have in fact seen. He was also responsible for the large video installation in our exhibition at the Collegio d'arquitectes de Catalunya in Barcelona, a wonderful work, consisting of 64 monitors, which were fixed like a grid on the floor of the exhibition room and which threw their light onto the ceilings of the room, which were at different levels.
B.B.: This has been my thought about the forms of your exhibition: I could very easily imagine directly adding the sensation of substantiality to the sculptural elements of your architecture, by means of video or photography. Your Zurich video translated the screen prints mounted on the windows of the Architekturmuseum in Basel into film. You thus emphasised the abstract nature of your architectonic images, there was a certain dematerialising tendency there. Why this marked fragmentation to the detriment of three dimensional qualities?
J.H.: This is an important observation. We take care not to reduce the reality of our architecture in real space to a perspective image which gives one-sided, deceptive information about a house. This was the first consideration. For this reason, in the Architekturmuseum in Basel we used the glass panes of the building, on to which we directly applied screen prints, which were the height of the room, of photographed buildings. We used the skin of this room in order to draw attention to it as well, to penetrate with our architecture. We try to make the exhibition infiltrate into the real space of the exhibition, in order to make it affect the observer in its changed state, so that the latter experiences our architecture as a spatial experience, on his own self, as it were. We do not want to cover and equip the exhibition room in the traditional way with documents of our architectural work. We find that sort of exhibition tedious, as its didactic quality would transmit a deceptive view of our architecture.
People believe that they can form a kind of reconstruction from the sketch to the completed photographed work, but in reality they have grasped nothing at all, merely added together documents of an architectural reality.
In the case of the project for a Greek Orthodox church what happened – and this was probably also the problem for the priests on the competition jury was that in a sense we enclosed the image, the icon, which is actually the very essence of this whole religion, within the wall of the church space, virtually soaked the wall with it, so that the image in a certain sense vanishes again, becomes dispersed in a spatial situation as a whole, vanishes, because it is so present – like a tattoo, which is so visible that it again acquires an abstract, ‘image-free’ character.
B.B.: We have often spoken about loss of tradition – that today there is no longer any basis which is taken for granted and which guarantees a certain standard – rather that it is necessary to start from first principles again and again. I am also thinking of the tradition of craftsmanship, of the ethic of performing a task, which is rapidly vanishing or becoming a luxury. You create new groupings in order to find a new fundamental situation. It can also be seen that your work has a certain austerity in its apparatus of forms, that there is a certain ascetic element there. Can one counter the currently prevailing risk of levelling down and of foreground decoration by an awareness of simple building types and materials? Your art is continually compared to arte povera and minimal art, currents of modern art which already have a dimension of art history.
J.H.: These comparisons came from outside; they did not emanate from us. It is very difficult to see it in that way and I do not find it particularly interesting either. What you said earlier about the disappearance of this traditional basis, such as craft and also the traditions of content, is actual fact. I find it an interesting view that it is this very formation of cells, this setting up of a network of people, which guarantees quality. Creating a piece of work with other architects, engineers or artists has certainly something to do with our need to create fixed points for ourselves in order to be able to set anything in motion; without that nothing is there, nothing which could be called self-evident or traditional. These points of reference, which everybody has to work out for himself, are indispensable today and will be even more so in the future. However, I see that as an opportunity rather than a loss. I even feel the loss of tradition as a liberation. We have actually never known anything else. For our generation this was always how things were, and we have to learn to cope with it.
B.B.: A partnership we have not yet mentioned is the one with the client, the user of a building. With a residential building this plays a decisive part. The entire user aspect, the well-being of the residents, the human-social aspect of architecture raises quite different questions from, say, that of the autonomous quality of architecture that you often mention. As regards the housing estate in Vienna, which is heavily reliant on repetition and an absolutely sparse structure, I did wonder whether, for example, a resident would feel at ease in this systematised pattern, which in a certain sense crushes individuality: the neighbour lives in an identical situation. Is the concept of a housing development planned so uniformly throughout still at all relevant today? This is a question which passed through my mind – despite all the seductive clarity and the fascinating and perfectly understandable structural articulation.
J.H.: I believe that housing is a special case for this question because it addresses the intimate, personal areas of humanity.It is quite different from constructing a commercial building or a laboratory, where we face a much more general situation. However, in all our building projects we start from what we ourselves find interesting and appropriate. We would never do anything that contains any idea which we ourselves would find impossible to live with. We are not cynics, we are not attracted to rigidity for its own sake. Certainly our idea of a place to live and of life are different from other people's. And Vienna is itself an example of this. At the moment we are having trouble with the colour treatment. The clients are in revolt against the design planned by us and Helmut Federle. Actually this is a plan without colour. We have used colour only where it is indispensable; on window-frames or railings, where it has more of a protective function, as a coating. The external walls are plastered with two different sorts of sand, left in their natural colour; in addition there is plywood, which has its own colour, and sheet zinc, which again has a specific colour. But we work without bright colours or decoration because in our opinion it is in fact this untouched ‘natural’ state of these common materials, their ‘purity’, so to speak, which gives the buildings an extraordinary effect. They are intended to form a neutral background, since every family which moves in here has the opportunity for self-expression by shaping the external space, by individualising the garden areas in front of the house and behind it, and experience has shown that people have been eager to make use of it. It is a garden development, and the varying green areas of the external space will create a strongly individual expression. Our point of departure is this contrast between the simple, austere rows of houses and the highly individualised garden spaces. We do not ourselves want to paint this individualisation on each house from outside; this would be pure decoration and would have nothing to do with the people's actual private space.
B.B.: But the building sponsors would like the exterior to be more attractive...
J.H.: Yes, they are not pleased about the lack of colour. They are afraid that the people might back out of their tenancy agreements, and so they want to paint all the houses we have planned in the estate white – the other rows of houses in the development by Adi Krischanitz and Otto Steidle are actually painted in bright colours in places. But painting of this kind would destroy our entire architectural concept. This example makes it clear that in only a few cases is there a genuine relationship between architect and client.
B.B.: You have said that you are actually happy about the functionality of architecture, that it allows you the opportunity of entering into the project, even that the real interest for you lies in the interplay. Now, with this real example, you sound very sceptical, more about the loss of a genuine opposite party, who as a client (and representative of society) identifies with your idea, than about coping with functional matters to do with the erection of a building. Do you regard this breakdown in communications as the greatest threat to quality in architecture?
J.H.: Our opposite party is the client or building sponsor, as he used to be called. From a historical point of view the sponsorship of buildings has altered: the prince of the feudal period, the civic Maecenas, the factory director of the 19th and 20th centuries and the commercial companies of the present age. Just as the holding structure of the modem companies is fragmented into various divisions, sectors, and responsibilities in order to promote economic flexibility, so its opposite party and its communication with that party, e.g. with us, the architects, has become fragmented and split into operable units. One consequence of this development is that an architectural project today shows various planes of reality each separate from the other: for example, the economic plane for capital investment, or the functional plane as a structure, which must ensure specific working processes, or the aesthetic plane, on which a certain representativequality or at least public acceptance is to be achieved. This separation had begun and taken place even earlier, being of course an expression of the fundamental principle of industrialised society. But for some years now this process of disintegration has radically accelerated and even spread, encouraged by the potential of the electronic computer – an architectural project in its entirety, that is as a drawing and as a sum of figures and as a description, can today be developed, stored, and printed out by the computer. Each line, each figure in it is initially equal in worth. The price and the description and the drawing for each individual piece of architecture can be calculated separately, weighted separately and exchanged. Why shouldn't a roof support which looks just like any other but which is more expensive – viewed in isolation – be exchanged for the cheaper version?
We have always understood architecture as a unity and rejected any division into function and economy and aesthetics. We always had a concept of the direction in which an architectural planning process, in which indeed countless people are involved, should go and how these disparate interests and demands should coincide. Now, in some projects we see ourselves confronted with the necessity of developing strategies which can respond even more strongly than previously to immediate, abruptly changing demands, for the very reason that communication itself, that is the ‘fluent’, continuous exchange of information in a logical, purposeful and connected sequence between us and our opposite party, has vanished and been replaced by an isolated, aimless, sometimes actually irrational emergence of unilateral utterances of the will of the building sponsors.
B.B.: The modern architect, or, in parallel, the modern artist, must fight alone, find a firm position from within himself and defend it. From the end of the 19th century the avant-garde movements had isolated themselves from collective thought and action, hoping of course to be able to act as a model for future development. Today this contraposition of social dominance and the harshness of individual achievement is visibly lessening. Creative solitariness or creative complicity is now increasingly integrated into the social mainstream. Has the architect now served his purpose as a programmatic leading figure, as a Utopian lateral thinker?
J.H.: The individual components of an architectural project have become easier to manipulate and more interchangeable during the processes of planning and even of execution. In the face of this structural change in the client described earlier, i.e. society's opposite party to the architect, we have often wondered whether the continuing success, to this day, of architectures such as those of Hollein, Venturi or Stirling is also synonymous with the success of their mode of operation, with their strategy of decoration. A concept of architecture which treats structure and cladding, material and space as mutually independent, interchangeable categories does indeed appear the most capable of adapting. The granite cladding of an oriel can also be replaced with sheet metal painted the colour of granite, or the oriel itself replaced by a trompe l'oeil effect. Might this decorative thinking then be the architectonic thinking of the future? Would this be a genuinely forward-thinking architectonic strategy? Perhaps the radicalisation of this trend has indeed anticipated a future form of architecture – the playful, narrative, random element emerging from the unit of architecture disintegrated into computerised data can be brought into play not only by the architect-decorators acting unilaterally but also by any interested citizen and civic or tenants’ association. Each building becomes the expression of a collective compromise, of the taste of the users and authorities at a given moment. Parallel to such a development we discern the signs of an actual disappearance of architecture in its current limited and limitable form; a disappearance of architecture through its increasingly spatial expansion, or at least with a transient, temporary, almost provisional limitation; architecture with a growing or changing surface as limitation, like the changing surfaceand mass of a mountain or a lake. Such a development would completely remove the already hazy distinction between architecture/town and nature. Architecture and nature, town and country can no longer be viewed as traditional pairs of opposites. But even urban buildings, the individual houses, are no longer perceptible and distinguishable as a traditional spatial opposition like the palazzo of the Renaissance, Classicism or the Post-Modern; the city is an agglomeration, an indistinguishable urban mass, where internal and external space approximate to each other, as in the medieval city or, more pertinently, in the Arabian town or in the towns of the Pueblo Indians on the American mesas. With a pictorial comparison of this kind, in which architecture and nature form an impressive unity instead of a pair of opposites, the mesas seem of particular interest, their uppermost layer being formed so to speak out of the Indians' pueblos so that it becomes barely distinguishable from the lower, naturally formed rock strata of the mountain.
B.B.: What is essential to you in your future work, how do you look ahead to your position in the architectural process, specifically with regard to urban building or to developments in both Eastern Europe and the countries of the Third World?
J.H.: To sum up, it could be said that architecture has gained much more social recognition in recent years. A proof of this, for example, is our exhibition at the Kunstverein in Munich, where no work by architects had ever been shown before. This is definitely a beneficial change for us: we ourselves can of course exert a far greater influence, a greater effect, on the changing face of the cities. On the other hand our discussion has shown us that it is only through a difficult and roundabout route that an integral concept of architecture may be produced at all – through its temporary, complete dissection into electronic data. Architecture will thus be redefined; the modus operandi of the architect, his commitment to the process of communicating his project will be decisive, more important than the traditional, personal development of the style, which is of course always bound to aesthetic prejudices.
We are developing a variety of strategies for a variety of projects, which then also require a variety of forms of communication. One way is through collaboration with artists, as already mentioned, from whom we have always been able to learn much and who – when in their turn confronted by the same identity problems I have described us as having – are also interesting partners. The exceptions are those artists who put themselves forward as preachers of morality and thus disregard their own work and its marketing on the art market. Even a Donald Judd, whose annihilating criticism of the complacency of modern architects and artists we do of course share on one hand, should really be aware of the dubiousness of self-dramatisation in the remote landscapes of Marfa/Texas.
The only example for us can be a project in a town, in a city, in the amalgam of styles and wishes and necessities. This work in and at and with towns and cities is the architectonic and artistic and social work of the future.