CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS DERCON

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in conversation with Chris Dercon

Chris Dercon: Why do you think you were given the commission to build Tate Modern in 1995?

 

Jacques Herzog: You have to ask Nick Serota and the jury. We certainly weren’t a favourite back then. Maybe Nick thought we were ready to do a building of that stature - of global stature - although we had only done smaller things so far. I think Nick was pretty convinced that we would be able to come up with a kind of antidote to what was considered appropriate museum design at the time, which was not how he envisioned the future. Museum standards in, say, Mönchengladbach, Frankfurt or Stuttgart, defined by Hollein or Stirling: I don’t think this is what Nick wanted. He was looking for a radical departure: Industrial, rough and basic galleries in an existing building essentially expressed an aesthetic or a potential closer to what appealed to artists, especially American artists but increasingly Europeans, as well. Maybe he felt we were able to respond to those interests more than other candidates.

 

Pierre de Meuron: Herzog & de Meuron was obviously the best match for the Tate. Two factors seem to have been decisive. First factor: the new site for Tate Modern had just been chosen – an utterly surprising and daring choice, a half-abandoned and largely derelict power station in Southwark, built in the early fifties. It was an unapproachable, hermetic industrial building in an inhospitable neighbourhood. Our design involved few but powerful interventions, with the aim of retaining the industrial character of the building as much as possible. Second factor: the design proposal AND the architect were to be selected in an international competition that was not anonymous. This was the first time we (HdM) had encountered a selection process that explicitly foregrounded “searching for an architect”. The Tate wanted to know the people who were behind the proposed designs.

 

CD: That means Tate was looking for a collaborator.

 

JH: Yes.

 

CD: And Nick became your collaborator.

 

Both: Nick played an active role in the evolution of the design from the very beginning.

 

JH: In the second phase perhaps even more than in the first. We have rarely had a client with such a keen eye for architecture, someone who really improved the project and almost became an accomplice as work progressed. Nick loves architecture and has considerable architectural talent. But in the first phase, we were less receptive to such an intense exchange. We were more defensive; we were not used to laying things out on the table so freely in order to find the best possible solution together.

 

CD: So it was a completely new experience for you.

 

PdM: As mentioned, the decision made by Nick and the jury was based on the design proposals in combination with getting to know the people behind the proposal. Nick certainly had in mind to play an active part in the coming design process, to set up fruitful and intense collaboration between client and architect. No client has ever been as personally involved in one of our projects as he was – and still is. Significantly, our strongest works often have strong and active clients.

 

CD: I think you were chosen because you showed, “We do not want to change the existing building.”

 

JH: We wanted to do what we try to do in most of our projects, which is to look at the givens as carefully as possible in order to identify the potentials before taking action and possibly destroying something that we might regret later. We try to reinforce what the site offers before introducing new things. You can compare this to traditional cooking. The best cook is the one who works with readily available local and seasonal ingredients and thoroughly exploits their potential before adding things from an exotic market.

 

CD: What did you reinforce?

 

JH: I think the Turbine Hall is the most striking example. It is the key design piece on the way to creating Tate Modern. We left it empty and didn’t fill it up with floors and spaces. Gilbert Scott had already set the stage for that grand open space: the turbines were presented like sculptures within it. It already looked like a museum to us. Removing the turbines allowed us to dig down to the ground and literally excavate that space – like an archaeological dig, so that you would have the entire museum right in front of you. We dug down to the level of the oil tanks, opening up this immense covered plaza for both the public and the artists. No matter where you come into the space, it says “this is a place for art.” We absolutely wanted to convey this message.

 

CD: It’s interesting that you say that because the success of Tate is often explained by the exact opposite: “We are an art gallery AND first and foremost a public space.”

 

JH: Yes, that is very much part of its success. It is a public and open space for everyone, but it is also a gallery; it “smells” of art. It is not a commercial and functional space like an airport or a shopping mall where you also find a lot of people (and sometimes even art). And unlike the latter, the people who go to Tate Modern somehow share a common interest in the broadest sense of the term; they share the desire to experience that space.

 

PdM: Yes. We were fully aware of the significance of a grand and generous indoor public space, which welcomes millions of visitors. I may draw a comparison with the National Stadium in Beijing, where we had a similar line of thought. The latter was, of course, in the first instance a sports facility for a limited, very short period of time, for the Olympic Games of 2008, but to us it is above all a public place, The Turbine Hall and the Concourse around the stadium both are a sort of threshold space between the outside and the inside of the building. This defines what makes Tate Modern so attractive – and not only to regular museum visitors.

 

CD: The architect and curator, Terry Riley, once said, when he was coaching the design-process of the new extension of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that one should look for architecture which is capable of saying “This is a museum.”

 

PdM: First, we just wanted people to walk in and then, possibly, to have an immediate encounter with art. Instead of saying “This is a museum”, I am more interested in saying “This is a place for art and artists and people to come together”. Admission is free and people go there even if they are not primarily interested in art. But it certainly does feel different from going to a shopping mall or an airport where everything, all the smells and sounds and sights, have the scent and intent of allure – a far cry from what Tate Modern has to offer.

 

CD: I think that the first time the Turbine Hall felt really like an agora, where people could decide to do whatever they wanted to do – stay for a long or short time, hang out, sleep, have a picnic, make love – was in 2003, when Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project was installed. A very different feel from other museums. Which do you think was the first Turbine Hall commission where you could say “This is what we had in mind?”

 

JH: Olafur for sure, but also Anish Kapoor and certainly and very subtly Bruce Nauman – all those artists used the gallery in a way that you couldn’t do anywhere else. That’s what it is made for! Another reason for the success of the space is that we left its architecture raw and industrial and didn't add many signs of our own design. There is little evidence of an architect's handwriting, which can often be a bit awkward and invasive. Our main contribution was to make the space be even more like what it was already or like what it wanted to be when it was first built, namely an industrial cathedral. Even in the second phase, we didn’t make much use of architectural details. It is all space and structure.

 

PdM: A significant factor regarding the Turbine Hall and the building as a whole is its placement as a deliberate answer to St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite side of the Thames. The two landmarks are aligned and have a plainly visible vertical presence in the cityscape of London. So we knew from the beginning that we wanted to keep the existing chimney even though it was no longer in use, because it clearly functions as a sign. As a horizontal response to the vertical chimney, we proposed adding a new feature, the so-called “light beam” on top of the roof, which also provides a novel view of the City of London.

 

CD: But to the north.

 

PdM: Yes, since they face each other.

 

CD: A mirror so to speak. When did you start thinking about the south?

 

JH: The bridge across the Turbine Hall connecting the northern and southern part already figured in the earliest proposals. The southern part was totally undeveloped, a rather neglected, basically dormant part of the city. It is almost inconceivable now given the unbelievable Hongkongian density and height of the surrounding towers and developments.

 

CD: But the south entrance couldn’t be revamped because the southern part of the power station was still in use.

 

JH: Yes. But the idea of opening up to the south was part of the original scheme. The scheme that we were chosen for had an opening to the south – an access that ran through the building with a plaza in the front. We just hadn’t worked out the second phase in detail.

 

CD: When did Nick tell you they were going to do it?

 

 

JH: Nick said from the beginning that he wanted to continue. But he also said, we may want a younger architect to think about the second phase. He couldn’t promise that we would be commissioned to design the second phase as little as he could promise to be staying on. We know too well how complex these things are. I guess Nick always wanted that extension – he have the bigger picture in his mind from the very beginning, which certainly included other types of galleries and new spaces for the public. We were very keen to extend the building from the bottom up – with the amazing oil tanks as the foundation of a whole new and different art experience. We also wanted to offer visitors a more fluid means of experiencing the height, with additional views from different angles than those provided by the first phase.

 

I think one of the most important differences will be the way people move through the building. Nonetheless, while being different, the second phase should feel like part of one and the same building complex with its robust industrial architecture. Otherwise we would have created an imbalance between the two parts. This was a major challenge and one of the most interesting points of exchange between Nick and us, namely, how these things get connected. I don't think we would have been able to do that back in 1995.

 

PdM: Speaking of movement, in the Turbine Hall, the ramp slopes down into the space and is the key point of access to the Museum from the west: you do not enter the building horizontally, nor do you walk up steps. Accessing an interior space on an inclined plane generates a singular three-dimensional experience – you first walk down, you slow down, you don’t have to watch your step, you decelerate, you get a first overview of the building from the inside, you get your bearings. In addition to all that, when you reach the bottom of the ramp, you will soon have the choice of turning north to TM1, or south to the newly converted oil tanks and the new extension, TM2.

 

CD: Why did you do that?

 

PdM: If you enter the building on level 0, i.e. on street level, you have to go down one level if you want to buy tickets or go to the museum shop. That diminishes the significance of the lower-level (-1) and prioritizes the levels above. In the present configuration, visitors can proceed continuously through the entire building from the very bottom up to the top floor.

 

JH: We see architecture like topography. And the ramp is part of that topography. People use it casually and with ease, and children love playing there. Large public buildings should not just offer several access points but also “unnecessary” places to hang out. When a building does that well, it feels more natural.

 

CD: You mention feeling natural. The galleries in the older part feel rather unnatural.

 

JH: The galleries in the former boilerhouse section of Tate Modern are quite classical. The modern collection calls for galleries of that kind. But, of course, art and artists nowadays require a great diversity of spaces. At the time, we would not have been able to design the galleries as we have now done. Not only have we acquired a lot of experience since then; the needs of artists have also changed. Residual spaces did not come into fashion until later. We learned about such spaces through our artist friend Rémy Zaugg and his book Die List der Unschuld, in which he describes the installation of six cubes of cold-rolled steel by Donald Judd behind the main staircase of the Kunstmuseum Basel. This location is definitely not made for art, but it turned out to be perfect for Judd’s piece. Obviously, we can’t design residual spaces on purpose but the topography of the new extension will offer similar angles and places.

 

CD: Did you speak to the late Rémy Zaugg when you were designing the galleries of Tate Modern?

 

JH: We had worked with Rémy so much that a time came when we knew ourselves what we wanted to do. Rémy came to the opening. He saw a lot of his ideas fulfilled. His ideas can be seen as a powerful counterpoint to the frivolous designs of Hollein or Stirling. But he would have understood, as we have, that galleries can and should offer a great diversity. This is what the new project and its galleries will reflect.

 

CD: In response to these new art practices.

 

JH: Exactly.

 

CD: They also pose very different and difficult conditions.

 

Both: Yes.

 

JH: As we said before, the architectural structure of the former boiler house necessarily meant a linear stretch of galleries. This relatively classical arrangement also makes perfect sense for the modern collection of Tate. But the potential of the lighting in the gallery spaces has not been maximised. I think the lighting, both artificial and natural, is problematic. When the windows are covered and the artificial light is dimmed, you get a gloomy atmosphere, which reinforces the feeling of being caught in a place – and that’s a problem. I think those museums that give you a good feeling are also places where the lighting has been exploited to its full potential.

 

PdM: But this can change.

 

JH: Of course.

 

PdM: When you design and, even more so, when you build a museum, you need to think in the long term. Museum directors or curators may aim at changing or altering things, for instance the natural and artificial lighting or the colours of the walls.

 

CD: The demand for dark rooms in museums is steadily growing. How do you go about creating darkness when museums are essentially about creating light?

 

JH: New art often requires dark rooms, but we should also think of vistors’ needs. People do not want to be exposed to unvarying conditions, whether they are dark or daylit. Clusters of two or three dark rooms could be interspersed on a single floor with galleries that have different lighting, generating a lively atmosphere and enhancing the pleasure of looking at art. Working on the Kramlich House and its requirements to host its major collections of video, film and other new art forms was an important learning process for us. We tried to combine art with the daily life of the client. Naturally, this wasn’t possible without some compromises. Most of the dark rooms are now separated from the rest of the house, in contrast to our original proposal for undulating glass walls of varying transparency. You could look through them into the amazingly lush Californian landscape of the Napa Valley but you could also make them matte to project works by Matthew Barney, Bill Viola and many others.

So you would never be in complete darkness. Very few installations by such artists require darkness for the sake of darkness. But they do need to be dark enough to allow the image to be seen.

 

CD: Those are very different conditions.

 

JH: Yes. And I think, technically speaking, we will be able to do that someday. Viewing an art installation in a dark space is a very different thing from watching a film in a cinema. In the museum, you see other people looking, you can stay or go and you don’t have to sit down from beginning to end.

 

CD: Tate Modern with its Turbine Hall has given rise to a new type of work, which both architectural critics and art theoreticians often describe as “big” but also as “spectacle”.

 

JH: I think our role as architects is to discover and offer potentials. The Turbine Hall is a case in point. Its size is adequate for its role as a public agora and as a gallery for extraordinary installations. Does it invite or seduce artists to do exceptionally spectacular things? Who knows? But, as I said, we were certainly impressed by the way such artists as Olafur Eliasson or Anish Kapoor made use of the venue. Kapoor literally even stretched the space.

 

CD: Bruce Nauman?

 

JH: Yes, his was perhaps the most radical and poetic contribution. Nauman made a very still, tranquil installation which used the dimensions of the space without relying on overwhelming scale. It was anti-spectacle. Big and spectacular installations are not necessarily a function of the dimensions of the Turbine Hall. I used the word “potential” to express opportunities that an architect can ideally identify in a public project, which transcend the functional specifications of a brief. I think “potential” is the right word in this context as well especially since it also implies the challenge of recognising and implementing that potential in a natural, unforced way. Today our lives are increasingly dominated by ideologically and functionally controlled spaces. Public space which is more receptive to unexpected and innovative performances is suspect and rare. That is where art can play an important role in the future, transcending its commercial role as merchandise with gigantic price tags. Art should be the opposite. Art and architecture should be about offering “potential”. A good example is the Serpentine Pavilion Programme. It is open-ended, like Tate Modern. It is an intriguing approach and we like the idea of offering architects the opportunity to reinterpret the same park every year, so that visitors can enjoy it in a new and different light.

 

CD: The enormous success of Tate Modern has also had a side-effect. There is rampant development all around the museum, a lot of high-rises housing expensive living quarters and businesses. And yet many flats there as well as elsewhere in London are empty.

 

PdM: Purchased purely as an investment.

 

JH: We should have invested there ourselves....

 

CD: Right, we should have bought more…

 

JH: That was a strategic mistake...

 

CD: What else could have been done in terms of architecture?

 

PdM: We had to develop a compelling building, capable of bearing up against any unpredictable future urban development. In London, you can hardly control or influence what is happening around you, and in the case of Tate Modern the ongoing fast development beat the clock. In this respect, it was undoubtedly the right decision to hang on to the chimney of the former power station and also as much as possible of Gilbert Scott’s original building. Often renovations or conversions are undertaken without the requisite care, to such an extent that one can barely recognise what the building once looked like. To use the same cladding for the old building and the new extension, namely bricks, was the right decision, too. It has unified the entire complex so that it can stand up to its neighbours. If, as in a previous phase of the project, we had worked in glass and steel, the new extension would have become an undesirable ally of the development around it. In not doing so, Tate Modern 2 has become an erratic mineral block in the midst of the surrounding commercial environment.

 

CD: It connects Tate Modern with the “weaker” neighbours, such as the dormitory of the LSE and the council housing.

 

PdM: This is well observed; the existing brick buildings back each other – the brick as the backbone. But equally important in terms of maintaining one’s ground is the fact that the extension building is a museum from bottom to top, from converted oil tanks to the topmost floor. Tate Modern does not use its height to generate money, does not sell the upper floors as apartments with empty beds. This would put a damper on a vibrant cultural institution.

 

CD: Harry Gugger, who worked on the first Tate Modern with you, said in an interview in UrbanRESET, that it would not be possible, given today’s economic and political circumstances, to make the same building because it’s too simple.

 

JH: Or too archaic?

 

CD: Too weird, too strange?

JH: It's archaic, which is what Pierre tried to explain with the brick. But the interior structure is rough and archaic as well. It grows out of the specific world of the oil tanks, which is indeed a rough, industrial world. This simplicity and archaism are real assets, especially as a contrast to the increasingly commercial world expanding outside in the immediate neighbourhood of the building. Once it opens Tate Modern will be even more attractive; people will experience it as a world of otherness. It will certainly be different from the way art and architecture are ordinarily experienced in comparable institutions.

 

CD: Architectural theoretician Mark Wigley once suggested that we need to accept the strangeness of art in the architecture for art as well. But how far can you go? The strange products some of your colleagues build do not always come out well. You, Jacques, criticized Frank Gehry once.

 

JH: Every project, I think, has to respond to a specific time and place. Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao has transformed the city and made it a popular tourist attraction. That's a huge achievement and will turn the museum into a monument that will survive our time. But the building has also been criticised for its oversized galleries and its overwhelming architectural impact on the art. I understand that criticism, and that architectural approach would certainly have been inappropriate in the case of Tate Modern. It would have been ridiculous to make invasive inroads into such a powerful existing structure as Gilbert Scott’s power station. The building, as we found it, had its “strangeness”, as you call it, and this very strangeness is what makes it such a powerful personality, capable of standing up to the commercial world around it. It seems the right building for that place. Architecture is site-specific.

 

PdM: And time-specific.

 

JH: Yes, time-specific, too: it needs to be right today and if it is, it is also likely to work in the future. As soon as you say, “Oh, we must think of future trends, anticipating how we will use the building in fifty years”, then you are lost. The only thing you can do is to make it work right now, for the needs of artists and people today.

 

PdM: Making it work now does not necessarily mean pitting the old against the new. On the contrary, we wanted to bring the two parts as close together as possible without mimicking the old because, otherwise, a “divorce” between the two might have been the consequence, with the extension having an affair with its newly built neighbours.

 

JH: There are two things that we abandoned in the course of the design process: the typology of stacked cubes and glass as the main material. We felt less and less comfortable with the design and it was a relief to realise that we had come up with a much better, more natural solution.

 

CD: What does it mean when architects say “We felt less and less comfortable”?

 

JH: Design is a process that takes time. We were lucky enough to have that time in the second phase and we used it intensely, together with Nick Serota, to identify all those ingredients and aspects that we’ve been talking about. Everything seems so obvious now, but it was been a prolonged process with a lot of detours. For instance, the shape or the material of the building – for quite a while, we believed a pile of stacked galleries in combination with other spaces was the right building typology.

 

(Jacques points to the cover of Primary Form Boxes)

 

JH: We had been working on “stacks” for another project in our office. We liked them; stacking boxes of different sizes and portions seemed a good way to accommodate the complex brief for Tate Modern 2. We felt we could really create an unexpected new form. It expressed total freedom – that’s what we thought. But that impression proved to be wrong. What seemed to allow such freedom of movement inside turned out to be rather rigid and inflexible. But what we needed was a fluid and free promenade for visitors throughout the new building as a complement to the more linear setup in the first building. We therefore “dissolved” the stacked sugar cubes and adopted the pyramidal tent structure that we have now.

 

PdM: Yes, what is it that makes you feel uncomfortable? From when on do you feel more comfortable? Generally speaking, when we develop a project which is not yet physical, built reality, we have to anticipate as much as possible, we have to envisage untold possibilities or outcomes by exchanging ideas, making sketches, building models and creating digital images to visualize a not yet built reality as precisely as we possibly can. Between the two of us (Jacques and Pierre) and with and within our teams, we constantly invite questions and objections as a means of clarifying the issues. In the case of Tate Modern 2, we wanted to find a new form – a prism. We took the various parameters into account, breaking them down and studying them meticulously until the final form practically found itself. Inside, we wanted to offer visitors free flowing circulation through the new building and that was incompatible with our original idea of stacking boxes. The tent-like form that we finally decided on offers much more freedom in arranging the spaces inside.

 

CD: People think the shape of the building is strange. Some call it a pyramid, or even the Tower of Babel, a piece of rock or a quartz, some see a pentagram, but nobody has mentioned a tent.

 

PdM: I’m using the word “tent” for the first time in this connection.

 

CD: Just checking!

 

PdM: I think we all three like the idea that people see the building in very different ways and give it different interpretations.

 

 

JH: “Tent” may not sound quite right for such a substantial building, but it’s certainly right for the inside and the freedom of movement there.

 

PdM: And again, talking about a tent, in the new building there is less of what you might call the “classical gallery” and more of a “museum-experience”. For instance, in contrast to the first phase, there is greater emphasis on spaces for educational and social activities.

 

CD: But there were also more practical reasons for not making a zig-zag tower with so many corners, such as limitations due to “right of view”. Was that a problem?

 

PdM: No. We are used to facing problems and constraints and we can handle them. Sometimes they even generate unexpected, innovative solutions.

 

CD: Which were the biggest constraints? Was money a constraint?

 

Both: Yes and no!

 

CD: Was money a constraint for the first Tate Modern?

 

PdM: Somewhat, but not substantially. For example, we would have liked to install a skylight above the Turbine Hall. This feature has become very relevant because, looking down from the new building onto the old, all you see is the cheap roof.

 

JH: But that was the only constraint, I would say.

 

CD: You worked with Gunther Vogt on the landscape of both the north and the south. Jasper Morrison designed the furniture and Ian Cartlidge was responsible for the circulation and signage.

 

PdM: We worked with Günther more than with Jasper or Ian. In fact, we often work with him. It’s a fruitful, mutual learning relationship and we enjoy listening to one another. He has a real interest in plants and is very knowledgeable about them, which Jacques and I are not. This knowledge is crucial to his designs – more so than form.

 

CD: While there is less and less money for the public sector, private citizens are building their own private museums.

 

JH: That's true. Of course there is much more money than ever before in the private sector. But history unfortunately shows that private museums tend to run out of money and then become a burden for the state.

 

PdM: And there is another factor: museum attendance is steadily growing, leading to a situation which is very different from that of twenty to fifty years ago. This also affects museum architecture. In addition, budgets for cultural activities are in decline all over the world. Some museums are running on empty. Take TEA in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, which we built in 2006: the gallery spaces are highly underused. This museum, like many others, was too big to begin with, a typical phenomenon in Spain even before the economic crisis hit country.

 

CD: So we have to make museums smaller?

 

JH: Shrinking the size and scope of a museum might be an option. The TEA in Tenerife could be a case study for that problem.

 

PdM: Smaller yes, but also more flexible to change and modification.

 

CD: What's the future of Tate Modern? Our audiences are already using the museum in many different ways. That will also be reflected sooner or later in the organisation.

 

JH: Museums are, as we said before, places where art and people come together – that is and will remain their principal role. I don't think you want to adapt their programme just for the sake of attracting more and more visitors with entertainment that is not art related. However, I do believe that especially big institutions like Tate Modern have to adopt a kind of topography of art and architecture rather than being traditional museum buildings as in the past. The expanded Tate Modern will certainly be such a heterotopic topographic place with a real variety of programmed and unprogrammed spaces for visitors with different needs.

 

PdM: The Turbine Hall was a non-programmatic part of the first building, which really did exploit its potential as a place to have new art experiences. The same will happen along the parcours we laid out in the new Tate Modern. Visitors will find a lot of unexpected places and unexpected art experiences. That is what we are striving for.

 

CD: Isn't it an amazing privilege to be able to work on the same museum for such a long time? We cannot think of any other architects who actually built and then extended the same museum. It’s a work in progress, really. Would you like to continue working on Tate Modern?

 

PdM: A museum – a building in general – is never finished. Right now it would be unrealistic to think about another extension. But we might be asked to undertake smaller interventions since we understand how the building is used. Like water that carves its way through a landscape.

 

CD: Like the tides of the river Thames. Going back and forth.

 

PdM: Yes.

 

CD: Museums have to invest in digital programming and learning, they have to invest in social media. Should architects also explore the digital expansion of museums?

 

JH: I see these things rather as invisible or ephemeral traces in the given physical context of the museum. I don’t necessarily see this as something that requires a new museum typology.

 

PdM: The physical art experience will never fade away. Digital media can complement but never replace it.

 

CD: Gunther Vogt said in our interview “Tate Modern is probably the last museum of its generation”.

 

JH: I don't know, does he mean it’s archaic gravity or that kind of strong personality? I am sure that artists love to show their work at Tate Modern because of its gravity and otherness. It is a challenge but also a great opportunity for every artist. Good work looks good in it. Tate feels rooted and so does the art, once you install it in the right place.

 

Editing of the transcript: Catherine Schelbert

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Chris Dercon: Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in conversation with Chris Dercon. In: Chris Dercon, Nicholas Serota (Eds.). Tate Modern. Building a Museum for the 21st Century. London, Tate  Enterprises Ltd, 2016. pp.92-121.

Reproduced by permission of the Tate Trustees