Collaboration with artists Catherine Hürzeler: Interview with J. Herzog
CH: At the beginning of your career, you worked not only as an architect but also as an artist, presenting exhibitions at Stampa Gallery in Basel and other places as well. At some point, as I recall, Jean-Christophe Ammann suggested that you focus your energies and apply your artistic talents to architecture. Did that mean giving something up?
JH: There was always something architectural about the art I made, the installations, the videos. So when Jean-Christophe made that suggestion it was basically already clear that my future lay in architecture.
CH: In interviews you often stress the fact that you have always been more interested in the art scene than in architecture. Why did you finally settle for architecture after all?
JH: I feel that way because there are more people in art who are interesting, who explore and are curious. On the other hand, architecture offers opportunities that are not available in art, specifically in view of urban architecture and dealing with cities. Ultimately that was what made us decide to focus on architecture.
CH: In 1978, while organizing a Beuys pageant for the carnival in Basel, you met Joseph Beuys. You might call it your first artist’s collaboration. In what way did that affect your work?
JH: Naturally meeting and working with Beuys was a tremendously important experience. We were extremely young architects, we had just barely graduated and had never met such a personality before. He certainly had an influence on us – the way he thought and the way he dealt with materials – just as we were influenced by our professors at the Federal Institute of Technology, Aldo Rossi and Dolf Schnebeli and the sociologist Luzius Burkhard.
CH: You often involve artists in your projects. Even at the beginning of a project, you will say that you want to work with a certain artist. It’s like a driving force in the process of design. Where does this deep need to involve artists in your work come from?
JH: Having an artist collaborate with us simply adds another dimension. It has a great deal to do with decoration, with surfaces. The artist is even more accustomed to addressing the question of surfaces than the architect is and we try to take a radical approach to that issue in our architecture. So it’s almost inevitable that art and architecture are intertwined.
CH: I have noticed that the artists you work with are people who analyze the medium itself – intensely so. A picture emerges by being called into question. That’s a salient, in fact almost obtrusive feature of Rémy Zaugg’s work. But Ruff and even Schiess take a similar approach. Do you find such an analytic attitude particularly fruitful?
JH: I think that’s a good observation. The analytical aspect is certainly something we’re concerned about both in art and architecture, probably because we don’t live in a magic culture anymore, that is, a culture in which the status quo is accepted without question and where the next step automatically follows from the one before. We live in an age in which each step, the next project, the simplest things have to be redefined each time: what is a floor, what is a wall, what is a roof? The answers to such questions aren’t self-evident anymore. And analysis, analyzing things has become an essential part of our culture – in both artists and architects. That probably explains our tendency to gravitate toward artists who take this approach.
CH: R. Zaugg’s approach is exceedingly phenomenological. In his book List der Unschuld (The Wiles of Innocence) he forces his thoughts on the reader in great detail. You make a point of how much you dislike reading. Why did you persevere in this case? What did you find so fascinating?
JH: Zaugg’s rigorously phenomenological approach is very close to what we try to pursue in architecture. It's a matter of questioning knowledge that is handed down to us, questioning foregone conclusions, things assumed to be certain, and also questioning direct observation and the description of real givens. This skepticism is the point of departure in all of our projects; it has been a long-standing concern.
CH: Architecture is part of public space and therefore constantly exposed to public view. Nonetheless, the proverbial man-in-the-street hardly notices good architecture. Even in the study of art history, contemporary architecture is only of marginal importance. Most people are at a loss when it comes to assessing a piece of new architecture and they resort to platitudes, like: wood is cosy or gabled roofs are more beautiful than flat-topped buildings. Would you prefer the attention of a more concentrated, select audience for your buildings, like the attention paid to works of art in museums or galleries?
JH: No, it would be terrible to be isolated from life and from the city like that. As an architect you have to work with the paradox that you want to make an impact of some kind in the midst of the city and the reality of life. And yet, that is where you encounter this lack of understanding. You have to confront these issues and you have to deal with the public.
CH: Does architecture make an impact?
JH: I think it is mankind’s most important form of cultural expression.
CH: Making an impact in public space is also a form of power. It is a means of actively affecting the world in which we live. Is that a goal of yours? Do you have a vision of what the world should be like ideally?
JH: Urban architecture is, of course, an instrument of power but that power has been so severely curtailed, being governed by commercial and technical considerations, that urban architecture doesn't really exist
anymore in the sense of direct influence, direct influence on the masses. You can't achieve that sort of thing as an architect.
CH: Then only commercial interests have direct consequences?
JH: They are a much stronger force than architectural aspects of city planning. Commercial issues are much closer to planning and cover everything like a layer of plant growth, or everything that is constructive or
CH: The loss of tradition in architecture is particularly painful. There are no rules to the game anymore; for example, materials no longer determine a canon of form. You have to start from scratch and make your own rules. But even so or maybe precisely because of that, architects have to deal with a great many taboos. Can an artist help to overcome that?
JH: I just think that artists have a creative potential and that this potential can grow in depth or in a given direction in a way that is not open to architecture. Conversely, it has become necessary for artists to leave their studios and work with architects or urbanists.
(An architect doesn't know what to do with color; no architect in the twentieth century has ever been able to understand color.)
CH: Decoration is pretty much frowned on in architecture. But the German philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer, with whom you’ve also worked on an exhibition project, doesn't share that view at all. In Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method), he argues that architecture not only involves all the decorative aspects of spatial design down to the ornamental detail, but that it is by nature decorative. Let me read you a quote. “The essence of decoration consists in its transmission of a twofold message. It attracts the viewer's attention, satisfies his taste, but it also sends him away and out into the larger context of life.” (p. 163) That seems to me a very fitting description of your treatment of decoration. There's often something seductive about the way you treat the surfaces of your buildings. Do such surfaces encourage acceptance of your often rigorous solutions? Is that a conscious strategy of yours?
JH: Maybe, it's like in Islamic cultures – we’re interested in having the surface change the volume and, conversely, in having the volume effect the surface. Think, for example, of the library in Eberswalde with Thomas Ruff's photographs. The rectangular body of the building is really covered up, almost dissolved. On the other hand, the strict, rigorous shape destroys the individual motif, that is, the picture is no longer perceived or considered important as a single picture but instead becomes serial in effect, like an ornament, so that it is effective in two directions. This indeterminateness, this movement back and forth between volume and surface and space, breaks down traditional categories. And that's probably where we are unconsciously heading: towards a disintegration of traditional categories because they're not relevant anymore.
CH: In Eberswalde press photographs by Thomas Ruff were printed on the concrete slabs, but for Ricola, Mulhouse, a leaf motif by Blossfeld that you selected yourselves became the dominant element of the building. And for the Pfaffenholz sports center, you chose an “anonymous” gravel motif for the concrete, and a fibrous structure for the glass surfaces. Why?
JH: The ambivalence of the leaf motif on the Ricola, Mulhouse factory fascinated us and we came up with it by ourselves because, for years, we've also been concerned with pictures. Then we talked to Rémy Zaugg – we've worked with him a number of times – about the size of the picture. The size of the leaf was unbelievably vital to this project. You can't imagine what went into it. When you just look at the building, it seems so self-evident. But if the motif were smaller, it would look like a bathroom tile and then it would be ridiculous. If it were much bigger, there would be a one to one relationship between human being and leaf, so to speak, and that doesn't work either because then people would be addressed much too directly. So these things are very intricate; sometimes we can deal with them alone or in consultation with an artist and sometimes, like in Eberswalde, an artist takes over. But, of course, we determine the overall concept. The architect/artist mixture varies considerably from project to project. As you say, it ranges from brief consultation to active involvement, to a kind of co-authorship between artist and architect. But there are no
set rules. Every project resolves these questions anew.
CH: You use different levels of decoration in your buildings. In the Koechlin house in Riehen near Basel, a picture by Helmut Federle has been mounted in a prominent position while a work by Adrian Schiess and
one of Thomas Ruff's stellar photographs dominate the lobby of the SUVA building. Although these works are decisive in determining the atmosphere of the rooms they are in, they cannot be considered architectural
But the decoration of the Ricola, Mulhouse building is a different matter. As I mentioned before, it functions as a dominant component of the building. Ruff's photograph lends Blossfeld's relief-like rendition of the leaf motif a singular aura, and in its reiterated arrangement, it turns into something else again, something new. The effect and the atmosphere of the building are essentially defined by the artist's images. And finally, in the Goetz Collection, where you worked on your own, you have invested the building with a curious sense of suspension and radiance by mutually assimilating and blurring the materials. How do you decide what role decoration will play in a project and whether an artist will be involved or not?
JH: We use conventional materials – glass, wood, concrete in the case of the Goetz building – but we relate them in unaccustomed or new ways so that their traditional character disappears. Glass isn't glass anymore, it's as solid and stable as stone or concrete. Conversely, by printing on concrete, it suddenly becomes porous or shiny like glass. This blurring of materials has nothing to do with artists. It's connected with our interest in questioning conventional categories and establishing new references as to what volume or weight or surface can mean.
CH: So the point is to create a new impression of something that is familiar.
JH: You can only work with things that are familiar because the world is there, it exists. That's related to the phenomenological aspect we were talking about before. All of our insights come through observation; but you have to keep making new observations. By looking, you keep seeing new things. Everything is so complex and so alive that curiosity is decisive. It's much more important than repeating the world on the basis of a once-discovered canon.
CH: For the Architecture Biennale in Venice you produced a video with René Pulfer that is an assemblage of film sequences and television images. You call it a model. To what extent does your architecture originate in pictures?
JH: Very much so.
CH: How do you actually proceed when you design something? What distinguishes an architect from an artist?
JH: As an artist you are less involved in transmission. In that respect an artist's work is more intimate and places greater emphasis on searching and independent research. That's the really important aspect of art today. It's important for architects, too, but it always ties in with the communication aspect, otherwise you couldn't cover such a broad range of activities.
That's typical of architects, these transformations that they have to go through.