The DNA of cities. A conversation between Jacques Herzog and Carles Muro

Carles Muro: The skyscraper played a key role in the construction of the image and the imaginary of the modern city. Many cities symbolically entered the 20th century through the construction of their first skyscrapers. What kind of role do you think high-rise buildings can still play in the construction of the contemporary city?


Jacques Herzog: Currently, skyscrapers are back in fashion. Not long ago, at least in European cities, skyscrapers were no-go. But they are back. So what can we do with them today? If you think about skyscrapers as a possibility to densify the city, this is a possible answer. But the aspect of status, skyscrapers as the expression of a personal statement for companies or wealthy people, is less interesting. I would rather speak of the skyscraper as an urban design tool, in connection with density. I believe the most successful city with skyscrapers is still Manhattan – with its very archaic, nearly primitive urban pattern. New York is almost like Venice. Both cities have a DNA that everyone understands immediately.

In New York, the city blocks are full of skyscrapers. You can add one or two, you can make one a bit bigger or a bit smaller, but it doesn't change the overall character, which is all about density and verticality. This is interesting and successful because of the mixture of very tall skyscrapers (owned by corporate companies with a private ground floor) and smaller scale buildings in between (accommodating local activities like grocery stores, small galleries, or fitness centres), which also make the towers somehow grounded. And they are grounded even if they are purely private, capitalist and vertical in expression. You might compare a city to a forest; I like those forests where you have a combination of tall trees and flourishing underbrush. The towers sit on a kind of very fertile ground. And you have this gigantic park in the middle. So, in addition to a very dense forest of different tall and small “plants,” you also have a wide open patch of nature accessible to everybody. That’s why, to me, Manhattan is living proof of how high-rise buildings can still be a success in a contemporary city. It still brilliantly shows how vertical buildings can be an efficient tool and offer amazing possibilities.

The pandemic taught us how important it is to have natural environs inside the city. I’m totally against the idea of humans spreading out from the city into the surrounding countryside. Urban sprawl is a disaster. It should be the other way around, natural environs should invade the city; in fact, we should actively welcome nature’s invasion of the city.


CM: I agree with you completely and I am very happy that you introduced the notion of the DNA of a city. In this sense, it could be argued that the contemporary city, as such, does not exist. There is not one single urban model in today's world, but a number of individual cities. You already spoke of New York, which is very different from Shanghai, which in turn is very different from Lagos or São Paulo, Milan or Barcelona. Would you agree with me in saying that skyscrapers, in the last few decades and generally speaking, have offered an almost identical set of responses while the questions posed by each city are different? I believe that skyscrapers should be conceived, taking into account the identity or the DNA of a place. You could say that a skyscraper is always a skyscraper from a structural point of view, but a skyscraper in Milan and one in New York should be two extremely different things.


JH: I’m totally against the idea that cities are becoming more and more the same; it’s quite the opposite, they’re becoming more and more different. As you said, Shanghai has nothing to do with New York, Milan or Barcelona. I think that tall buildings in Milan are a mistake: they are built on a kind of artificial platform and it seems as if they don’t reach the ground. A great thing about Milan is that the blocks show a surprising degree of diversity and individuality, and the interior courtyards have such an incredible quality of life that is very hard for a high-rise to compete with.

One city that has quite successful tall buildings is Hong Kong – such a dense city and yet still so lively. It’s very lush and has a lot of vegetation but very little public space. Interestingly, though, the ground floors are transformed into public spaces; you can walk through private lobbies, so they have found an unexpected means of offering some kind of public space anyway. We have to be aware of how tall buildings sit on the ground and what they do there. Are they accessible or do they create a kind of seclusion? If tall buildings do not allow people to access local stores or schools on the ground floor, if you don't create a riverfront or a park where people can meet, then density is a cynical extraction of profit, which doesn't make any sense at all.


CM: You have touched on the next issue that I want to address. I strongly believe in the importance of establishing the right kind of conversation between architecture and the city. It seems to me that high-rises can have two types of conversation, on two different scales: on the one hand, a general conversation with the whole of the city and its landmarks, through the notion of the skyline, and, on the other hand, a much more intimate conversation with the immediate urban environs, through the way they meet the ground. The ground floor can be a threshold between public and private. In fact, the way skyscrapers touch the ground is decisive, not only formally but also the way in which they can foster or support certain activities.


JH: Absolutely. The construction of a skyscraper depends on where it is and what its program is. The most problematic towers are those that belong to one corporate company and seize the ground to the exclusion of everything else. We as architects also have to think about the long-term life of architecture by giving each building the potential to transform itself over time. Imagine having a lobby and then, the first three, four, five or even six floors of a skyscraper being transformed all the time and maybe inhabited by public programs. What’s interesting is that they can have a post-corporate life through the possibility to be transformed into something else in the future. The failure of a large corporation could be a benefit for the city. Lively cities have the energy to reinvent buildings all the time. That’s why I mentioned Manhattan: the fascinating thing about a Manhattan tower is not the tower itself, but the fact that it has landed on fertile urban ground, which is still intact. If you erase all the small underbrush on the ground, you destroy the city.


CM: In conclusion, I would like to go back to Milan. Your only permanent building in Milan to date, the Fondazione Feltrinelli, engages in a conversation with the city at different levels and scales. Your “groundscraper” participates in a productive conversation not only with the Porta Volta area but also with relevant architectures built in other parts of the city and it proves that height may not be the only strategy to build a contemporary urban landmark.


JH: In Milan, the Fondazione Prada is an effective example of a new urban landmark. The area was a former industrial site, transformed by a powerful client and a good architect into a great new site. It is an exceptional intervention because it’s publicly accessible – and a magnet even though it’s not very visible from far away. Generating this magnetism is more important for people than the visual landmark. For cities to keep growing, we need to create an attractive basis, and this can be a park, a lake, and so many other things.


CM: This publication includes a building that triggered one of the most intense architectural debates of the 1960s: the Torre Velasca, by BBPR. Without renouncing modernism, it revived the discussion on the role of culture and context in the production of architecture and, with a pretty unpredictable form, made a strong statement about the possibility to reconcile continuity and contrast, history and innovation in one single building. I would say it is quite a paradoxical building. To conclude, I would like to know your personal take on the Torre Velasca and whether you think that some of the questions raised by this Milanese landmark are still relevant to the construction of the European city today.


JH: I can’t think of a single architect who doesn’t love the Torre Velasca. In our case, we have never wanted to be modern or contemporary versus something else. "Paradox” is one of my favourite words. A paradox is always inclusive and not exclusive. In a sense, today’s young generation wouldn’t even understand that idea – opposing modernity to continuity – because the digital world is all-inclusive; everything is available all at once so there are no new or old things. The Stadtcasino in Basel, one of our latest projects, involves historical architecture, but whether it is old or new is not important. For me it is simply available material. We fix the body of the building and we also add new elements within something that is still perceived as a historical building. We work with what is there. The Torre Velasca is something like this avant la lettre.
I think Milan is full of great buildings from that period. It’s like the cinema; it hurts when I compare the quality of films from that same period with what we have now. But Milan has Miuccia Prada. She is one of the most inspired spirits imaginable. Milan is a great city. We love it.

Jacques Herzog. Carles Muro: Il DNA della città. Dialogo tra Jacques Herzog e Carles Muro. The DNA of cities. A conversation between Jacques Herzog and Carles Muro.
In: Simona Galateo (Ed.). Milano Verticale. Vertical Milan. Milan, Fondazione dell' Ordine degli Architetti della Provinicia di Milano, 2021.pp. 84-95