“Rémy Zaugg has made an immeasurable impact on our thinking.”
Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron speak with Gerhard Mack about their long-standing friendship and collaboration with artist and thinker Rémy Zaugg.
Gerhard Mack: You have worked with your friend Rémy Zaugg for such a long time. How did you actually meet?
Jacques Herzog: That was in the early 1970s. Rémy was part of the art scene in Basel. I thought of myself as an artist at the time and was closely associated with that scene. And it was also when Pierre and I started our architectural practice. We can’t reconstruct when we met but we weren’t particularly close at first. We had more contact with Alex Silber and Helmut Federle. Helmut, along with a lot of other artists, often visited my brother and I thought he was a fascinating, eccentric artist. But at some point, Rémy became increasingly important to us, especially as a partner in an intellectual discourse that went far beyond art—so important, in fact, that he was sometimes almost a third partner at our office. Actually, that was a little bit later.
Pierre de Meuron: And the interest was, of course, mutual. Rémy was already interested in architecture. He was working with Atelier 5 in Bern and summed up his thoughts in his publication of 1987: Das Kunstmuseum, das ich mir erträume oder Der Ort des Werkes und des Menschen. (The Art Museum of My Dreams or a Place for the Work and the Human Being, 2013). What he wrote in that book about the experience and perception of art and the use of color in outdoor space made a great impression on us. But we were not so impressed with the extension in Bern. While talking about that, we discovered our shared enthusiasm; we were interested in art and he in architecture.
Herzog: Maybe we should mention that Minimal Art was a vital concern of ours at that point: Judd was very important to me. Dieter Koepplin of Kunstmuseum Basel had acquired some drawings that really caught my eye. In 1982 Rémy published Die List der Unschuld. Das Wahrnehmen einer Skulptur (The Guile of Innocence. The Perception of a Sculpture), a book devoted to Judd’s Untitled, Six Cold Rolled Steel Boxes (1969). The book has since acquired cult status and it introduced a new world to me, a world of unprejudiced and almost obstinate observation. Here was somebody who was not just taking an approach to art that we didn’t know about; he had also found a new language for it. We were so impressed. Rémy was like a magnet that helps you find a path of your own. Dieter Koepplin had encouraged him early in his career and already shown his work at Kunstmuseum Basel. We had met Dieter in the 1970s through Beuys and he told me a lot about Rémy Zaugg.
Mack: You first worked together on the master plan for the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon in 1989. How did that project come about?
de Meuron: Through Rémy. He knew the president of the University and he asked us if we’d like to work with him on a case study. When we did the case study of Basel, Eine Stadt im Werden? (A Nascent City?), it was the other way around; we asked him. There was a show of his at the Consortium at the time. They wanted to build an art museum that would be connected to the art historical institute founded in 1971 and had asked him if he would work on the project. He looked at the situation and said that the entire premises were pure chaos and had to be cleaned up before even thinking about a museum. He always used to say “C’est n’importe quoi!” to express incompetence or stupidity.
Herzog: That’s typical of Rémy. He always wanted to start by cleaning up, establishing clarity.
de Meuron: Which also meant that he wasn’t primarily out to sell a work of art; he was always trying to understand the essence of things. That’s what brought us together. Mutual interests that went beyond our respective fields, moving beyond art in his case and beyond architecture in ours. We realized that we shared a similar approach to our work.
Mack: Did you also share a similar need to clean up and clarify things?
Herzog: To begin with, we just had to find out what we wanted to do architecturally. We managed to figure out pretty early what kind of path we wanted to follow. One of our first essays about the specific gravity of architecture is often quoted, in which atmospheric images describe an art scene that still tended to romanticize in those days. Rémy had taken a step toward abstraction and a minimal language. And that’s what we called it: Minimalism, a term that was still unknown in architecture. Some of our early projects are clearly embodiments of this minimal tendency.
Mack: In what respect?
Herzog: For example, Antipodes, the student housing in Dijon, designed in collaboration with Zaugg. He often came up with a logic that would wipe out everything you couldn’t explain in words although it might have pleased users, people going about their everyday lives. But, of course, architecture isn’t purely logical. In particular, Rémy wanted to eliminate everything that was illustrative. We wanted to do that in architecture, too—avoid anything that might be illustrative or figurative—but the movement of people still intrigued us. I think we realized intuitively that architecture can never completely rule out figuration. There’s something abstract about Antipodes because of the reduced means of expression and the radically repetitive arrangement, and the project is also reminiscent of so-called “Plattenbau”, the prefabricated buildings of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mack: But why did you go along with that? You knew that students were going to live in those buildings.
de Meuron: There’s more to it than that. The design clearly has a poetic aspect that could have been given more weight. We put an unusually wide hallway along the length of the rooms to allow for unexpected and spontaneous encounters. And the blocks alternate to the left and right of the corridor and are staggered in the sloping terrain. That loosens up the appearance of a reduction to pure logic. Rémy Zaugg was also fascinated with exploring issues of that nature, even more so because he was so focused on unconditional coherence. In his book that I mentioned about the museum of his dreams, he wanted to define and verify everything down to the tiniest detail. And I think in the development of his colors, the gradual reduction to grey may also have been a fallacy.
Herzog: That also shows the difference between the museum and the Antipodes. Being part of it, we were able to turn the concept into proper architecture. Pierre is quite right. We placed the blocks like railroad cars. There is a rhythm even though it’s very low-key. But we hadn’t gotten to the point yet where we could have said that we’ll make sure that the corridors become really attractive for users. Our considerations were purely sculptural at the time. It might look mundane but it was the product of intense effort on our part, as authors, to avoid authorship. The outer shell is a single surface, almost like one of Rémy’s screen prints. The windows don’t appear as windows but modulate the surface. They are shiny or become mirrors set off against the matte surroundings. Those are painterly considerations.
de Meuron: The effect of the materials is similar in the museum for the Goetz Collection in Munich. The glass and plywood blend into each other giving the building an even coherence when seen by day.
Herzog: But in that case I think the influence of Helmut Federle and our own thoughts on space and materials played a bigger role than Rémy’s influence. The complexity of the Goetz project was only possible without the step-by-step logic on which Rémy insisted. We were also becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of basing design on a logic anticipated only in terms of words.
de Meuron: We learned an awful lot from him in analytical terms. Looking, perceiving, expressing ourselves, questioning. What do we see, how do we look at something, why do we think it’s interesting, and why more interesting than an alternative? Not only in art but also in the urban fabric.
Mack: His point of departure when he thought about cities was the image, he looked at the edges and saw them as a frame, like the frame around a painting. In Dijon, he framed the University premises and gave their inner life a visual structure down to a new central street that traverses the terrain like a spinal cord. You might describe the buildings, the old ones and the extensions, and also the green spaces as splotches in this urban painting. And in the Basel study the edges are clearly defined. Didn’t you find this painterly approach to the built world unsettling?
Herzog: On the contrary. It carved a path for us. We were always seeking and we still are. For example, we wanted to try out the potential of minimal, almost abstract architecture, which, as I said, was then nonexistent in the architectural world. The Goetz Gallery is the most radical and most important example of that. Important because it looks so logical and rarefied, and yet it has become such a poetic place. When the Tate Modern came along, we started looking for new paths. We realized that people, their patterns of movement and their habits in public space, can be an essential factor in architecture, in fact, it has to be. It’s the only way architecture can work, especially on an urban scale.
de Meuron: That may be putting it a bit too radically. People did play a role for him inasmuch as he looked at the city as a psychogram. In our Basel study, for example, he went to the borders of the Canton, looked at them, systematically walked along them, described them and then evaluated them psychologically: the people in the city of Basel moved whatever they didn’t want to the outskirts, like the cemetery, a psychiatric clinic, or a waste combustion facility. To him, that expressed the mentality of the people in Basel.
Herzog: Rémy was an analyst. And his analyses tended to be accusing, as if he was wagging a disapproving finger. Now, looking back, I see that as a weakness, even more than I did then. Only toward the end of his short life did he become more conciliatory and, therefore, less vulnerable, too. He has left a marvelous, autarchic oeuvre behind, which is still underrated in the global art market. That will change because the quality and freshness, the topicality of his work is so compelling. We miss him terribly! Rémy Zaugg has made an immeasurable impact on our thinking. How wonderful it would be to work on something with him again…. Actually, we do that because he is still such a strong presence when Pierre and I talk with each other!
Mack: Even though you hadn’t worked with him much in later years?
de Meuron: That’s not quite true. We continued to work on the project in Porrentruy until he died. Like everything that Rémy tackled, the renovation of Maison Turberg was a perfect example of dealing with the givens found on site, in this case the centuries-old, crumbling substance of the building.
Herzog: But it was a different kind of collaboration from the early years when we did a lot of traveling together and were constantly discussing everything. This intense early period was over by the time we started on Tate Modern. Something new had begun and we were becoming much more international. With our new clients, it would’ve been impossible to show up at the beginning with an artist. The way we worked changed but we wanted to remain as attentive and open as ever. It was a wonderful moment for us when Rémy came to the opening of Tate Modern and absolutely loved it!
de Meuron: Jacques and I have had the good fortune of meeting so many exceptional people, starting with Joseph Beuys, Lucius Burckhardt, and Aldo Rossi. And Rémy is one of them. It’s from him that we learned this merciless questioning of yourself and where you stand. You couldn’t just say you like something. You had to think about it and be precise about saying why. That’s especially important for architects, who can be so inflexible when it comes to matters of taste. Sometimes the first impulse is the right one but you have to find that out.
Herzog: In spite of his gravity and moralistic tendencies, Rémy had a marvelously mischievous streak. We spent such wonderful hours with him, laughing a lot; it was such an extraordinary friendship. We would sit in the car, Pierre driving and Rémy talking and smoking nonstop. The car was like a smokehouse, filled with our discussions.
Mack: Where did you go?
de Meuron: To Burgundy, especially to Dijon and Semur-en-Auxois. We were working on projects there. And Rémy would come along to our meetings with clients, the authorities and private companies. The budget for the student housing was tight. That’s why they actually look a little bit like a slightly spruced up skeleton building. Rémy could be pretty critical at those meetings because there was a lot that he didn’t agree with, and he would give people tasks that they had to do. More often than not, his criticism was right. Recently I was up on top of the Meret Oppenheim high-rise here in Basel. The view is spectacular. You can see the plaza in front of the railroad station. I had to think of Rémy. He thought the monument was on the wrong side of the through road. He wanted to move it away from the six-lane thoroughfare so that the plaza would finally have a distinguishing feature. He did something similar in Münster when he returned sculptures to their original location: he wanted to work with what was already there, to look at things differently, to rearrange things so that they make an impact. To him it was an act of production that was just as important as creating new objects.
Herzog: This conceptual approach was a substantial part of Rémy’s oeuvre and it really left its mark. However, he preferred being invisible as an author. For works in public space, it was sometimes enough just to tidy something up or shift something that was already there. But when it was a matter of designing a new work, for example, a fountain, he hesitated and was happy for us to take the first step.
Mack: Did that also affect plans and exhibitions?
de Meuron: There’s one specific aspect where Rémy exerted a great influence, and that’s in the presentation of projects: What is a color, what is red, what is blue? Obviously, we already knew that but he sharpened our perception of colors and their potential. And then: How do you exhibit something? The exhibition of our work that he installed at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris is clearly one of the most interesting projects we did with him. How can you exhibit “architecture”? That was the crucial, defining question. Simply the way he used the tables, for instance, was so enlightening.
Mack: You mentioned that Tate Modern marked a turn. Would you say that it embodied his concept of a museum? His studio in Pfastatt does make an appearance there as one of the room typologies.
de Meuron: There was always a specific place for him in a design. When we were planning Tate Modern, he was already working on many more projects of his own, and so were we. There wasn’t that much time to involve him anymore. The Tate also meant that we had started working within a much larger geographical framework. Questions of urban planning played a bigger role than they had before.
Mack: Even though you did that important urban study of Basel with Rémy, to which Studie Schweiz (Switzerland. An Urban Portrait) refers?
de Meuron: We did Studie Schweiz without him. We started in 1999 with Roger Diener and Marcel Meili. But perceiving something, walking up to it, looking at it, describing it, posing analytical questions like: what are you actually describing and how do you do it—all of that is certainly related to Rémy. Studie Schweiz takes the Basel study A Nascent City? a step further, in terms of description and analysis. It presents five typologies that we developed and applied to Switzerland.
Herzog: Our study of Switzerland would have been inconceivable without the earlier Basel study about the tri-national “nascent city.” But the focus changed and became wider through our collaboration with Roger Diener and Marcel Meili, and then the geographer Christian Schmid joined the team as well. We changed and added to our analytic methods in further urban studies on cities like Naples, Hong Kong, Nairobi and others. All of these studies on city and landscape boiled down to our most important thesis of the “inevitable specificity of cities.” Rémy never knew about that. The inevitable aspect that we speak about in the study is no doubt related to the psychogrammatic structure that we had already explored in Basel.
Mack: Did the Tate Modern also signal the end of something?
Herzog: It was the end of the phase in which we shifted from figuration to abstraction. And after that we started thinking about ornament. I don’t remember anymore how Rémy reacted to that. We started working together with Thomas Ruff on the facade in Eberswalde. The building is not so different in shape from the student housing in Dijon and yet totally different anyway. We decided to make a move in the direction of imagery and applied it to such an extreme that it canceled itself out. Such a strong imprint, almost a tattoo, on such a distinctive, huge block of a building makes its clear-cut geometry ambivalent. That was not entirely alien to Rémy either: the effect of mirroring, of polished and unpolished surfaces distorts the perception of an object. It’s like the cat biting its own tail. Actually, Rémy also rejected the unequivocal clarity that he was always trying to achieve. He was an artist, through and through, and ambiguity, paradox is a fundamental artistic quality. That was one of the things that fascinated him about what we were doing.
Mack: How did your collaboration work in the Roche Bau 92 of 1992?
de Meuron: Bau 92 was probably our most intense collaborative venture in terms of art and architecture. Rémy took a step towards architecture by devising a color concept that embraces the entire building: the walls, the color of the columns, the color of the laboratory doors and the color of the floors. The only other time that he was so broadly involved was for the Fünf Höfe in Munich. There his contribution also went far beyond just producing some lettering as a work of art to be appended to a building. He designed all of the signage and influenced the treatment of the surfaces. He defined the color scheme of the entrances and stairwells. Now, when new tenants move in, they still adopt his typeface to print their name plaques. You certainly can’t take that for granted.
Herzog: Even when we didn’t work directly with Zaugg, there were projects where his thoughts played a role, for example, regarding the use of color. He wasn’t involved in the planning of the St. Jakob Stadium. We defined the color concept ourselves, heightening perception through the use of complementary colors, combining the red walls of the stadium ramps with the dazzling green grass of the brightly lit pitch.
Mack: Your projects have become bigger and bigger, and in the process you’ve learned to let things go to a certain extent. For a project like a stadium, you may make three or four imperative decisions because they define the basic character of the building, but you have to let the rest go.
Herzog: That’s true, and that wouldn’t have worked with Rémy. His forte lay in the painstaking analysis of a picture or a place in the city and then proceeding on the basis of his analysis. You can’t do that when planning larger projects; they’re much too complex and dynamic and involve numerous other players. We also had to learn how to deal with a different and less intimate planning process. Looking back, there were always stages where we left an entire body of thought and people behind in order to move on to another world. That may sound arrogant, but everyone probably has experiences like that. We kept responding to new impulses but then moved on. Beuys, Rossi, Burckhardt, Federle, Zaugg. Later Ai Weiwei came along. In the beginning, as of 2002, we spent many years traveling with him to the most remote places in China and working together very intensely. Those years with Weiwei are similar in many ways to what we experienced with Rémy. Our contact with him is similarly serious and warm and we’ve also had unforgettable fun together. You can’t sustain that kind of intensity, working and being together like that, all too long, but each time it’s had such an impact on us.
de Meuron: In Rémy’s case, the last project we worked on with that kind of urgency was the Auditorium du Jura. It was based on a territorial concept, a triangle of cultural reference points in combination with Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp and Courbet’s Ornans, which would influence the effect of the object near Courgenay. We had become interested in that again and, in architectural terms, it proved to be a very beautiful project but unfortunately there was not enough funding to complete it.
Mack: You have acquired a room by Rémy Zaugg. What does it mean to you?
Herzog: In future, we want to set up other rooms by artists who have been and still are important to us. They are like anchor rooms in museums that we want to have in the vicinity of our archive. Ideally, these rigorously autonomous rooms are designed in collaboration with the respective artist.
de Meuron: And they have a powerful reach. I feel that every time I’m there. And as Jacques says, we want to create these rooms in collaboration with the artists. And we don’t want to install or mount just one work. We acquired Rémy’s work after he died and made a great effort to reconstruct a similar space and similar lighting in order to show how he developed the work. Actually he presented it near Helsinki-Strasse in the Dreispitzareal. He had hung 27 pictures and experimented with them. It was a test space for him. Having this space here with us is a powerful source of energy.
Mack: Is it an anchor room for your work as well, or a tribute?
Herzog: I simply like knowing that he is near us and will continue to be an influence when we are no longer around. So in that respect, it’s a tribute, a place where Rémy is present. But at the same time, the room with all its complex history is also a reference to us, a kind of key to our own work.
de Meuron: Thinking about one’s own history can be very productive. That applies not just to architecture but to life in general. When somebody like Rémy was an intense part of our lives for such a long time and is still present in our minds, why shouldn’t he also be present and accessible through the work that is his legacy? We want to keep what was important to us alive.
Translation: Catherine Schelbert