A Conversation with Jacques Herzog (H&deM)
Jeffrey Kipnis: I love your jacket: do you follow fashion?
Jacques Herzog: We think it is interesting. I am personally very attracted by clothes and textiles. My mother who was a tailor has always had all that textile stuff around her which attracted me a lot. And scents! Smell is a spatial experience, in some ways stronger than sight… We have always wanted to design a scent, and now we notice that some of our ideas such as hot asphalt, summer rain or wet concrete are beginning to show up in the market… No architect has ever been allowed to design a scent by a major house. Why? An architect's name may be well known in the media, but not in a way that the perfume houses think is valuable. Some day this may change because it makes sense and it is obvious that architecture is related to scents. Scents have a strong spatial and emotional effect on everybody.
JK: It has been said that your work accelerates the degree to which architecture has become fashion.
JH: Is that because we talk about such things as clothes and scents? We do not mind such a comment. If someone says it pejoratively, they underestimate the power of fashion. Why is fashion a bad thing? So many people think that contemporary fashion, music and even art are superficial when compared to the aspirations and responsibilities of architecture. But we disagree. We think it is arrogant to think in such categories… These are practices that shape our sensibilities, they are expressions of our times. It is not the glamorous aspect of fashion which fascinates us. In fact we are more interested in what people are wearing, what they like to wrap around their bodies… We are interested in that aspect of artificial skin which becomes so much of an intimate part of people.
In that respect the human body can be compared to a building. Everybody creates his or her own architecture, which then becomes part of the city. Clothes are a kind of link between the public and the private just like a house. In other words there are quite a few things which architecture and fashion have in common. The good thing about fashion is you can give it away if you don’t like it anymore or when you think you need to change your public face. Architecture cannot do that.
Architects spend other people’s money, so we should make the work last and be of the highest quality… And we affect the lives of people, so our work should be sensitive. Also, a building may be around for many years, so we must take care not just to express the tastes of a moment, but to capture the eternal aspects of a moment. Nevertheless, desires change over time and architecture must know and respond to these changes. (It is not that we want to bring every vogue to our work, but exploring fashion, music and especially working with artists gives us a sense of the times, outside the field of architecture. All of the desires and tastes of a moment taken together create the spirit of the time, the very notion of our time. A lifetime is a walk through the layers and spaces of several such times. If you do architecture and you are not involved in your time, in the music of your time, the art of your time, the fashions of your time, you cannot speak the language of your time.) Architects must be able to speak the language of their time because architecture is a public art, it is an art for people. Paradoxically it is only then that architecture can last forever, only then it is more than just a creation for the moment.
JK: Let us take the fashion question one step further. Could you conceive of H&deM Architecture boutiques?
JH: That would be difficult. Such an enterprise would take some precise thought… On the other hand, it does not make sense for every project always to attempt to create a new thing. And copying, particularly the bad copying rampant today, is so disheartening and destructive for architecture. The idea that certain buildings or certain techniques, not only ones by us but by others, could become established as standards that others use and develop might be much healthier than the current practice of taking a building by an influential architect and, without actually understanding it, twisting it a little here or there to disguise the copy, only to make it much worse.
We would not mind if some of our works, say for example the Signal Boxes, became prototypes. Or perhaps we could develop standards for some of our preferred techniques such as the printing on materials or the copper bands, then catalogue and distribute them. We would like to see how others used these techniques and apply them in their buildings. We could imagine exploring such ideas…, though we would want to avoid at all costs the cynical potential of such a thought. We abhor cynicism.
JK: How does your office work?
JH: We are 50/60 people, a figure which has grown slowly over many years. We work in teams, but the teams are not permanent. We rearrange them as new projects begin. All of the work still comes out of the discussions between Pierre and me, and between us and our partners, Christine Binswanger and Harry Gugger. We work together as a team and the product which results from that is called architecture by H&deM. Many journalists keep asking us who is doing what, or in other words: who is the leader, who is the artist? This is a totally uninteresting issue. Who cares about an author? Who had the idea to bend the copper bands for the Signal Box? Who found the path which led us to the concrete printing? Who had the idea to collect stones in the Napa Valley and put them into gabions for our Dominus Winery? We all have different talents and we try to bring these different talents in the team in order to get the best result.
We also enjoy collaborations with others, particularly artists. Rémy Zaugg has been involved in several projects like a fifth partner. He is an artist from whom we could learn a lot… We believe we have developed a unique ability to collaborate with others –¬ perhaps because Pierre and I have always had to work together in a partnership since the time we went to kindergarden together. We think it is not a bad strategy to survive in our time.
JK: Let’s talk more about your interest in art, in artists.
JH: We prefer art to architecture, and for that matter artists to architects… London has an incredible art scene today. If you compare the young artists’ innovative thinking to their architect colleagues’: their accomplishments are fantastic. We became aware of this again very recently at the opening of Tracey Emin’s show in South London – the young people, their energy was absolutely amazing. Their lives are their work and their work their lives. Architects never bring their life into their work. Archtitects would never celebrate one of their colleagues in such a way. Architects are more diplomatic, they are more discrete even uncommunicative. We wonder why they do not pursue the fantastic – at least when they are young, when they are not yet bound to budgets and commissions.
When one considers the vitality and activity of the London art scene, the English architecture scene – just like in other cities – becomes bizarre. The contemporary English architecture is often described as an innovative high tech architecture but in fact it’s a kind of neogothic revival. It is very traditional masked with a technical outfit. Nothing but bad neo-gothic. The young architects in London and the U.S. never get a chance. The older generation sits on them until they suffocate.
We think and of course we hope that our work at least tries to appeal to life, and to liveliness, it appeals to the five senses. There are critics who look at our work and only see tasteful facades and cartesian form and call it conservative. This is something we can not understand! These are stale judgements. They think in conservative categories, such as: square is boring, or solidity is old fashioned. With such a way of thinking you cannot have access to our architecture, which avoids entertainment and spectacular gestures. At the limit, we believe that architecture should merge more with life, to merge the artificial and natural, the mechanical and biological…
JK: Because it would result in better art…?
JH: Because it would result in better architecture for people to live in. It would help the whole of architecture and building technology. We have done a few projects which attempt to involve natural phenomena e.g. for the SUVA Building. We like this building – it does good things and it works well –, but we now think that it is a bit too complicated, it is technologically overdone.
There are wonderful advantages to a static building that resists all influences. We should not be too quick to abandon these advantages. On the other hand there is an extraordinary potential for architecture which is technologically more advanced and which adapts – to the sun, to the warm and cold, to the noise –, like an organism. There is a new generation of computer designs coming on the market very soon which uses biological material to enhance complexity and speed of communication. We believe that, in the long run, biology will provide better adaptive solutions than mechanical technologies. Our own – very primitive – experiments with algae were undertaken with this idea in mind. We would create a biological sun screen, and at the same time it would look amazing, the color, the texture.
JK: Were you after a similar effect with the wash of water on the wall at Ricola II?
JH: A day or two after the rain, water still comes down in slow motion almost like in a 24 hour video by Douglas Gordon. When it is wet, that wall appears more transparent than the glass wall, an effect we really like because it is not only beautiful but it raises questions about solidity and transparency. When it dries, it gets muddy, but it is still beautiful. And the water layer is a natural protection of the concrete surface.
That building was designed in no time. A first sketch defined the profile and transverse section. Most of the design work on the building involved choosing the right image for printing on the glass facade. We tried many different motifs and different scales… Believe me, if the image is not exactly right, the result is horrible.
JK: I thought at first that the image might be symbolic of the Ricola production…
JH: No it was not that at all, it had nothing to do with Ricola's use of herbs and such…
JK: Then how did you come to that image?
JH: We wanted something that related to the garden outside, but that was not too naturalistic. We tried many different images, especially leaves and plants. It is amazing when we work with images; it is impossible to actually say in the end how we decide. The effect of the image in repetition was crucial; the one we chose was still recognizable as a plant, but the repetition also turned it into something different, something entirely new… This effect of repetition, its ability to transform the common place into something new, is an aspect you can also find in Andy Warhol’s work. Anyway, we cannot tell you how we knew it. Some of the tests were just horrible – e.g. wrong in scale – but when we saw the one we used, we knew it was right, absolutely, viscerally. We did not work with an artist on that facade – we have found Blossfeldt’s photograph in an old book and liked the degree of abstraction in his pictures.
JK: Comparisons of your work to the art of Warhol are frequent.
JH. Andy Warhol is an artist we would most like to have known. He transcended categories. It is too simple to call him a Pop artist. His work does not glorify Pop images, it uses common Pop images to say something new. That is exactly what we are interested in: to use well known forms and materials in a new way so that they become alive again. We would love to do a building that would cause people to say, “well, this looks like an old traditional house, but at the same time there is something totally new in it.”
No one has yet truly accomplished that in contemporary architecture. Architecture which looks familiar, which does not urge you to look at it, which is quite normal – but at the same time it has also another dimension, a dimension of the new, of something unexpected, something questioning, even disturbing. Gottfried Semper moved along that line and for that reason we think he was much more interesting and subversive than his classicist colleague Schinkel. His work is more ambiguous; he used the same classical repertoire as Schinkel, but he used it to produce an unsettling, disturbing result…
We love to destroy the cliches of architecture. To do this most effectively, it is sometimes useful to work with them. You not only have the fight against the cliches of architecture, but against the cliches of your own ideas. Nothing is more boring or stupid than to wake up in the morning, naively confident in what you already know.
JK: Would you consider there to be any influence of the perceptual artists like James Turrell in your work?
JH: We find his crater project interesting. When we first saw his light-rooms, we were overwhelmed by what he can do with light. The problem with these installations is that you have to first enter a dark room – something which is also a problem for video projections.
JK: I was surprised about your relationship to Beuys. In certain ways, I find your work the opposite of his. Even if both luxuriate in the reality of materials, Beuys' work is full of memory and meaning, while yours is almost empty. Beuys' materials become real through their saturation with meaning, with associations. You produce the reality of your materials precisely by detaching them from meaning, from associations.
JH: Beuys is an exceptional artist and he was a very charismatic man. When we had the chance to work with him on Feuerstätte II in 1978 this was certainly a very important moment in our intellectual development. He showed us things we had never seen before: e.g. the way he operates with materials, he didn’t use them only in a mono-functional way like architects tend to do – he had a much more sensual approach and he did attribute symbolic meaning to materials. This symbolic side however never became part of our own work. That’s perhaps what you mean when you talk about emptiness in regard to our work.
JK: At one point, you characterized Zaugg more as a theorist than as a painter. That, for me, would not have been a compliment…
JH: You are right, that would be a terrible and wrong condemnation. Some people are more attracted by his texts than by his paintings because his work is painfully dry. His work is about perception, it asks for a lot of active participation – this is not what many visitors of galleries want to do. They want to be entertained. We think his work is very important and we are lucky to work with him. This is also true for other artists such as Thomas Ruff, Helmut Federle and Dan Graham. They are all not very entertaining. But we don’t believe in entertainment in art nor in architecture. In that field of entertainment art as well as architecture would be lost compared to electronic media, to film or to music. There are many things which are more fun and less boring – at least at first sight!
JK: You mention research often. What constitutes architectural research?
JH: Different things: e.g. research on materials. The material world is what we deal with – we try to understand what matter is. What it means and how we can use it in order to enhance its specific qualities. The methods we use to print on concrete, for example, are a product of our research. The printing method existed, but we started to adapt it to and use it for printing photographs on concrete. It is a very interesting, yet simple process. Chemical treatment in the pattern of the photograph causes the surface of the concrete to cure at different lengths of time… Another example is the algae, which we have discussed. We are also interested in the mosses and lichens that grow on the surfaces of stones. They are an indicator of air quality and their color is spectacular, so bright – the oranges, the yellows – so beautiful that it almost blinds you. It would be fantastic to have these as another tool in our work: color, photographic images, transparency, solidity. The pencil of nature would also become the pencil of architecture!
We guess our research falls into two areas: what is life today – and here we mean art, music, media and other contemporary media activities –; and what techniques we can discover or invent to bring architecture to life – here we mean what science, what technology, what invention enables us to realize our architectural vision, to cohabit and merge artificial and natural processes in our daily life.
JK: What buildings interest you, influence you?
JH: It is usually anonymous buildings. In Japan we were fascinated by the abrupt disjunctions between old and new, between scales, we like that very much perhaps because it reminded us of our home country. Switzerland also has very attractive, cosy or harmless architecture or landscapes next to horrible and brutal half urban, half rural settlements… There are no models for us, no paradigms of great architecture that we worship. Rather, there are moments in buildings – sometimes great, sometimes terrible – that we pay attention to, that we learn from. I would love to walk with you through Harvard square and look at some buildings and talk about what we see walking and talking. It is an interesting experience because it has some very good unspectacular and a few bad but spectacular buildings.
Looking at buildings – any buildings – and describing what you see is the best way to learn about architecture. For instance when you look at Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Centre you wouldn’t believe, that he always said “il faut apprendre à voir ce que l’on voit”. Obviously this means something different for everybody.
JK: Do you consider your work to be Swiss?
JH: Many people still imagine Switzerland as a small, isolated, traditional country and perceive our work as coming out of the tradition of the Swiss artisan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Switzerland has lost all these roots. Switzerland is perhaps the most modern, the most technologically advanced country in Europe. Of course it is also a very ambiguous country because it still keeps turning an attitude of peacefulness towards the outside, even if it deals with big money and big industry. This is a conflict which actually dominates more and more the political debates of this country: the awareness of being part of a global culture without any historical privileges left! If our work is in any way Swiss, it is so only in that sense of a country which has no national identity anymore. Our work is not based on any tradition, particularly any Swiss tradition. But it reflects the idea of tradition. It raises the question of tradition.
When we were in school in the early ‘70’s, we were trained in architecture as a form of sociology, a product of the post '68 transformation of the discipline. Our first teacher was Lucius Burckhardt, a very interesting man, who taught us that whatever we do, we should not build; instead, we should think, we should learn about people. It was inspiring, but it was also frustrating... Then Aldo Rossi came to teach us, and he told us the opposite. He said forget sociology, return to architecture. After that, we returned to architectural building with a vengeance… In that regard, Rossi was perhaps our greatest influence. He interested us in images, but we were never interested in his images, never interested in collecting images of architectural memories.
JK: You seem to be more interested in the sensations, the feelings an image generates, rather than the information it communicates.
JH: Feelings sounds a bit too naive. But you are right, we are more interested in the direct physical and emotional impact, like the sound of music or the scent of a flower. We are not looking for meaning in our buildings. A building cannot be read like a book, it does not have any credits, subtitles or labels like pictures in a gallery. A building is a building. In that sense, we are absolutely anti-representational. The strength of our buildings is the immediate, visceral impact they have on a visitor. For us that is all that is important in architecture.
We want to make a building that can cause sensations, not represent this or that idea.
Images we use are not narrative, they don’t represent only this or that like the narrative glass walls in a gothic cathedral. The leaves in the Ricola Factory or the photographic facade of the Eberswalde Library, all these images are rather non representational than representational.
JK: Do you imagine that everyone everywhere would experience your work in the same way or in different ways depending on their differing situations, contexts and their cultural backgrounds? When I talk to students and other architects about your work, I find it fascinating that, while almost everyone, whether they are English, Spanish, Japanese or American, speaks of the same projects, the account they give of their enthusiasm, of why they like Ricola, the Signal Box or the Greek Orthodox Church, varies widely.
JH: We are of course flattered when young people pay attention to our work, no matter which way they look at it. Our ambition, though, is to do a work which is basic, comprehensible for everybody, everywhere, so that it cuts through the mind, through layers of contexts and cultures, directly to the sensations.
JK: What do you think of architecture critics, of what they write about your works?
JH: Some texts are certainly very well written by interested and interesting people. But they remain texts about something, – they don’t stand alone like literature or like architecture. No critic, but also no architect, has ever written a text which survived more than one generation. What survives, what influences architecture, what makes architecture architecture is the work, the buildings and projects. We do not remember any text that has changed our way of thinking, that has meant anything to our architecture. Words and texts are seductions. Wonderful, but meaningless; they offer no help in any way. There is not one exception to this.
JK: Rossi's “The Architecture of the City”?
JH: Did you read it recently – it sounds bizarre today! A beautiful book, wonderful language. And Aldo was such a fascinating man – charming and good looking, we loved him, we really were in love with him. And the way he read from his book at the ETH in the early seventies in a broken German, that was really sexy! But what is left from that? OK, maybe it helped him do his work, but no one else. We don’t mean this cynically, we just don’t think his books will remain important for a future generation of architects.
JK: Le Corbusier’s “Vers une architecture”?
JH: It is amazing how old fashioned and also arrogant this sounds today. He wrote with such a blind passion, that in the end he confused everything: writing and architecture, art and architecture… Not only do we believe that architects cannot write, we also believe that they cannot do art.
As much as we love art, as much as we are influenced by it, as much as we try to use it in, on and with our buildings, we do not try to make our buildings art.
JK: “Complexity and Contradiction”?
JH: An important book for us as students, but Venturi's work proves that the book is wrong. The phenomena he described are fascinating, but they did not need Venturi, and as soon as he tried to reproduce them in his work, he ruined them and his work. Writers can write about architecture,
filmmakers can film architecture, painters – like Hopper for instance – can paint it, but only architects can do it, and that is all that they can do.
JK: Was your presentation to the MOMA board similar to your presentation at the Tate?
JH: We have the impression that both panels were first attracted by the buildings. Only later they discovered the conceptual side of it, which is based on strategies, not styles… We reject the model of the heroic architect with one idea, one strategy for every occasion. We are interested in treating every project, every affair according to its own situation. Of course we are interested in creating something new, something seductive. But we try to convince clients that we do things in the right way for their project, that we understand the particulars, the realities of the project. We like to deal with existing structures, make them more powerful, expose them and add some new parts if necessary. We try to enhance the existing qualities to rediscover what is here in front of all of us.
JK: How has your work changed over time?
JH: Earlier, our thought about the image was more literal, and we were more influenced by others, e.g. by Aalto and Scharoun. Scharoun was one of our favorites. We found his work ugly, strange, very real and unreal at the same time. We loved the aluminum gold clad of the philharmonic. The skylights of the Photo Studio Frei were originally intended to be clad in gold. We wanted to relate to the sky. We did that building after we saw the philharmonic. But the gold clad was too expensive and technically too problematic. We still like the walls of that building, the plywood and asphalt boards which look like casual American architecture. The mixture of gold and asphalt intrigued us a lot. It was a kind of start for all our experiments with materials.
JK: For all of your interest in materials, you are cautious with color.
JH: Everything needs caution, especially color. Still we used some color: the blue for the Blue House, our first building, and later, we used brown in the House for a Veterinary. We imitated bad wood painting in order to relate to the mediocre Swiss archtiecture of the 1970’s. That building has been criticized because it has so many different themes in it which don’t go together very well and probably this is right. I think it has some interesting moments which we further explored in the future work. We used color more often in earlier works and are coming back to that now e.g. with the printed green glass facade for the Rossetti Hospital Pharmacy.
JK: You do not seem to have any interest in the program. You handle it almost as an efficiency expert.
JH: Is that criticism or a compliment? We seem to be very pragmatic about that. Most of the time in Europe, buildings are so regulated and the budgets so restricted that there is virtually no room for programmatic invention. So we have to be very canny to find room for a new architectural idea… Housing is the worst. Social housing regulations make any idea about plan and interior space impossible. No architect can change this.
JK: Your approach to program seems not only pragmatic, but almost antagonistic. It is as if, wherever possible, you subtract program from the brief.
JH: For some projects that is right. Program specifies the space. We are more interested in the flexibility of flowing, non representational space and the impact space itself makes. In the same way, we are not very interested in sculptural architecture. It is often too specific. It is interesting when you first see it, but then it gets boring very fast. This is an old experience in architecture – it was already there in Jugendstil vs Classicism, late Corb versus Mies.
Today, there are quite a few talented architects working in a sculptural way, but very few who really create relaxed, open space. It seems like it is more difficult to achieve this relaxed quality today than earlier because architects feel themselves in competition with the fascinating electronic media which are so much more fun than architecture. Simplicity and openness are difficult qualities to achieve and even more difficult to communicate to the public – even if nothing were to be more desirable for all of us.