A CONVERSATION

A Conversation
Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist

JPJ: The closeness of the friendship and working collaboration between the three of you is very clear to see. Hans Ulrich and I also work together closely in tandem, and people always want to know who does what. Does the ‘who does what?’ apply to your work on the Serpentine Pavilion?

JH: It’s been more than ten years since we first met Weiwei in Basel, and we all travelled together to China due to his friendship and generosity and interest in bringing something new to his country. The Serpentine Pavilion is our first project together in the West. It was a very natural feeling to work on it together. It was as if we’d never stopped collaborating and that, I think, is very important. The project has nothing forced about it, nothing artificial and nothing where you could say ‘This is Weiwei and this is Pierre and Jacques.’ It all comes out of our common experience of what we’ve seen and what interests us and what we’ve learnt from all these different trips. That’s how I, at least, have experienced it.

AWW: My experience of working with Jacques and Pierre is that we never think separately. It’s like three soldiers in the war – and that’s a good feeling: we have a constant understanding of each others’ practice. We never have any arguments during our collaborations. We always come together and create the support for the whole idea, making it possible. It’s always a very enriching experience for us, very encouraging. There’s no ego or any kind of need to assert one’s identity because from the very beginning we said that we were working, the three of us together, on a new identity: we’re working together to create a new style. So there’s this connection that’s very special. It’s also difficult for us to see art and architecture as separate. For me they’re quite inseparable. And that’s why I have an interest in this kind of activity.

HUO: The ‘Birds Nest’ Beijing National Stadium [commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games] is one of your great architectural collaborations. How was the idea born? Was there a moment when you had the epiphany or was it a gradual process that led to this masterpiece?

AWW: The stadium was a moment of excitement because it was a utopic event, from an architectural point of view and from a political point of view. We all understood that we had to make something that was powerful and that would remain as a long-lasting monument. So we tried to do something that was very different from the previous understanding of stadiums, and we wanted to give it a strong signature. We came to an idea very quickly; we always get to the idea very quickly, because we all kind of agree.

JH: The speed and the mystery of collaboration is key to our working together. Pierre and I have been collaborating since our childhood, so to us it felt natural to collaborate with an artist. We’d already done this with Thomas Ruff and with Rémy Zaugg. And so Weiwei was just a new element in our life – a very precious one, however! Ideas happen on a common ground and then it’s not A + B + C, but a dynamic that’s more complex. And the fundamental layout of a concept is indeed sometimes very fast. It’s like the blinking of an eye – the feeling that someone loves what you’re saying or that you love what the other person’s saying and that encourages you to go deeper. It was the same with the Serpentine Pavilion.

JPJ: What’s so interesting about our site is that it now has an eleven-year history of Pavilions, and what you’ve chosen to do is to look back to the archaeology of past Pavilions and create a kind of fiction – it’s a fiction based on fact, but nonetheless a fiction. This access to the old and the new is the pivotal element of this project. How did the idea of making reference to the past, the present and therefore also the future, come about?

AWW: This idea about the archaeology of past Serpentine Pavilions comes down to the fact that architecture is a total effort, as a history and as a human structure. We tried to make something very essential, very visceral; we wanted to put ourselves in a position where we could have a conversation with other people’s efforts and to make a very clean and understandable gesture out of this.

JPJ: Did this approach to architecture as a total effort feed into your thoughts regarding the design of the Pavilion?

JH: We all three of us shared the idea that we didn’t want to make another object or another thing in Kensington Gardens, but that we wanted to literally build a foundation for something different, something new. And the interesting paradox is that this foundation for something new or different is exactly what has been done before. The Pavilion design is very important in our fundamental approach, which is a re-thinking of what a pavilion actually is, or what a stadium actually is. I think that’s probably what keeps us going through all kinds of projects: what actually is this thing we have to build? There’s so much architecture and so much art and so many things in the world that if you don’t do this radical questioning then you end up in endless repetition.

PdM: We came to a very quick agreement on what we didn’t want to do. From the first moment, we knew, all three of us, that we didn’t want to fall into the trap of doing another fancy object, because this has been done in previous years. So we had two possibilities: one was to use platonic forms, which are universal: a sphere, a pyramid or a cube. But this wasn’t successful. But this is the benefit of working together as Jacques and myself work together as a pair: always having someone to correct you or give you another answer or another direction to the process. This avoids getting stuck, or maybe having ideas or elements that are too personal. And now it was just a case of enlarging this two-way relationship into a triangular relationship with Weiwei. So having abandoned the platonic volumes, we then became interested in finding geometries or forms of something that was already there but was, on the other hand, no longer there, since it had been demolished. So things are virtually there but no longer physically there. We found out that there were some traces underground that were not visible. So we were interested in discovering and analysing what had been done in previous years, and in revealing those traces and using them as generating forces for our design. After having made this choice to work with those traces, it was a matter of deciding which traces to select for our final design. We’d already spoken about not doing an object, not even doing an object proposal. That was one thing and the other thing was this fantastic site in the park. And when the first ideas started coming, we were more interested in doing something hidden, something that wasn’t visible, something underground. Of course, this wasn’t going to be easy, but it was a very important start for the project – to have it below ground. Then it emerged that it wasn’t very realistic because of the groundwater and other problems. But this idea to have it buried continued to carry the whole process of exchange of ideas. And then we decided to have it half-buried and to cover it with a roof to protect the space.

HUO: Cork has the versatility to be shaped and formed and it is often used in making architectural models. Why did you use cork to line the interior of the structure?

PdM: Architecture is a discipline that speaks to people through all their senses. It isn’t only visual but tactile and acoustic, and we were interested in having different elements in the Pavilion. The water on top is ephemeral, reflecting the sky and the light from above, and all the surroundings. The steel structure to carry that water and to protect the people under the Pavilion is heavy. So where the people touch and move around within the volumes of the space, they need to have this softer material, something warm, so that they can sit on something that’s warm and soft with a very tactile quality.

HUO: This idea of an archaeology of the past connects with the topic of memory. We live in a digital age where information grows exponentially, but that doesn’t necessarily produce more memory. We could even say that sometimes amnesia goes hand in hand with this information explosion. I remember having a conversation with Weiwei in Beijing about memory, in relation to this obliteration of moments in the past. And there is a wonderful text [which appeared on Ai Weiwei’s blog] where you talked about bringing your mother’s house back to its previous condition. Now, for your Pavilion, memory plays a big role: it’s the memory of the previous Pavilions and the memory of the site. Could you tell us what memory means for both of your practices in general? And beyond that, what memory means in relation to your Pavilion?

AWW: In the very beginning we wanted to look at the psychology of the Serpentine Pavilions that have repeatedly been taken down, which we saw as being like an act of total architecture, or a stage – a stage that was repeatedly dealing with architecture. The past structures might have a very different energy and a very different background, but still they shared the same kind of understanding, and we wanted to use our understanding of it to make a Pavilion that could conclude this kind of total effort, as well as showing the tension between the very different styles and the effort to re-announce it. So we saw the past as a psychological condition, like drawing many layers on one piece of paper. And normally that isn’t an architectural quality. But we felt the need to create something very different.

JH: As both Pierre and Weiwei have said, because we’re a team, not only the two of us, but also with Weiwei, our architecture becomes something that’s free from a personal style: a style-less conception, or a concept-based approach. I think this is typical of Weiwei’s working method as much as it is ours. We’ve always tried to replace style with concept. So memory is just an excuse. Is it also a real interest? I think it is in the sense that how a building touches the ground is a fundamental question in architecture, something that goes back to the very first human structures. Also in classical architecture, the foundation is a key element. And to free the object from the earth is a key issue in modernism and Constructivism – all those flying objects also deal with the same issue. When you look into Weiwei’s work, you see that he’s been obsessed with digging into the ground in some of his earlier projects…

AWW: Of course, this desire to make something underground – it’s like any child: they want to dig up the sand or play with mud; it is an absolutely essential human activity.

JH: …and we can find it in our own history already in the early work of the 1970s and the 80s. One of the first projects that we did that became known was a proposal for a fountain in the Market Square in Basel [1979-87] where we dug into the ground and revealed a hidden river. This was key for understanding how the city was originally built and how life was generated around that river, all of which had been forgotten. Revealing the medieval river completely transformed the perception of that part of the contemporary city.

HUO: The historian Eric Hobsbawm famously said: ‘I belong to a profession whose business it is to protest against forgetting – which also knows that memory is complex and sometimes dangerous’. Very often the future is built on the fragments of the past, so we need memories, but at the same time, we can’t create work based only on the past because it can be suffocating. What is the relationship between remembering and forgetting in your work?

JH: This could be a very interesting and fundamentally human question. Without memory, we cannot build a future, but too much memory is a burden. This is a very fruitful paradox.

AWW: I think that we have to realise that we’re a product of information and since human survival is very practical, the most reliable information is gained from history that has been collectively approved. At the same time, of course, as humans we have a problem because we’re always trying to find another imaginative possibility, which is about trying to overcome the tension between living and dying – the idea that you’re there and then you’re not there. This is so simple; we’re all fascinated by this and it’s why we all have to see if we’re any different. So every project, if it’s a good project, has to have this kind of mysterious quality that makes us wonder. And if it’s not a profound concern and becomes too superficial and too shallow, then we’re simply talking about the past or tradition, which isn’t interesting at all. We have to find a new possibility, a new way, a new definition in some kind of common ground.

JH: This could be a very fruitful and productive question for the Marathon discussions in the Fall. [Every year the Pavilion is host to the Park Nights programme, and in 2012 this culminates in the staging of the Memory Marathon, which draws its inspiration from the Pavilion.] It would be interesting to involve people who can talk about this from a scientific point of view and not just art or literature. As you said in your question, it is a kind of paradox: it’s very dangerous in some ways that we tend to forget things and make the same errors that we made in the past and if you look at human history it’s tragic that the same patterns come up again and again. Nevertheless, history repeats many things, but not exactly the same way. With our Pavilion design, of course, we use the traces of all these quite wonderful objects that have been created in the past, each of them with much love and with much talent. And I think what will happen is that people will come to the Serpentine and many of them will have seen the pavilion last year or three years ago or five years ago and they’ll try to read the traces. They’ll somehow reconstruct history or memory, trying to remember what they’ve seen here. So what I think is interesting is that it’s a kind of virtual architecture becoming physical or perhaps even more: a physical architecture triggering memory. It wasn’t our intention, but probably the concept will lead to the architecture that’s absent, that doesn’t exist anymore. It will help people to remember their own lives, which I think is a nice idea for architecture.

JPJ: You’re going to allow people to become time travellers, to retrace their lives and provide them with the context to do that in a completely democratic space: a structure without walls. Your Pavilion, in that sense, is one of the most democratic spaces that you could possibly come across, much more than the Serpentine Gallery itself, because there’s no barrier to prevent people engaging with the structure. It is the ultimate act of generosity, like a present. And indeed, Richard Rogers described the Pavilion as the greatest gift that is given to London every year. How important to you was this idea of creating an accessible public forum?

AWW: I think we’re all very interested in public space and in the need to have some kind of public meeting space. We realise that we only have one page in the Serpentine Pavilion ‘book’ and then this page will be turned over by another effort. So this project will be inserted into the whole effort. When we talk about memory, it’s about an understanding of the past and at the same time, of the fact that one day we’re going to be the past. So I think that gives a very special understanding of this kind of architecture. And it not only stays in our minds, but it stays in the public mind. So that’s why I think this project has a very special meaning beyond the architecture itself. This idea of public-ness and our understanding of what a public building is: it’s not about personal tastes, it’s about the memory or history that we have to recognise. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not; it’s there and it’s up to us to make it very public. This is a very interesting approach that could give a new definition to public sculpture.

PdM: The projects that we’ve been developing together with Weiwei and also all the ones that we’ve been working on in our office are mostly public and some of them are highly public. I don’t think there are many buildings that could be more public than the ‘Bird’s Nest’ or the Serpentine Pavilion, and this fact was highly inspiring to us. It inspired us to go beyond just the functional and technical questioning to ask what such a space should actually be. We’re very happy that the public function of the stadium in Beijing has been maintained after the Games. For us, the Olympic Games weren’t the most important aspect. Of course, they were the trigger to do this building, but we had many different clients because after the Games the building was intended for commercial use. Fortunately this didn’t happen. Our third client was the public. Chinese men and women live in the public realm: they dance, they play and they talk together. They’re a people who live in public space and we wanted to create more than just a sports facility with this stadium; we wanted to create a public space for the Chinese people and also for their guests in China. The Serpentine Pavilion is similar, since the park is highly public, the Gallery is public and the Pavilion will also be very public. Julia, you mentioned the forum and I think this is a very good word to describe what this Pavilion intends to be: a forum that will bring people together under one roof so that they can meet and exchange ideas. That would certainly be our big hope for the life of this building.

JPJ: Do the Olympics give you an additional opportunity, or an additional way of exploring architecture?

AWW: Of course, I’m very happy that other people will enjoy the Games, but it doesn’t really affect me, because I’m not a very sporty person. Jacques and Pierre are very sporty people. They like playing soccer!

PdM: I feel exactly the same as Weiwei. I feel thankful to the Olympic event because it has allowed us to work at the Serpentine Gallery.

HUO: Do you have any joint unrealised projects – any Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei projects that have been too big to be realised, too small to be realised or just forgotten? What are your dreams?

AWW: Well it’s been a very nice experience spending time and travelling together and I hope we can do it again in the future.
A conversation by Skype
Basel, London, Beijing, 11 May 2012
Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ai Weiwei, Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist: A Conversation. Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich-Obrist.
In: Sophie O'Brien with Melissa Larner and Claire Feeley (Eds.). Herzog & de Meuron + Ai Weiwei. Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012. Exh. Cat. Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012. Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, Great Britain. 1 June - 14 October 2012. London, Koenig Books / Serpentine Gallery, 2012. pp. 92-99.