Jacques Herzog Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ezra Petronio interviewed Jacques Herzog in Basel in 2007

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ezra Petronio interviewed Jacques Herzog in Basel in 2007
Jacques Herzog [b. 1950] is a Swiss architect and co-founder of the Basel-based practice Herzog & de Meuron. Their projects include the Tate Modern, London [2000]; the de Young Museum, San Francisco [2005]; CaixaForum, Madrid [2008]; and the Beijing National Stadium [2008]. Herzog & de Meuron were awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2001 and the Praemium Imperiale in 2007.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Are you pleased with the progress of the project for the National Stadium [2008] in Beijing?

JACQUES HERZOG: The project is very advanced and it's really great to see that the Chinese are actually implementing the project much the way we planned it. We were surprised and, of course, relieved when we were there a month ago and were able to see the progress. The sheer physical presence of the stadium is stunning. The project is being realized according to our plans including the complex morphing formations which we had sketched up in our original drawings. We're pretty confident now that the interior design and the furniture we conceived – lamps, wall coverings, etc. – will be realized in the same way.

HUO: The artist Ai Weiwei collaborated with you and Pierre [de Meuron] on the stadium. The interesting thing about the photos of the building site is that it looks like a gesamtkunstwerk.

JH: We have always worked with artists in order to transcend the boundaries of purely architectural thinking. Consider color: architects use color in an aesthetic or stylistic way, while the artist uses color in a conceptual way. This was an early reason we first began to work with professional artists. From this perspective, working with Ai Weiwei on certain aspects of this project is an integral part of the concept. Now, if this still matches what you call a gesamtkunstwerk, I'm very flattered. I've never considered our work in that tradition. Of course, sometimes one is unconsciously obsessed with something without knowing it.

HUO: An obsession with icons seems to be taking over the world of architecture. What do you think about the relationship between complexity and iconomania?

JH: Architecture has become more visible over the past several years, an element with which cities set themselves apart from other cities. Of course this has a great tradition, but modernism suppressed this kind of competition with its utopian notion of democratization. So the rebirth of iconomania has to be seen in the light of modernism giving way to a global market and a changing economy. In this perspective, architecture is a little bit like a seismograph that is invariably bound to translating the state of the world. That's how we work too. You could say that our work in Beijing, or Hamburg [Elbe Philharmonic Hall, projected completion 2011], or the Prada Store Aoyama [2003] in Tokyo, attempts to install something extraordinary, a flagship of sorts. So we as architects – not just us, but the entire profession – respond to the state of the world. Of course, it depends on your background, where you're coming from. I have always argued that coming from a highly conceptual background, we are slightly less vulnerable than maybe other architects, less exposed to the gravitational force of the iconic. This is no excuse. It's just the basis for our being able to put certain things to the test with more liberty.

As a second response to your question: There is a great danger to becoming a slave to the iconic, to the production of icons – even if you consider yourself to be conceptually driven. If with every project you are forced to think iconically, to cater to iconomania, you will end up losing yourself as an architect – what was your original freedom. We can feel this threat also in the competition among highly publicized architects, where one is expected to “outdo” the other. And depending on whom you're working with, there is no way to escape that specific pressure. Sometimes your only option is to withdraw from the project or the competition. It really can turn into a farce sometimes, where in the end nothing turns out right. The Gazprom St. Petersburg competition was a little bit like that. At some point it became clear to me that none of the submitted projects were really adequate.

HUO: There were five finalists in St. Petersburg. Maybe you can tell me how you dealt with the situation?

JH: Our project, like all the others, would have stuck out – with a building height of over three hundred meters that's quite inevitable! On the other hand, we wanted to avoid creating a “monster in the air.” We decided to put most of the weight into the horizontal axis, leaving the vertical axis very light and spiky, thus integrating it into what we find so attractive about St. Petersburg – the separation of the “horizontal city” and the vertical “needles” which stick into the incredibly beautiful skies of St. Petersburg. The idea was to do a piece more like a thin needle than a real building. The iconic moment was therefore going to be the result of a conceptual plan rather than a formal impetus.

HUO: Looking at your work, I have the impression that there's no “signature” – that it's always a negotiation between the local and the global.

JH: I agree in theory. Our projects seem to have different signatures, but then there are projects that can be grouped together. You don't reinvent yourself with every project. But yes, our work is conceptually rooted – because that's what we have always done since the beginning. Working as a team where talking about what you want to do was a necessary basis of understanding. The research of conceptual thinking has – as I said many times – been more radical in art than architecture in modernity. Architecture hasn't had intellectuals like Picabia or [Marcel] Duchamp, nor has it had radical abstract thinkers like [Ad] Reinhart or [Donald] Judd or reinventors like [Gerhard] Richter or [Jeff] Wall, until today where you can find a small group of international architects exploiting the field of architecture more radically.

HUO: Two years ago we talked about your incredible Walker Art Center [expansion project, 2005]. Two years have passed, and many other museum projects have come your way – the Goya Museum in Zaragoza [projected completion 2010], the CaixaForum [2008] in Madrid, the new Miami Art Museum [projected completion 2010].

JH: Probably the most interesting new topic for you – knowing where you are coming from – is the concept of “anchor rooms” that we developed in the last two years for several museum projects such as the Espacio Goya in Zaragoza, the Parrish Art Museum [2009] and the Miami Art Museum. An anchor room – as we call it – is a kind of “anti-white cube”, a gallery space where architecture in an almost archaic and holistic way is interlocked with art. Architecture, e.g. space, materiality, smell, sound and the artwork are one thing, comparable to a chapel or a temple. An anchor room is highly specific, as opposed to the white cube, which remains flexible, unspecific and open for temporary re-hanging.

Anchor rooms open up new ways to create a specific architectural and curatorial topography in a museum – they have become the intellectual backbone of our most recent museum projects. Paradoxically, we tested and developed the concept of an anchor room first at MoMA in New York in our Artist's Choice exhibition. The paradox is that we realized it there – temporarily – in the museum with the richest collection of twentieth-century art, while it is in fact most effective for places which have no collections or only poor ones to start with. Let me take Espacio Goya in Zaragoza as an example to briefly explain the concept for that specific anchor: Goya did some in situ works in and around Zaragoza in his early years. Later he did some important murals outside Zaragoza, like the famous rotunda inside San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid. Our proposal, was to bring together all in situ work of Goya's in Zaragoza by duplicating and rebuilding all relevant chapels, rotundas, etc., in full scale and integrating them inside the Goya Museum in Zaragoza. That museum is a former art school, an eclectic Beaux-Arts building composed of different historical styles. The reconstructed in situ spaces will be included into the Beaux-Arts building – adding another historical layer to the already existing one and, more importantly, evoking Goya's work and person. The murals themselves will not be reproduced onto the walls or domes, but will be illustrated and communicated to the visitors by means of photography and filmed documentation, descriptions, etc. Also contemporary artists will contribute commissioned pieces, related to Goya's work, like the Chapman brothers have done. The anchor rooms are therefore a kind of physical and mental crossroads of Goya's work, contemporary artist's works, the Beaux-Arts building, and the visitor's own process of perception.

HUO: What about the bigger museum projects such as the expansion of Tate Modern for example? Will there be anchor rooms there as well?

JH: Yes, the sheer size of the completed Tate 2 [London, projected completion 2012] will require a kind of curatorial-architectural topography. Although at this stage, we don't know how it will materialize.

HUO: Last time we met, you showed me your perfume bottle. Let's talk more about smell in architecture and how you came to make a perfume.

JH: We always said that architects should create perfumes – not film stars, actors or even fashion designers. Smells immediately are related to your individual memories. They are part of places, of cities, of rooms, of materials. This is all eminently architectural. So our perfume is an architectural statement. We do not expect any commercial success from it.

HUO: Is the recipe a secret?

JH: Not really. We listed the individual smells on the label. Perfume is about memory and therefore about architecture, as I said, but it is also – like photography – directly connected to death. Maybe it is this inseparable, though often invisible connection between these things, which are more fascinating than the things themselves. A perfume is powerfully effective when it is being opened and smelled again after a long time period. It then unleashes for a short moment the perception of the elapsed time of your life. After a short time often it evaporates and disappears forever.

HUO: What about your smaller projects – do you think about them as big ideas in smaller packages? Like the VitraHaus ...

JH: The Vitra project [Weil am Rhein, Germany, projected completion 2010] belongs to the small group of our “stack projects” and is therefore related to big schemes such as the Qingdao Film School or Tate Modern 2. It is also totally different because it uses a strange mix of abstraction vs. figuration, mental materialization vs. highly tactile surface treatments, horizontal vs. vertical. It is anchored in our very early work in the 1980s with the Blue House [Oberwil, Switzerland, 1980] or the Rudin House in Leymen [France, 1993].

HUO: Another important question for me concerns your research projects.

JH: We had quite a few reasons to install the Urban Research Center in the late 1990s in Basel. The main reason, though, was that we believed it would be fun to do work outside our daily business of Herzog & de Meuron, to collaborate with Marcel Meili and Roger Diener. Together we founded a kind of research garage which then became the ETH Studio Basel, an urban research institution, which is small but still evoking and building an interesting informational network. The first topic was a four-year in-depth study on Switzerland, which was initialized in a book with three parts that has created quite a turmoil in the cultural and political circles in Switzerland. It was fun to do that, but it was hard work.

HUO: What else has happened? What have you been investigating?

JH: After the book on Switzerland we reorganized Studio Basel so that we can develop two different parallel studies per year – one being led and inspired by Roger and Marcel, the other by Pierre and myself. This split allows us also to involve our Harvard students in the same topics as Basel. Studies on Naples, Paris, St. Petersburg and the Canary Islands generated new material, part of which is being postproduced over the year. This post-production (books, films, web, etc.), which is about making research material available, is the really tough thing to do. But it is also where the knowledge
or – let's say, where the value of an urban study becomes visible and useful. I said before, the book on Switzerland became very successful – it had and still does have a strong political effect. A similar political impact is being generated through our ongoing urban research on the trinational metropolitan area of Basel – a study that we started around 1990 together with artist Rémy Zaugg. This Metro Basel study is even more painful because it is so close to us – but also even more necessary and rewarding because it crosses borders and brings things together which otherwise would be neglected or planned separately.

HUO: Basel is a tri-country city. Where I grew up in Kreuzlingen it's the same – this drei-länder idea leads to a daily crossing of boundaries.

JH: Urbanism has very strong psychological mechanisms. It affects a city very much and contributes to what we have described as being specific cities. My own experience tells me how important a tram line or a commuter train can be in generating a sense of belonging, being an integral part of the same city – even if the parts are spread in different cantons like in Basel. The fact that you can physically grasp connectivity in the form of the city's train tracks has a very strong psychological impact on your perception of the identity of that city.

EZRA PETRONIO: Are you often frustrated in your attempts to influence city planning?

JH: Obviously you are if you try out new things and they don't work as they should. It's a good question, because as an architect and urbanist you are actually quite a positive person. But I wouldn't call it frustration – rather impatience.

HUO: Where is your thinking, drawing and creativity space?

JH: The thinking happens when and where you don't expect it. The ETH Studio or a Harvard studio are not more “thinking places” than our Herzog & de Meuron offices where Pierre and I and our other partners are always around tons of people. Paradoxically it is rather there – at H & de M – that I often find what one calls “inspiration” – strange because there are so many people and so many projects around. The fact that I am faced with one topic only and a small group of students always expecting something is often a bit annoying. That is interesting in so far that it contradicts the prejudice that smaller offices tend to be more creative than big ones. It's not that simple, but luckily we have both...

EP: What are the limitations? You were talking about development. Do you reach a point when your mind cannot focus enough?

JH: The design of our company is as important for us as the design of our projects. Designing our daily business life, to consciously tackle things, is obviously something that every architect has to do and we have recently pushed that question a lot. What have we done in the past, what do we want to do in the future, how do we organize ourselves and what's the impact on the company? More than anything else this has been in the foreground in the last months.

HUO: Can architecture offices function like a brand?

JH: Yes. What do we do in the future? What is an architectural office today? What is the potential of a brand? But more importantly: what is the best platform to maintain and produce creative thinking? In our next conversation that could be an important topic, with hopefully more certitude on our side.

HUO: In a very early interview we discussed the possibility of an architectural practice having a very specific premiere line and then having a secondary line.

JH: We have thought it through, but obviously one line would devalue the other. Why would a client get his art museum produced by the factory of H & de M when his biggest enemy and rival can buy a tailor-made one by Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron? Or worse: Why not simply get a H & de M factory design when it's cheaper, faster and looks as good as the tailor-made? In the fashion world it works because you have a clearly defined product and you can reproduce it. You can easily wear and combine clothes of the designer line with the diffusion line. Architecture is not like that.
Jacques Herzog, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ezra Petronio: Jacques Herzog. In: Charles Arsène-Henry, Shumon Basar, Karen Marta (Eds.). Hans Ulrich Obrist. Interviews. Volume 2. Milan, Charta, 2010. Vol. No. 2. pp. 552-560.
First published in: Jacques Herzog, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ezra Petronio: Jacques Herzog. On Transcending the Boundaries of Architectural Thinking.
In: Ezra Petronio (Ed.). Self Service. Distinctively. Vol. No. 27, Paris, Ezra Petronio, 2007. pp. 348-351; p. 393.