Significant Difference. Jacques Herzog Talks with Julian Rose
Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are known not only for their pioneering museum designs—from the Sammlung Goetz in Munich to London’s Tate Modern and the Pérez Art Museum Miami—but also for their intense and productive collaborations with a wide range of artists, which reach back to the very beginning of their career. Here, as part of Artforum’s ongoing series of conversations on the space of the museum, senior editor Julian Rose speaks with Herzog about art, architecture, and the alchemical transformations between them.
Julian Rose: Today, we expect that architects of a certain standing will collaborate with artists. It’s a way for them to demonstrate their success or affirm their cultural cachet. You and Pierre are probably more responsible for this development than anyone else. Your own collaborations are legendary. Famously, one of the first projects you did after architecture school was a 1978 performance with Joseph Beuys for Basel’s carnival.
I would like to speak more historically—and theoretically—about how the relationship between the two fields pushed you toward collaboration in the first place. What did art offer at that time that architecture seemed to be missing?
Jacques Herzog: Pierre and I grew up in Basel, where institutions like the Kunsthalle and the Kunstmuseum showed important postwar artists before many other museums in Europe. We saw Donald Judd’s sculptures at the Kunstmuseum in the early 1970s, when it was still difficult to see his work in America. In 1977 the museum purchased and exhibited Beuys’s installation Hearth 1 . It was very controversial because he was not yet recognized as the great artist that he was, especially because he used materials that were not accepted in art, like copper, grease and felt. All of these things were captivating.
Julian Rose: Captivating because you hadn’t seen anything like them before? Or because they suggested a fresh set of possibilities that you already saw yourself applying to architecture?
Jacques Herzog: When I was young, I didn’t think I would become an architect. Chemistry and biology and art interested me—and also Pierre—much more. When we eventually decided that we wanted to go into architecture, it was a naïve decision. We thought it was a field that would allow us to combine these different interests.
Julian Rose: You were attracted to what you saw as architecture’s interdisciplinary potential.
Jacques Herzog: Initially, yes. But we quickly became aware that architecture was filled with ideas that didn’t really interest us. This was in the mid-’70s, when modernism was declining. We couldn’t see ourselves continuing in the footsteps of masters like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. We felt that modernism as an ideology was discredited. Architecture didn’t have a tradition anymore. At the same time, we were surrounded by the beginnings of postmodernism—deconstruction and historicism and all that stuff—and it felt limited, a narrow response to what had come before.
So we turned to artists as models for new ways of thinking about architecture. It grew out of our fascination with art’s freedom and openness.
Julian Rose: It’s ironic that you found architecture to be so closed and art to be so open, because the major developments in both fields at that time were both referred to as postmodernism. But in architecture this term meant something very specific, a largely aesthetic rejection of modernism,
either through the reintroduction of historical references or through the complex geometry of deconstruction. In art, there was never a monolithic postmodernism—it was the expanded field.
Jacques Herzog: Yes. And early on we recognized that open-ended approach as something that didn’t exist in architecture at that time. The way artists work was the way I thought and still think that architecture should be produced. Especially those artists who work on concepts rather than those who are refining a personal "style".
Julian Rose: Beyond this general sense of freedom, you have mentioned the influence of specific artists like Judd or Beuys. What drew you to their work, and how did you see it relating to architecture?
Jacques Herzog: We were fascinated by how Beuys connected his work to natural history as well as social and anthropological issues. We saw great potential in that approach which was neglected by architecture at the end of the 1970ies.
Julian Rose: I can see how a Beuysian approach to the natural world would offer an alternative to the stylistic debates between modernism and postmodernism, but how did it actually inform your approach?
Jacques Herzog: Architecture was primarily taught and practiced as either a technical or as an aesthetic discipline and, post1968, as a social art where participation increasingly became a new topic. Beuys' work was a model for how to combine and especially integrate all relevant forces into one complex reality. We did not like his sectarian side but we were interested by how scientific and "spiritual" forces could materialize and become "architecture"....it was the moment of early projects such as the Blue House and the Stone House, when we were full of doubts about how to even do the most basic things in architecture, such a as a wall, a window or how to use color. We used those early projects to get into the works of architecture. Every Project was radically different from the other. No traces of style or authorship were recognizable.
Julian Rose: At least with Beuys, then, artistic practice offered you less an aesthetic model than an attitude about authorship. But I wonder if the same could be said of Judd? Minimalism is a hotly contested term between art and architecture, largely because many artists feel that architects reduced it to something purely aesthetic. If for Judd and other artists of his generation minimalism was about shifting the emphasis from object to experience, rethinking the way looking is framed by the spatial envelope of the gallery and inflected by our movement through it, for architects in the ’80s and ’90s it became just a look, or even a lifestyle; a branding slogan.
Jacques Herzog: Oh yes...I agree. Minimalism became an aesthetic school, especially in Switzerland and England and then also in America and elsewhere. A number of architects became famous with their “minimalist” boxes. We felt responsible for that evolution since we did radically minimal work early on. Perhaps the Ricola Storage building in Basel/Laufen is the first example in architecture and the most "Juddian" in a sense. Also we introduced the term "minimalism" for an approach to structure and materiality, which was different from what architects were doing at that time, and was closer, in fact, to concepts of artists such as Sol Lewitt, Morris and of course Donald Judd.
We proposed a new approach to materials. They should not just be functional, invisible elements of a wall or a floor. We wanted to give every architectural element a kind of individuality, a recognizable role within the whole. Bricks are great for that: a brick is still a brick, even when it becomes part of a wall. Only mortar binds them together...in the exterior walls of the Stone House in Tavole (19....) we tried to even get rid of mortar: each stone is piled up without mortar, just holding its position through its own weight. When working on the Ricola Storage Building , we tried to give every element of the building its independence. The building itself is conceived and put together like a storage facility for architectural elements.
Julian Rose: You’re referring not just to the fact that the building’s program was the storage of goods, but to the construction of the façade, where a shelving system is used to support the individual panels that make up the exterior wall of the building.
Jacques Herzog: We started from scratch, literally, like architectural analphabets, not knowing what is a wall or a floor or a window. We wanted to give materials a stronger weight, to emphasize their specific and individual character. Look at the greyish black basalt stones which are piling up in steel gabions to form the façade of the Dominus Winery . Depending on where you look from or how close you stand to the wall, it seems either hermetic like concrete or transparent like lace. The gap between the stones is as relevant as the stones themselves....when the sun shines the gaps become lively actors, remindful of thousands of photographic lenses.
Julian Rose: What about the projects in which you were dealing with images in addition to materials? In the factory building you built for Ricola in 1993, a photograph of a plant was screen- printed onto the façade’s polycarbonate panels.
Jacques Herzog: That was related to our rejection of the way minimalism had been reduced to a style. Paradoxically, minimalism led us to ornament, which seems to be its opposite. Since Adolf Loos, architects had rejected ornament as superfluous. We tried to reveal its potential for contemporary architecture. In fact we discovered that ornament in past cultures was not just nice and decorative, but an "integrative" element for the understanding of architecture. Everything was integrated and connected with everything else. We started to push the use of ornament like a method to test our own projects. Even if just applied on the surface―like in early projects such as the Elberswalde Library or the Ricola Storage in Mulhouse—the prints and motifs would challenge the structural and spatial concepts of those projects.
Julian Rose: It’s a brilliant, if counterintuitive, move to apply the serial, nonhierarchical strategies of minimalism to images on a building’s surface: You invented a minimalist approach to ornament.
This also suggests that translating ideas from art to architecture can transform them in surprising ways. I wonder if direct collaborations between artists and architects are equally productive, or if they encourage more normative approaches. I’m thinking of the Laban Dance Center that you completed in 2003, for example, where you worked with Michael Craig-Martin on the façade’s colors. On the one hand, this is admirably pragmatic. Architects are notoriously troubled by color, and Craig-Marin is a brilliant colorist. But is this simply offering the artist the building as canvas, and so reinforcing old disciplinary divisions between art and architecture, surface and space?
Jacques Herzog: We have tried out so many different forms of collaborations with artists. Why? Because the result should be interesting, new and unexpected for both sides. The Laban is a spatially complex building with an ephemeral translucent skin around it. We worked with Michael Craig-Martin on materiality and colors inside and outside that building. The color clouds that sometimes appear with more or less emphasis at the outside reflect the lively atmosphere inside. We could have done that ourselves, but it would have been less good! The use of color is not the business of an architect even if quite a few have pretended to be experts in that. The exchange with Michael, the artist, lead to more provocative, more authentic and more complex solutions. The result is the work of three indistinguishable authors!
At various times, we have also done these types of collaborations with Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Helmut Federle, Adrian Schiess and a few others. The most radical collaborations were with Rémy Zaugg, with whom we collaborated from the 1980iesuntil his early death in 2005, and since 2002, with Ai Weiwei.
Remy Zaugg was more than just an artist friend. We traveled around Europe, talking and smoking and eating and drinking and designing many architectural projects and art projects in public space. It was always a very intense process. When we did the master plan for the Université de Bourgogne , we got together around a table at the very beginning of the project, in a very innocent way, almost as if we were children, and the work progressed through incredibly open- ended discussions.
Our collaborations with Ai Weiwei have similar characteristics and intensities to those we had with Remy. We met him in 2002, when he was still relatively unknown, and when we all had more free time as well. We took trips together across China, and we began an ongoing conversation. Weiwei is critical about China but, at the same time, profoundly loves his country and knows an incredible amount about its history and cultural heritage. We’ve done and continue to do many projects together, large and small, some that materialized and some that didn’t, but always intense and fun at the same time.
Julian Rose: This takes us back to your initial understanding of architecture as an inherently interdisciplinary field. It’s true that in a sense architects are the last generalists and that an architect, ideally, should be able to interface with any number of specialists, whether an artist or a contractor or an engineer. But at the same time, the production of buildings is more technically complex now than ever, and architects have an enormous amount of specialized expertise.
Presumably, then, the collaboration can’t continue indefinitely as a conversation among equals?
Jacques Herzog: We cannot do art and the artist cannot do architecture...? That is a prejudice and it is wrong. We have always tried to blur the boundaries between our roles in order to produce new ideas. Take, for example, the project we did with Ai last summer at the Park Avenue Armory [Hansel and Gretel, 2017]. This was an art installation, a hybrid between a public sculpture and an opera. We were all involved, the three of us, Weiwei, Pierre and myself and our teams, of course. It would be absurd to separate each one's contribution to the final product. The truth is that nobody could have done it alone. It would have been different and less of a shared experience. Others have to judge, but I think it is also more complex than a work by one single person. The same is true for the Bird's Nest. Without Ai Weiwei that stadium would be different and maybe it would not even exist.
But yes, you are also right when you say that the amount of specialized expertise has tremendously grown in the field of architecture. When Pierre and I work on a project we also could not do it alone. We need the support of so many others in and outside our own company.
Collaboration is the word for that. We have practiced this way for many years. The art of collaboration is to find a denominator which is not a compromise―but the most powerful and daring concentrate.
Julian Rose: It’s interesting that politics would emerge as a possible point of difference between art and architecture. You described your initial turn to art as a way of escaping architectural ideologies. But at the same time, much of the art you were looking at was profoundly ideological. The work of Beuys especially was driven by his political convictions, by a sense that he was operating outside of existing establishments and hierarchies. As an architect, is it possible to translate this critical position into your own practice, particularly as you become more successful and work for more and more powerful clients?
Jacques Herzog: Architecture is like a quarry where strata of political and psychological conflicts are being deposited over centuries. But architects are rarely aware of that when working on a given project. Most architects are relatively unpolitical and focused on the formal issues of their discipline.
This has to do with the fact that they spend someone else's money. The client's money. In that sense an architect is a trustee for his client. This is based on trust and respect. If you have a moral and political problem when working on a concrete project, say in a non-democratic country or when forced to design according to unacceptable design guidelines, you should not accept the job or you should give it back. That is probably the most honest and credible critical position that you can have as an architect.
Julian Rose: Questions about power and criticality often play out in very real terms in the architecture of institutions. Artists and architects often seem to have competing desires. How do you create the kind of architecture you want while still giving artists the freedom to produce different kinds of work within the space, and visitors the flexibility to have different viewing experiences?
Jacques Herzog: We have never had a problem with making a building very specific and something that we like it at the same time while leaving enough flexibility and freedom for others to use and play with as they wish. It is a cliché to believe that a strong architectural position excludes or limits the freedom for artists in a museum. Wright's Guggenheim was a nasty place for the artists of his time, but today it works very well since artists have widened and expanded their repertoire. Ideally a museum offers a spatial topography of real difference: it should offer spaces which challenge contemporary artists to create new and unexpected work, at the same time, it should have galleries which work as a background for classical hanging.
Julian Rose: So difference is important in architecture, as a kind of foil to art. Difference is also important in the program of a museum, in terms of providing multiple kinds of space. But I wonder if there is a way in which difference itself becomes generic. Especially in museums for contemporary art, there’s a checklist: “We need a big gallery for installations, and a small gallery for works on paper, and an auditorium for dance, and a black box for performance,” and so on.
How do you inject specificity into your design when there’s such a standardized menu for museums?
Jacques Herzog: There is not just one ideal condition for a particular piece. It is an interesting experience to install and perceive the same work of art under different circumstances: you can hang a painting on a rough concrete wall, or a stone wall, or on wallpaper, under daylight or with artificial light. You can put it in a large gallery or even in a stairwell. It’s important to understand the hanging of art within the context of a whole building—how the proportions, materials, surfaces of the galleries change as people move through space. Hanging is a very complex job, and I always admired those who can do it well. Curators, but also artists... I was especially impressed by the Installation of Giacometti Sculptures - tiny little figures - in the "Musée d'Art Moderne" in Paris in 1991 by Rémy Zaugg. The installation was an artwork in itself without being overwhelming or pretentious at all.
Julian Rose: How do you go about finding the right fit between a work and a space?
Jacques Herzog: It’s not an answer that I can give abstractly....give me two or three objects, a sculpture, a painting, and a drawing or a photograph, we could walk through a building—it doesn’t even need to be a museum, not even art objects—and find ideal locations within a given space for each of these objects. It is an interesting experiment. We all do that all the time, often unconsciously, when we put a glass on the table, move a chair from one side to the other, rearrange a curtain etc.
Julian Rose: And you approach museum design in a similar way, with the collection in mind and in conversation with the curators?
Jacques Herzog: Yes, we try to be simple and basic, forgetting what we believe is right or wrong. Of course we know how a white cube works, how an industrial and rough space could be useful, how playful views into the landscape are and how visitors should be activated to enter the museum and stay for a while even if not immediately attracted by contemporary art. But every place is different, every collection is different, curators change and have new ideas.....
Julian Rose: But what about institutions that don’t have an established collection?
Jacques Herzog: The Perez Art Museum in Miami did not have an established collection when we started the project. But it had a plan. A curatorial plan which informed an architectural plan and vice versa. Based on intense conversations with Terence Riley, and subsequently other curators, we developed a concept with anchor rooms/gravity centers around which a narrative could be laid out, using text, drawings, prints, photography and all kinds of other materials. This concept - still active today - can be more easily completed with loans and newly purchased works than a conventional lay out of rooms. In other words: the difficult beginning of that institution at its new site lead to a very specific architectural and curatorial solution that no other museum has! The concept is also attractive for in situ art works that strengthen the concept of "anchor rooms". Some were realized, some not. We also believe that the building with its gardened topography inside and outside is equally inviting for visitors to hang around and for artists to transform the spaces with temporary installations.
Julian Rose: It’s true that art and architecture are increasingly evolving in tandem. Your design for Tate Modern has been a primary site of this shift. Was it your intention when creating spaces like Turbine Hall or, more recently, the Tanks, to invite artists to explore new forms of production?
Jacques Herzog: We are happy that these spaces have been so successful, because no architect can really predict if it works when finished. Getting back to your earlier question, it’s not simply a matter of designing a large or raw or informal or flexible space. You can have all these things that sound interesting and the museum can still be lousy. Nick Serota was a great director - he invented the program and collaborated almost as an architect in our team. Artists were very happy to be involved, and later they have brought life into that space in such varied and almost contradictory ways: like Doris Salcedo’s piece for the Turbine Hall, the crack in the floor, which I loved, or the Rachel Whiteread piece, which almost filled the space entirely. Bruce Nauman, Olafur Eliasson... every intervention totally different from the other. That is what makes the Turbine Hall a space that people want to go back to and make artists willing contributors to the history of the Turbine Hall Art Project.
Julian Rose: I do wonder if there is a darker side to the popularity of spaces like the Turbine Hall. That project has completely transformed London’s South Bank. Cultural projects in general, and museums in particular, seem to be playing an ever-larger role in urban development, to the point that they have been completely assimilated by developers. Your office is obviously involved in this: You’re working on your first project in Los Angeles, which is in the so-called arts district and includes both galleries and high-end housing. And here in New York you’re working on the transformation of the Batcave, an old warehouse in Gowanus that was a famous artist’s squat, into more formal studio and exhibition spaces. The latter project in particular has been bemoaned as the latest stage of the gentrification of Brooklyn. How do you retain a genuine or organic sense of culture, and produce viable public space, in the face of the forces driving this kind of development?
This question seems particularly difficult today, because I don’t think art practice still offers an alternative model. We began this conversation talking about art offering an appealing sense of
freedom, a way of thinking outside of systems in which architecture is entangled. But now art is, if anything, even further tied up within the market than architecture. I don’t think architects can still look to art as a critical or conceptual model.
Jacques Herzog: An artwork can still be inspiring for anybody willing to look at it and spend time with it. But yes, art has become more of a business than a critical model. In a sense, the situation in art and architecture mirrors the rest of our society. Just like the middle class of citizens is shrinking, what you could call the middle class of artists and of gallerists, is shrinking and eventually disappearing. A few wealthy galleries control the market in America, Europe and Asia. In architecture, developers control the real estate market; they are increasingly building our cities, their logic strictly follows the profitability of the market. As an architect you can hate that. But you can also rethink your role as a designer who not only designs but also influences a project on a programmatic level. There are an increasing number of developers who have understood that iconic architecture is not enough to sell for a good price. Buildings need to be rooted in a city, they need to attract different social groups and offer different programs. Not every Tower will have a public space open for everyone like the Tate Turbine Hall, but commercial buildings will need to offer some kind of free and informal space. The alternative is empty and spooky towers like those glass vitrines surrounding the Tate Modern.
Julian Rose: It’s impossible to imagine Turbine Hall empty. In a sense, the stakes are higher for these so-called participatory spaces than for any other kind of museum architecture, because if you don’t have public engagement, the space can’t survive. So maybe in this brave new world the most important thing is for the architect to refuse to design past a certain point, to avoid over determining their spaces and allow for unexpectedness, adaptation, and interpretation.
Jacques Herzog: Architecture is very archaic, you can see it, smell it, touch it, hear it. Like Nature. It has a sensual side and even encourages you to think. We see Art, but also Architecture, as tools of perception and reflection. Both disciplines can trigger a kind of creative, eventually erotic, energy in the viewer/user. That is an incredibly powerful energy beyond any moralist attitude and stylistic preference. I doubt that this will ever change, not even in a moment of transition towards more commercial mechanisms.