Interview by Theodora Vischer with Jacques Herzog
ThV: You have asked Thomas Ruff to photograph your buildings for this exhibition. You took the first step in this direction when you asked four different photographers to take pictures of your work for the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 1991. By limiting yourselves to one photographer, you accept the fact that the presentation of your architecture might be incomplete and one-sided. What are you driving at by choosing this approach?
JH: Our interests are the same as they were two years ago. That is, we want pictures of our architecture to be taken from another person's point ofview, in other words, independent of our way of looking at things. Our approach defined the building to begin with and now we want an outsider's specific and personal view of it. That's the point of departure. In Ruff's case, the personal standpoint is particularly striking. He builds up an architecture of his own that is juxtaposed with ours. That interests us. Ruff uses various techniques within his work that might be understood as different ways of looking at things, that is, one has the feeling that different photographers took these pictures. Ruff does not have a standardized technique that would force the buildings to conform to a given viewing approach.
ThV: What role does the representation of architecture play for you? You once said in an interview that thinking about the representation of a building is identical to thinking about architecture itself.
JH: It is true that for us similar issues are involved in the representation of architecture and the design of architecture. The making of architecture, its so-called design, is intimately related to the perception of the world. Our projects are closely tied in with how we perceive a site, what we recognize as specifics that can be emphasized through the architectural project. The ensuing feedback in turn lends the project its specific character. In this respect architecture is like an instrument of perception.
Since the architecture we aim for has so much to do with perception, it is essential to involve the perceptual input of the viewer in its representation – whether at exhibitions or in publications. Just as we have not developed a kind of corporate identity or a typical H & de M style, we have not settled on one single valid means of representing our work that we would consider binding. We have to keep finding new forms, just as we do for the building itself.
ThV: You say that you develop a building out of perceiving, absorbing a situation and an environment, and that leads to the concern of finding adequate forms of representation. Astonishingly enough, that issue did not interest architects much until recently. Architecture was communicated by means of floor plans, elevations, in other words, analyzing modes of representation in mathematical and rational terms, and not so much perceptual images.
JH: The traditional, graphic means of representation are the floor plan, the section and the elevation, in other words, projections of three-dimensional data onto a plane, purely technical tools that are useful on the construction site and are now usually digitalized through the computer.They are for professionals; laypeople first have to learn how to read them in order to be able to have even a rudimentary grasp of the building. It's easy for architects; plans have become a kind of meta-language for them. They love their plans so much that they trust them as if they had a reality of their own. You often hear architects talk about the beauty of a floor plan or a section. Models are an obvious means of representation not only in architecture but in other professions, in fact everywhere, in everyday life as well. Even children use them. They are still a useful and
appropriate medium today, especially because they can cover such a wide spectrum. Working models are particularly interesting, that is, models that help to find solutions and therefore show the course of a project's development. Good working models sometimes have an aura that is much more effective in communicating the architectural idea than a perfectly detailed replica of future structures. The latter is required for political models, in other words, models that are intended to target a specific public, to make the building look attractive to the contractor, for instance, or the voting public. They're usually annoying and embarrassing because they don't do justice to the most basic requirements of material and scale. I think of them as bonsai architecture.
ThV: What are the implications of your no longer being able to accept the purely rational approach? It does have certain advantages, such as providing information about the volume of the building, that is more precise than in a photograph. On the other hand, it can only convey quantifiable data but not the atmosphere or mood of a building. Could your decision to seek new modes of representation be considered typical of the times?
JH: Instead of drawing in perspective, whose artistic effect we have always found questionable, we started experimenting with video at the end of the seventies. The simplest thing was to make models out of cardboard or plastic, onto which we pasted photographs from magazines. We then made video stills of them. The results were astonishingly realistic and completely different from conventional pictures made by architects. There was a cinematic touch to them that appealed to us because it made our projects look like real buildings that could have been the setting for a film. The pictures had an atmosphere that was still as compelling and “artistic” as any drawing made by an architect in those days, even though we were able to manipulate them. They were an ideal complement to technical documents, plans.
Today you can use video or photographs in conjunction with three-dimensional computer drawings; the computer is helpful and interesting because it does not restrict viewers or designers to one standpoint; you can see things from countless angles. The ideal computer image is not one single picture but a series of pictures that complement and relativize each other. With the computer, our eyes can feel their way around the designed/pictured item.
ThV: Looking back at your works and designs over the past years, one gets the impression that you have subordinated volume to facade, that is, to surfaces. In Schwarz Park, for example, volume was still an important factor, partially due to the on-site situation, whereas in buildings like the Ricola warehouse in Mulhouse or the library of the Université de Jussieu in Paris, it seems as if the structure itself had almost dissolved.
JH: There are projects that seem to consist almost entirely of surfaces as if there were practically no volume to them, no interior space, but no conventionally defined exterior space either – for instance, the Blois Cultural Center. Then there are projects that insist on volume – both inside and out – by taking up an almost topographical position in urban architecture.
But we have certainly not progressed from a confrontation with space to an exclusive concentration on surfaces. Our work does not follow a linear progression but deals rather with several themes that run parallel and dovetail with each other as well. Such distinct strategies may even be closely related. In fact, I wonder if one can really make a distinction between working spatially or only in terms of surface.
ThV: At the moment I don't see the proximity between the two approaches. The Stone House, Tavole, for example, is a structure in which body and surface seem to be in perfect harmony. But the facade that you designed for the library in Paris or the copper bands that wind around the transformer station clearly give priority to surface.
JH: Your assessment of these projects may be quite right at first sight. But closer study reveals that even the Stone House in Tavole, though seemingly such a solid body in the landscape, cannot be definitely grasped volumetrically. A concrete grid subdivides the building and supports the stone-filled outside walls. But the concrete frame does not extend to the corners to mark the boundary between one wall and the next. This could never happen in a classicist building. Here, however, the walls of the cubical structure move seamlessly, as it were, from one side of the building to the next. The surfaces of the cube – masonry without mortar, consisting of local stones – almost seem to be camouflaged in this landscape of stones and trees. Basically, the house is not designed as a cube-shaped body, a structure set off against the landscape, but rather as a section of the landscape, like a piece of it that has been stacked up into a wall. So we're dealing with a planar concept after all.
The Jussieu university library in Paris has the opposite effect; you first see the building as facade and only later as a three-dimensional structure. The facade, facing the square, consists of pictures (portraits of writers and scientists) and digital displays (statements made by these authors and scientists). You enter the library through this facade, an open-stack library, several stories high. The stories are homogeneous, that is, people and books everywhere, with few subdivisions and no hierarchically separated rooms – as opposed to old libraries that used to make a strict distinction between the stacks and the reading rooms. This large open-stack library for one of the most important universities in Paris – we thought of it as a giant brain, as a compact, dense space whose volume is not conspicuous from the outside but very tangible when you are inside. To this end, we designed a series of interior courtyards, useful for the spatial organization of the interior but barely perceptible from outside. So the library certainly is a dimensional structure, consisting of layers (linked to each other through their content). You reach the endless shelves of books and tables used by reading and seeking people by passing through the mental and spatial layer of pictures and statements on the facade. This design illustrates that you penetrate a surface without really ever leaving it behind, that is, you never really walk into a room because you are essentially always in a kind of shell. But this shell or surface has depth, has space, which can be formed in different ways – and ultimately entails a very spatial way of thinking.
ThV: But it still seems to be a more spatial/visual rather than spatial/constructive approach.
JH: Or than a traditional spatial approach, which relied much more on a hierarchical sequence of rooms. The new approach to space has taken hold in our daily lives because people no longer move about in these hierarchical spatial (and social) structures as they used to. Space is still a fundamental human experience and one of the most important means of architectural expression but there are just different ways of dealing with it.
ThV: Your comments about a shift in the understanding of space, which explains your approach to the surfaces of buildings, are very interesting. But certain “shells” do convey the impression of an outspoken, self-contained independence, apart from the body of the building. The question arises to what extent architecture is conceived for the media – especially with the proliferation of magazines, books, exhibitions on architecture. Architecture has in fact been popularized. Does the presence of the media influence the design of your buildings?
JH: We have never developed our buildings and projects with a view to their medial communicability; there was never a design strategy of that kind. The strong emphasis on processes of perception that characterizes our architecture is certainly related to the age in which we live and work; it is an architecture produced today in an age of communication, not in an age of traditions and even less in the more recent modern age of utopias that inspired the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
In some of our projects we incorporate photographed pictures and texts as architectural means of expression. Words and pictures of this kind are obviously used by the media as well. But our use of “nonarchitectural” devices is not intended to make reference to the media. On the contrary, we want to see if we can use lettering and images as building materials in the same way as we would use bricks, concrete or glass.
ThV: You don't mount billboards as such on a facade, but rather invest them with a different meaning by converting them into architectural elements.
JH: The fact is that the sense of advertising is almost destroyed and that the photographic image acts exactly like a brick or a stone or a concrete wall, like an ordinary building material.
ThV: But why the need to use words and pictures at all?
JH: They interest us because they have not been exhausted as building materials. Our use of pictures and lettering changes with each project. In most of the projects these essentially nonarchitectural elements gradually grew in significance until they became indispensable, in fact, the basic building material. Take, for example, the photographically reproduced icons engraved on translucent marble panels, of which the entire interior of an orthodox church was to be constructed.
Another illustration is the digital lettering on the cultural center in Blois that actually clads the building. Or the printed, polycarbon facade of the Ricola factory in Mulhouse, France that looks from the outside like the lining of an open box, like the liaison, as it were, between the public space outdoors and the working space indoors. We are always looking for building materials for our projects – no holds barred. We do not restrict ourselves to familiar architectural terrain. But it is vital for such traditionally nonarchitectural elements to be embedded in the entire project. They have to have a conceptual cogency that makes them seem self-evident; a wall with photographed motifs should seem as natural as a brick wall.
ThV: In what way do Thomas Ruff's photographs tie in with your intentions or your aesthetics? Why do you think his work is so compatible with your architecture?
JH: We were fascinated by Ruff's “house” series from the start. Why? They're anonymous, maybe even ugly houses and yet they're still beautiful; there is something special about them. They are real individuals and as such reminiscent of his portraits, which he also produces in series.
But in comparison to these matter-of-fact portraits of people and houses, his other pictures, the night pictures and the newspaper pictures, seem almost spectacular. Although they also show ordinary things, Ruff's gaze makes them spectacular, unique. Shot with a camera developed for military purposes, the night pictures draw the depicted objects out of the darkness and up close to the viewer from a great distance and surround them with a greenish aura. A similar effect is achieved in the newspaper pictures by enlarging them and eliminating their news context.
The anonymity and banality of Ruff's subject matter, which he succeeds in making beautiful and exceptional, certainly has something to do with our own buildings and our understanding of architecture. Architecture like contemporary art or films can really be seen only by making a perceptual effort. Otherwise you just walk past it, which – by the way – we find perfectly acceptable as well. If you don't want to get involved with a building, you don't have to. It will never exert optical or any other kind of pressure.