Art / Architecture
Alejandro Zaera: Art seems to be a constant reference within your discourse. How would you define the relationships between art and architecture?
Jacques Herzog: What is art? What is architecture? In fact, we are very interested in learning what architecture is, in finding out about today’s possibilities for architecture and urbanism, in what these disciplines can contribute to everyday life, to everyone’s life. In looking at architecture this way, art becomes very important because, in the past few decades, it has developed more interesting strategies, it has attracted more interesting and creative people than the field of architecture. These are people who are more open to research, people who are more interested in finding out something than in defending something.
We never wanted our architectural works to be seen as artworks. We have always thought of them as part of the city, i.e. as part of something subjected to change, with or without our participation. The fact that we frequently collaborate with artists or scientists doesn't transform our architecture into artworks either. It may sound paradoxical to you when I say that the art-like character of many of our buildings arises from the very fact that they are so architectural, that, after the whole design and thought process they go through in our office, they are so full of architectural energy.
A.Z.: Is not architecture the ideal field for the development of an artistic program, after artists have declared – in the ‘60s that art is only meaningful when it becomes part of everyday life?
J.H.: Most of our collaborations with artists, especially with Rémy Zaugg who is more of a theorist than a painter, are collaborations in which we try to find contemporary strategies and forms for operating in cities and in public buildings (e.g. the Dijon Campus, the urban study of Basel’s tri-national agglomeration, and the project for Museums of the 20th century in Munich) rather than aesthetic discussions. We also feel that many contemporary artists share this interest in participating and working in public space. To them, too, it offers the possibility of developing ideas on a large scale, on a city scale which, seen historically, has always been a challenge to artists. Some of them are very interesting partners who have themselves thought about architecture long before they collaborated with an architect. If our Paris Jussieu library project had been realized, we would have collaborated with the German painter Gerhard Richter whose early work included models for large interiors and even large scale architecture.
A.Z.: Within your research on the limits of architecture, do you see the architectural discipline moving from a more technical knowledge towards a more artistic one, let’s say of creating “meaningful environments”? Which will be artists’ and architects’ positions within the process of shaping the environment?
J.H.: At present, a few facts can be registered. Even when collaborating on public space projects, artists always return to their studios to do the traditional work of writing, painting, filming, etc., i.e. they do research work enabling them to come back out again to work in the city. Architects are always working in and on and with the city. They cannot escape. It is especially the enormous pressure and increasing constraints in realizing buildings, especially large buildings, that they cannot escape. An architect who is unable to set up a perfect professional organization in order to face all of these complex problems cannot be considered as a contemporary architect since increasing difficulties are part of today's architecture. Such difficulties are an
inevitable, almost essential expression of today's life and culture. Any artistic architectural idea is worthless, even ridiculous, if it cannot be expressed within the regular building process. But because it is so important and there is such a need to “create meaningful space”, as you call it, architects must develop their talent not only to create and design these spaces, but also to promote them, to argue for them in order to allow them to become a possible and necessary part of the process of realization. We have experienced this in recent projects such as the SUVA Building, for which we developed a completely new facade engineering method, and in our proposal for the copper bands of a signal box that nobody at all believed would work either technically or economically.
Natural / Artificial
A.Z.: Your discourse frequently refers also to nature. How do you articulate your interest in the artistic/artificial with your concern with the natural processes?
J.H.: Rather than seeing artificial and natural processes as opposed to each other, we see them as one thing, as a continuity of things. We no longer believe that nature and society, or nature and the city, are dialectically opposing systems. If we say nature, we mean biological, chemical and physical processes, processes we can try to describe in order to understand “nature”. Too, we mean artificial and artistic processes we can operate in order to understand our own natures, our perception and sensation of nature and our effect on and changing of nature.
We have learned much from reading about chemical processes and crystallographic descriptions that compare microstructures, i.e. “invisible” structures such as atomic grids of materials, to the “visible” aspects and qualities these materials or substances reveal to us in everyday life. We have put together some thoughts on this in a text we titled “The Hidden Geometry of Nature” (Part of this text was published in Wilfried Wang, H&deM, Zurich: Artemis Studiopaperback, 1992). We were curious about knowing more about things that, although invisible to the naked eye, are becoming extremely effective and that, ultimately, are responsible for such things as the shape, color or physical stability of an object. For example, largely due to the differing mineral qualities of their (invisible) crystallographic structures, a mountain of granite takes on another shape than a mountain of limestone does. There is a link between the visible and the invisible worlds. Although people constantly separate them, they are one thing. Even today, most people and architects take “reality” for something they can see or take into their hands. They cannot or do not want to accept the existence of further realities, either within natural or artificial objects. This fact has major consequences not only for the way in which architects conceive their architecture, but for their whole economic and ecological impact on our society.
Culture / Nature
A.Z.: It is intriguing that belonging to the generation educated in the sixties you tend to refer more to the natural sciences than to social theory,…
J.H.: Sociological and psychological processes are analogous to natural processes. They can also be analogous to artificial, e.g. artistic processes. Joseph Beuys, whom we assisted on his Feuerstätte 2 installation in Basel in 1977, focused on this analogy. His work is exemplary in making the relationships between seemingly disparate things visible, e.g. the shape and the behavior of gas compared to a crowd of people or the confrontation and combination of copper and iron symbolizing female and male qualities.
A.Z.: Would you suscribe a kind of “Marcusian” continuity between the natural and the cultural/artificial, where architecture and planning, act as mediators?
J.H.: Continuity is not a bad word for what we think links natural and social/artificial and cultural processes. In our projects, we try to enhance and develop such continuity. This method can be viewed as a search for codes adapting both natural and cultural information.
A.Z.: But doesn't your “naturalism” relate to a certain “essentialism” or “idealism” that is nearly parallel to Rossi's approach to the urban entity?
J.H.: We are not “naturalists”! The word naturalism smacks of naturalist imagery or a back-to-nature mentality! Since our first sketches, our work has always been conceptual rather than nostalgic or stylistic. While our conceptual and strategic way of working is also evident in our buildings, it is becoming more radical and more politically effective in large scale city planning. Urban planning is actually the field of activity in which we would most like to participate and take influence on in the future. Our most recent examples are our proposals for the Stuttgart agglomeration, our project for Expo 2000 in Hannover, and our urban study for Basel's tri-national agglomeration. The first project we undertook of this kind was the Diagonal Competition in Barcelona in which we proposed a pond system that worked as a biological water purification plant while simultaneously serving as a public garden. Nobody understood that project at the time. Many people took it to be an ecological ideal and not an urban planning strategy intended to solve one of Barcelona's main problems, that of the missing relationship between the city and the ocean. In the past few years we have welcomed the increased activity of landscape designers in France and Switzerland who have suggested treating city and landscape in a new, more integrated way.
Returning to your suggestion of naturalism or typological essentialism, I can tell you that we are so accustomed to working under the tough conditions delineated by today's building companies and contractors that we reject all naive romantic dreams of harmony and perfection. On the other hand, we try to infiltrate their pragmatism with a new language – this is our project – and to transform their language into this new language.
A.Z.: In looking at some of your projects, especially your proposal for the Berlin Tiergarten, architecture seems to be a kind of “artificial nature” that does not necessarily follow the changes in social space but becomes more like a valley or, in the case of the Tiergarten, like mountains to be “colonized”, because they have a certain formal autonomy towards functional constraints…
J.H.: Of course they follow social change. They do nothing but that! Actually, we have always thought of these four huge buildings as a kind of artificial nature, as organisms rather than as buildings. Why organisms? We wanted the life occurring inside them to be their outside architectural expression. We wanted this concept of the visualization of a constantly changing building to be more strongly and more directly apparent than in all previous similar attempts. The project radicalizes a specific architectural position. It approaches the artistic position held by Rémy Zaugg, who collaborated with us on this project. This position makes the position of the architect disappear and shifts the position of the author toward the people inside the building and toward the people who perceive the building from the outside. The text accompanying the project says, “The design of the building is not the architectural design in which the architect or the artist has invested. Nor is it the design in which the economist, the engineer or the statistician have invested. It is the design in which the perceiver has invested.”
This project is light years away from being a cynical commentary on urbanism. It has nothing to do with Hilberseimer’s tabula rasa either, since the four buildings are located within the existing quarters of a site and link each other. Rather, the buildings express our preference for anonymous architectural quality that leaves enough space for people to express themselves. The inscriptions on the facades are a mixture of statements that come from observation of the building from the outside, just as a landscape or a painting (dark green, warm spot, zone of bright light, etc.) is observed, and of messages sent from private people and companies from the inside of the building to the city.
A.Z.: Does this mean that for you the material structure of a building is to some extent a register of the social structure that produces it and uses it?
J.H.: Some architects are more interested in surfaces and forms, others are more involved with interior space or with light. But architecture is always for people to live and work in. Architecture is a kind of “social sculpture”, as Beuys would say. Architecture is how people use it, how they move, where they enter and leave it, where they put their furniture. These are the kind of statements we were taught by our professors at the beginning of our studies at the ETH in the early 70s when sociology was taking command in European architectural schools. Architecture was being reduced to social enquiries and to building structures in which space and open surfaces could be filled in like drawers. Hertzberger's architecture is surely one of the most significant expressions of the ideas of this period.
A contrary position was held by Aldo Rossi, who came to teach at the ETH after we had listened for two years to purely sociological and psychological courses. As students, we were fascinated by this charismatic person who told us that architecture is only and always architecture, that social and psychological disciplines can be no substitute for it. This was a shock to us after all the years in which drawing and “artistic approaches” to architecture were practically forbidden by the severe guardians of the Marxist student movement. Rossi, who was himself considered a Marxist and whose architectural theories were therefore acceptable to us, immediately replaced the democratic planning games and the interviewing of apartment-renters and other social groups with his architectural typologies, with the permanency of monuments, with “l'architettura della città”.
Now you can ask yourself which is the better strategy, which is more adequate today, which is more “social”? We have been learned from both of these cultures, if we may call them that. We can still see advantages to both of them. We like the openness of planning processes and the use of “non-architectural” influences, but we also like the idea of types and the study of the city. Still, we think that both ways pose problems today because they are either too naive or too dogmatic, based too much on ideology. We certainly don't think that any social improvement or any improvement on the quality of everyday life can be better achieved by one or the other strategy.
Global / Local
A.Z.: Your urban planning projects seem to look for a central argument to articulate onto, and insist on the physical, material structure of the city. To what extent do you think that we can still aim for this kind of unified urban concept, a “spatial fix”, within a culture characterized by fragmentation and instability? Do you think it is still possible to focus on the physical, topographical, territorial – the “natural” – in the planning of urban structures?
J.H.: We are based in Basel, a city characterized by its fragmented heterogeneous urbanism and its tri national agglomeration. The large industrial buildings of the powerful chemical industries stand next to coherent medieval structures and 19th and 20th-century upper middle class neighborhoods. The urban breaks are indeed very abrupt. This is sort of our “home feeling”. Other cities, especially in southern Europe and France, are, perhaps, more homogenous, but cities all over Europe are less and less frequently organized by an overall planning scheme. Now, what should be done? Fragmentation versus an overall idea? From the way you ask the question, you seem to believe that it is still possible to act on a wide range of different architectural and urban positions! In fact, the question is what can be done at all? The only successful strategy is to find out what is politically and economically relevant and what still maintains some innovative power in working as a real contribution for future cities.
Our proposals for Dijon, Stuttgart, Hannover and Basel are obviously very different from each other because the problems and the contexts are different. But all of them include both overall ideas, as you call them, as well as strategies for pieces or fragments only. We don't work on the fragmentation of the city. Since it is already inevitable, we don't try to enhance it. Fragmentarily is the way cities are growing. In away, it is in
their “nature” to grow by fragmentation and iteration, We try to find out, to “read”, which way the city wants to go, where its building structure is going to be dense or loose, if there are any open spaces that can be retained or enlarged, where the body of the city is “hot or almost febrile” and where it remains in a kind of untouched state. These things are interesting to discover and to reinforce and work out more clearly in a project. This is a way to let “specific” places become reality.
A.Z.: Is your way of being “specific” articulated through the development of local qualities, on the “context”? Don't you think that it would be also feasible to produce a “local flavor” made out of “foreign” components?
J.H.: The urban context is the main issue because it is what you find when you go somewhere. It is where and how people live. So of course you have to deal strongly with context if you are planning to do urban intervention today! But what is “context”? The word means something different to almost every architect. As we have mentioned, to Aldo Rossi it may be typological structure; to Hertzberger it may be social behavior; to Venturi it is, perhaps, billboards; to some Deconstructivist architect, it may be the challenge of chaos. Architects always need something to hold on to and they take “context” as something predetermined to argue with, to justify their urban strategy.
In most of our urban projects we have tried to hold back on large gestures. Rather, we try to push the local qualities, to make them more apparent, more specific. In most cities we have found a lack of interest in money for and political commitment to public space, e.g. green spaces, boulevards and parks that could run through cities, linking and separating different areas. What we have always admired in cities like Paris, Madrid, or even Manhattan is the specific character of their large public spaces rather than their important buildings. Maybe it is because we so badly need jogging that we love cities with large public spaces or with green spaces linked like a system of artificial rivers so much. In most of our urban proposals we tried to integrate this kind of “flowing” public space. We find it more appropriate to contemporary life than the interrupted rhythm of traditional plazas.
Phenomenological / Ontological
A.Z.: You have stated that one of your goals is to acquire the “highest ontological state of matter”, a certain “spiritual quality” for the material organizations that has vanished from contemporary material culture, expelled by the raise of utilitarian values. You have manifested an interest for the “invisible”; your work avoids perspectives to structure itself from schemes and construction; your buildings are not accessible through spatial sequences but rather through moments of a synthetic experience. Could your work be classified as “essentialist” or “ontological” in opposition to the more “phenomenological” approach that many contemporary architectures are putting forward?
J.H.: Our approach is phenomenological! All that we have ever designed comes from observation and description. All that we have ever done has been found on the street! All of our projects are products of our perceptions projected onto objects! This is also the reason why our buildings always look so different from each other. Since we turn our heads in different directions, the buildings arise from other perceptions. We work by observing phenomena!
Of course you can also find other more stable and recurring elements in our work. These elements come up again and again like constants in a mathematical equation or, to go back to natural processes, like attractors. Can these architectural attractors, e.g. shape attractors, material attractors or space attractors be understood as ontological categories in an architect's work? Does the fact that these attractors can be found in one's work mean that the work is basically ontological rather than phenomenological? We don't really think that such classifications are helpful to the better understanding of our work. In all interesting coherent work you can find many influences and differing, sometimes paradoxical qualities, stable elements and changing elements. This is the same for an artist, a filmmaker, a writer, or even an architect.
By “ontological state of matter” we mean objects (See H&deM, “The Hidden Geometry of Nature”) within various contexts, natural objects, such as the stone in the talus at the base of the Himalayas, or artificial objects, such as a set of screws holding an airplane door in place, or a fleck of green color in an artist's painting. By themselves, objects do not mean anything. Their physical presence alone doesn't make them alive. In fact, they do not even exist. They need their natural or artificial context to let them be seen in a specific way so that they can become objects of our perception, so that they can be named, so that they are “being”.
Tradition / Change
A.Z.: What is your relationship to your cultural environment? Which is the relationship between your work and the Swiss culture?
J.H.: There is no such thing as Swiss culture with a national identity and a historical background like German, French or Spanish culture. Swiss artists, architects and writers can hardly be seen in national or local contexts in the way that the artists of the Die Brücke or Der Blaue Reiter groups or the Bauhaus architects represent Germany or the AA architects represent London. Although the ETH in Zurich is a strong and important cultural focus for a young architectural student and although Basel has always had a strong impact on our work due to its incredibly rich offerings in the field of contemporary culture, we never felt any special affinity to a cultural identity that is specifically Swiss. On the contrary, we always liked Basel because it is located at the intersection of three countries and not because its historic center is Swiss. Therefore we have found the lack of a strong cultural identity something liberating. We think you can find many cultural influences in our work because the specific character of the project has always been more important to us than any specific style of one school or a “personal style”. Contemporary architects with a typical personal style can sell their products better during a certain period of time because their buildings work like corporate identity products. After a while you can't stand them anymore because of the biographical or regional spirit that becomes more evident once the spirit of the times has passed.
A.Z.: After this rejection of your local identity as an operative instrument, which is your attitude towards tradition?
J.H.: Something like tradition doesn't exist anymore. This is not only true in architecture but in most areas of our culture. An architect cannot base his work on traditional information anymore. This means that all the security and self-evidence architectural work in traditional cultures used to have has vanished. An architect has to base his work on something else, something he must bring to the project. But what? Ten or twenty years ago, Modernism was still hoping for a new modern tradition and Postmodernism offered to remake imagery from past eras. But today making an object is a new problem each time. What is a theater? What does a window look like? How should a railway engine depot or even such a simple thing as an office building look?
We don't mourn this lack of tradition because it opens up new, previously non-existent possibilities in architecture. We like to take advantage of the possibilities offered by new materials and new tools such as video and computers. This doesn't imply a distaste for traditional objects. We love traditional architecture – Swiss mountain houses as well as Japanese or Arab courtyard buildings. This architecture can tell us so many secrets if we are willing to listen to and are able to deal with the fascination emanating from these buildings. But we should be aware of the forces at work in the very age in which we live. There is no such thing as timeless values. Time is a reality; time is part of the project. Time changes, not very fast, but with a constant and invisible rhythm. Perhaps architects are not so aware of time because they cannot see it. Filmmakers and writers can express “time”, can use it as a working tool.
Eighties / Nineties
A.Z.: In your statement of time as a building material, and your negation of tradition as an operative instrument today, a consciousness of the age you work in as a decisive factor is implied. How do you understand the present moment and how does it influences your working method?
J.H.: Times are changing. What will the change in architecture be? The 1990s will be a different period than the 1980s. The early 80s were an almost Baroque period with a lot of money invading the market. Art brought astonishing prices and that produced a euphoric growth of gallery spaces and museums in which both the objects displayed and the buildings themselves were done in picturesque styles. Like the era of the 60s, anything seemed possible and leading architects outdid each other in Mannerist, Hightech and Deconstructivist exercises. In this, the leading architecture of the past few years has been reminiscent
of Art Deco. Many cities and enthusiastic politicians rivaled each other by pumping a lot of money into their architectural projects. Many of these enthusiastic projects are now stuck, due not only to economic strictures, but also to the fact that the whole spirit of the era of the 1980s has been affected by crisis.
A.Z.: So, what is your prognosis for the 1990s, for the years in which we are all living and working?
J.H.: We see the 1990s as a period in which everything will become even more uncertain, more unstable. The conditions under which you work have to be redefined on an almost daily basis. Clients' decisions are systematically made very late, as if they were waiting for some additional information from an un expected source. Decision-making processes have become even more complex. This puts you in a state of constant uncertainty, a state that also implies constant openness. The globalization of the economy allows investors to move not only capital but also production processes from here to anywhere with unprecedented ease. We have seen this happen recently with some of our clients. The amazing interesting thing we have come to see is that the economic world is not a world of rationalism and well-calculated logical strategies. Rather, it is like a market in which psychological and coincidental aspects can be decisive!
Order / Chaos
A.Z.: In your description of contemporary building processes, you mentioned chaos, uncertainty, complexity,… How are these translated into architecture? How do you face this chaotic reality in the strategies of your practice?
J.H.: We think that with our conceptual approach to architectural problems we can face this chaotic reality more easily than other architects with, let's say, a more stylistic, individual approach. One example is the railway depot that we have been developing over the years with a very complex program and a client with an even more complex structure. Since the very first sketches, we have been working on an architectural concept that builds up small, very simple units that can be added or taken away and added again like a children's game and which is, in all these different states of growth, a real building, an entity and not a coincidental addition of elements. This concept was so strong that it broke through all technical, economical and irrational arguments. However, the issue we took on in its conception was neither abstract nor especially functional. It was the simple and beautiful image of rails.
A.Z.: Do you recognize a certain scaleless quality in your work, a process of self-similarity in which on every scale of the project one is faced with analogous types of material organizations? Is this, perhaps, the kind of
operation that you described in “The Hidden Geometry of Nature”?
J.H.: We like buildings to question the scale of their neighborhoods. What is big or small? Why do you think something is really long or rather short? Examples of such investigations of scale are the Ricola storage building and the copper-clad signal box. Our buildings are not without scale but they do not affirm in advance what one might know about or expect from scale.
Computers have no scale. They calculate, they compute endless amounts of information and at no point in this endless line does this information have any “meaning” other than that at another point. But you can, of course, generate programs that work like organic structures, generating self-similar details by iteration. This experience with computers is very interesting for our work. It helps us develop the details of a building in this way, i.e. with self-similar images. And this structural analogy (self-similarity) between organic and built structures is definitely something we became familiar with and learned to describe around 1984 when we started working on the text of “The Hidden Geometry of Nature”. Designing and detailing a building thus becomes a mental trip into the interior of a building. The exterior becomes like the interior. The surface becomes spatial. The surface becomes “attractive”. It attracts you while you work on it as a designer. You mentally penetrate the building in order to know what the building is going to be like.
Body / Surface
A.Z.: You have repeatedly insisted on the surface of an object as one of your favourite subjects. In your work, that concern becomes quite evident in several ways. In many of your projects, – the house in Tavole, the house in the Hebelstrasse, the Schwitter building, the Gallery Goetz, the Ricola buildings –, the envelope tends to be linked to the loadbearing structure. Since the envelope provides the “face” of the buildings, it seems that their erotic aura rely, to a large extent, on their purely physical qualities, as weight, texture, … rather than on their compositional features. Can you elucidate the relationship between the surface and the body of your buildings?
J.H.: We think that the surfaces of a building should always be linked to what happens inside of a building. How this link is going to occur is the architect's business. The concept of linking can mean joining materials and building structures as well as separating them or even intentionally cutting them off. In our projects we have always tried to establish as many links as possible between the different systems at work. Our best projects are the ones in which the visibility of such links has been reduced to zero, in which the links have become so numerous that you don't “see” them anymore. Everything then becomes almost self-evident. Such architecture approaches the smells and rock music that the musician Brian Eno has compared for their ability to first affect people physically and emotionally before they are intellectually aware of what is going on.
We also think that good architecture has always respected, i.e. has always worked out, a concept for the relationship between inside and outside. Some contemporary architects, such as Rem Koolhaas, seem to intentionally neglect this relationship. But in his projects for the Media Center in Karlsruhe and for the Grande Bibliothèque in Paris we especially like the way he deals with inside and outside. In both buildings, the outside looks so different from what is inside and yet the image of each building can be felt as a whole!
Matter / Sign
A.Z.: In many of your projects, – the Museums of the 20th Century in Munich, the Blois Cultural Center, the Greek Orthodox Church, the SUVA Building and the Paris Jussieu Library –, the envelope have become a screen onto which texts and images are projected or silk-screened onto the surface. How do you articulate these two ways of operating on the surface, one through the physical, material qualities, and the other through the layering of texts and images?
J.H.: In order to make walls, floors and whole buildings we need construction material. So we take whatever is available – bricks and concrete, stone and wood, metals and glass, words and images, colors and smells. This is no joke! Since our work began, we have always tried to extend and enlarge the realm of architecture, to try to understand what “architecture” is. This kind of working method becomes very obvious if you look at
our very first projects, such as the Blue House of 1979 in which we used pure ultramarine blue (Yves Klein blue) color pigment to destabilize the building's brick walls or the piece we installed at the Galerie Stampa in Basel where we built spaces with asphalt and placed inscriptions on the walls.
Whatever material we use to make a building, we are mainly looking for a specific encounter between the building and the material. The material is there to define the building but the building, to an equal degree, is there to show the stuff it is done with, to make the material “visible”. Seen in this way, there is absolutely no difference between the stone walls of our house in Tavole and the text facades of the Blois Cultural Center. In both cases we push the material we use to an extreme to show it dismantled from any other function than “being”. That is why the stones have such an incredibly physical power while the texts for Blois “destroy” the building's structure in building up their own structure, the structure of moving letters and their meaning.
We don't classify materials. We don't prefer one to the other. Even if many of our recent projects have been done with different treatments (silk-screen techniques) on glass, we are always open to stone, wood or whatever. Curiously, some architects think that glass is the ultimate contemporary material. We don't think any material is more “contemporary” than any other. If you look at buildings by Eduard Souto de Moura or Roger Diener – both are working with so-called traditional materials – you will find a response to the contemporary city just as complex and interesting as proposals put forth by any leading glass specialist. To return to art one last time, nobody would think that a video artist like Gary Hill or Bill Viola is more contemporary than a painter or sculptor like Richard Serra or Jeff Koons! Comparably, we reject classifications in architecture and we keep ourselves open to approach architecture in as many ways as we can.