Herzog & de Meuron

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron interviewed by Stanislaus von Moos
Basel, location and operational field for the architects Herzog and de Meuron, is in many respects an atypical Swiss city. First of all, it is a border city. Like nowhere else in this small country, European air wafts in from the plains of Baden and the Alsace. The showplace of an erratic industrial expansion thanks to its location at the bend of the Rhine as well as to its blossoming humanistic tradition of science and culture since the Renaissance. Both factors are responsible, for example, for Basel’s Art Museum, which is not only one of the most important in Europe, but one in which the presentation of avant-garde art has long been tradition.

Architecturally speaking, it is the wreckage of the urban landscape that strikes the visitor as soon as he leaves the train station. Nothing here of the closed unity (deceptive as it may be) of Bern’s city center for example. A confusion of streets, over and underpasses, banking and administration towers, as well as the cleaned-up leftover chocolate or marzipan candy old town in between (such as the Rittergasse near the Cathedral), where the architects Herzog and de Meuron’s office is located.

There is also a tradition of modern architecture in Basel. It extends from Karl Moser’s famous Antonius Church (1925-27) to Hannes Meyer’s bold unrealized project for the Peterschule with its suspended recess area or the Eglisee settlement as a Swiss Werkbund development (1929), on the one hand, and numerous well-kept residential, industrial and administrative buildings by important modern architects of the “Second Guard”: O.R. Salvisberg, Armin Meili and Hermann Baur. Basel, its wreckage, and the stimulating presence of a substantial architectural heritage of the period between the two world wars are the framework for Herzog and de Meuron’s work. They are also the point of departure for this conversation.

Stanislaus von Moos: Two things stuck in my mind from our first meeting. At the time we spoke about the characteristic wreckage of the urban landscape in Basel and I noticed that you talked about it in the same way that you would speak of a pastoral landscape that you liked, i.e. without anger. Further, we looked at buildings from the Modern Movement of the 1920s and ’30s and what surprised me was that you seemed to have much more direct relationship to those realized by the “Second Guard” of the Modern Movement, the well made, technically elaborate realizations of pragmatists such as Salvisberg, Meili or Hermann Baur in the 1940s, than to those classics of Neues Bauen.

Herzog & de Meuron: This pragmatic position, as you call it, in the architecture of the 1930s fascinates us today with its discreet, somewhat sad, and yet sober presence in the city. This aura arises from the fact that this architecture is stamped on one hand with the bold formal details of the Neues Bauen and flirts with the idea of the modern metropolis, whereas, on the other hand, it displays the “virtues” of plain, restrained Swiss mediocrity.

Thus, the fascination lies precisely in this non-definitive attitude between conformity and rebellion, which was for architects at that time not a conscious position, but, as we think, the consequence of a lack of personality and definitive artistic commitment.

Stanislaus von Moos: In fact, what we loved in Salvisberg when we “discovered” him seven or eight years ago was the “ordinary” character of this architecture and its simultaneous unobstrusive, and precisely for this reason, convincing high quality. The exhibition showing at the present time also put a lid on my excitement. What appeared to us to be “ordinary” (as an attitude) then and a refreshing contrast to the “originality fetishism” of the “quality architecture” of the late seventies, finally appears to be to a large degree a simple steering towards Swiss mediocrity.

Herzog & de Meuron: In relation to our work we are interested in precisely this non-definitiveness, which can also be understood as a kind of insidiousness or double standard, as a metaphor for today’s city and its inhabitants, their social cohabitation, the difficulties of couple relationships, perhaps too simply as the expression of insecurity and the impossibility of expressing a social Utopia with a formal architectural canon as was attempted today through the forced Mannerism of a few recognized protagonists of the so-called Post-Modern Movement. In your work I see something of a continuation of this Utopian tradition, admittedly related to and combined with even very decidedly pragmatic houses.

Stanislaus von Moos: On the one hand, you make a strong point of working with the residential function, with the near-at-hand, the everyday quality of life (especially in the house at Dagmersellen, which is very peaceful). On the other hand, there are elements of a more fundamental character which point to a dimension which the early classical Modern Movement possessed and which the pragmatic Modern style of Meili, Salvisberg and Baur no longer had.

Surface, Appearance and Subliminal Injury
Herzog & de Meuron: The “peacefulness” which you mention regarding the veterinarian’s house in Dagmersellen is a theme that interested us in this case and for this place – Dagmersellen – a rather mediocre village on the road from Basel to Lucerne; peacefulness and familiarity; hidden-away and well-integrated.

We tried to build a house which, on the one hand, “approached” the neighboring houses which were of the same period (and which on their part referred to the supposed style of the area). At the same time we wanted to let the fallaciousness of such conformity be felt.

This corresponds to a kind of a dramaturgy which we have seen in the film medium and which comes close to our own preoccupations as architects. Hitchcock spins normal daily patterns of activity, familiar architecture and inconspicuous people into an inextricable net of entanglements and constraints. Our sensibility for the reality of daily life is related to these images of a surface appearance and a subliminal injury.

To use the example of the veterinarian’s house at Dagmersellen once again: the use of brown tiles, brown-painted beams and a black/brown/ochre-colored garage façade is on the one hand related to the neighboring buildings and, on the other hand, a commentary, a kind of questioning: Why this brown paint, this seeming similarity to wood, to naturalness and “intact relationships” between culture and nature? The brown garage façade is clearly recognizable from close up as paint, as a bad imitation of wood and is nonetheless integrated into the buildings of the area at further distancing.

Stanislaus von Moos: Historically the area was not so much influenced by the suburban house form as it was by the agricultural use of the land.

In my opinion, what makes agricultural architecture so interesting is that it is, to put it negatively, a ruined architecture. Putting it positively, it is an architecture which has always been changed again and again. One in which the modification, the change, the addition, the tear-something-off-again has become a constituent element. This is also true of your work. There are things, which have an almost accidental character, such as the shed set on crookedly. This comes to the fore in that a rupture is introduced, as opposed to the “formal integration” displayed by the house in the neighborhood. This rupture is what interests me. It is also present of course in the old agricultural architecture and it also seems to be something in which the architecture of the Shingle Style was interested.

Conformity and Delimitation
Herzog & de Meuron: That is an interesting observation. The reference to agricultural and typical Swiss Midland industrial building was in fact important to us. Therefore: the strange combination of the gabled roof with the horizontal bands of windows, which is actually an element of those industrial buildings which grew up along the Swiss highways in the 1950s and 60s. (Just as now Dagmersellen is experiencing a building boom through its new highway entrance.)

Anyway, the veterinarian’s house in Dagmersellen is still much more strongly based on an idea of integration with both the constructed and the natural landscape than the Blue House (1979/80) near Basel, which differs much more, is much less “polite” amid the urban agglomeration. The blue color pigment as the outermost building layer plays an important role, just as the brown does in DagmerselIen, as a kind of architectonic epidermis for its physical perception. It shows that we do not choose colors primarily according to aesthetic preference, but rather according to physical sensual content.

Stanislaus von Moos: Nevertheless, it is also true for the “impolite” house in Oberwil near Basel that your architecture refers in its proportions and in its method of detailing to the small and the normal that lies around it, as opposed to a “quality architecture” which tends to present eternal and absolute atavisms in a demonstrative way, independent of the built environment already at hand. To give one example: Mario Botta. Compared to the formal and reflecting knots and entanglements of your architecture, an architect such as Botta moves much more freely. Of course he is also moving in a pattern that tends to be a cultural vacuum.

Herzog & de Meuron: This question also has to do with the theme of conformity and delimitation as we discussed earlier with the examples of the veterinarian’s house and the Blue House. The photo studio in Weil, as another example, carries both influences within it; “integration” (roofing-felt façade analogous to the small industrial sheds of the neighborhood) and “delimitation” (strong sculptural identity of the roofshape), which here appears to express a kind of “lift-off” (in the aircraft sense of the word).

While the theatre project for Visp (1984), as a stone-layered “foundling” in the midst of speculative apartment complexes, is radically delimited and attempts to project an integrative strength through its scenic and material qualities that relate to the broader cultural and topographical context, our latest building, a wooden house which is near a pawlonia-tree (1984-85) is designed with an emphasis on integration, almost harmoniousness with the garden and existing buildings that was unusual to us up to now. The plastic sculptural build-up is very inconspicuous (almost a barrack) and is concentrated on the relationship to the tree, where the project pointed floor beams define the realm of the tree like spears (or fingernails).

“Pictorial” Architecture, Typology and “Lasting Values”
Stanislaus von Moos: If I were to define your work in relation to an architecture as a three dimensional expression of “personality”, I would call it “pictorial”, meaning by this that for you the “image” is very important; i.e. the image of the urban or the scenic situation which you find in each case. And this image is not only put together from architectonic or urbanistic, or even building components. Natural and technological components of all kinds play a role and are addressed. In this I also see a certain counterposing to the one-sided fixation on “typology” so characteristic of many among the students of Aldo Rossi.

Herzog & de Meuron: We do not see an opposition between a plastic-expressive architectural attitude and typological and more “pictorial” methods of drafting. In our work we have seen that a variety of working methods are necessary and that each can have its justification at certain times. As students of AIdo Rossi, we have got to know the arbitrarity of urban architectural encroachments after the Second World War from a typological basis and, in the past few years, we have come to realize the horror of rationalistic dogmatists and formalists.

Stanislaus von Moos: Nonetheless, your specific use of images (what I called your “pictorial” approach) in the sense of a reflecting response to contextual circumstances is what differentiates your work from that of the “Structural Expressionists” or that of the “RATS”.

Architecture as “Language of Images”
Herzog & de Meuron: What are “images” in architecture? Today everybody works with “images”. We brought this term into the architectural forum with our essay “The Specific Weight of Architectures” and since then this has often been misinterpreted. Architecture is architecture – as Aldo Rossi has said. So, we think that architectonic images must receive their strength as images through the medium of architecture, their ability to speak, to console, to heal. In the search for our own architecture, we are not interested in any language outside of the medium of architecture. We are not making collages; we are trying to create entire, specific architecture.

Stanislaus von Moos: In your case, many among the “images” that constitute your architecture are not concerned with the outer appearance of your buildings, but rather, with their underlying concepts. Your architectural concepts are eminently pictorial; the statements expressed in your plans are of a pictorial nature. And that interests me. That would be the reason for my attempt to differentiate you from a strict typological school (“New Simplicity”, etc.). The images you use or which are called to mind by your work in this expanded sense are derived not only from architecture, but also from nature and from daily experience.

Herzog & de Meuron: As a matter of fact contemporary artists do interest us more than contemporary architects whose design aesthetics we do not want to accept. Architecture’s potential is wonderful. It should not try to become sculpture in the traditional sense and drift to art. It should unfold in its own medium-specific possibilities which, in certain cases, justify its proximity to artwork. Our brand of confrontation with architecture forces us to plumb the depths of this medium and to bring in physical and material situations in a way that sharpens our perception and helps us along at moments of dissatisfaction with our own work.