Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd.
4056 Basel, Switzerland
This text was written for TUTOR16 – Sharing Experience, a symposium organized by Luis Fernández-Galiano at the Fundación Arquia in Madrid on November 30, 2022. Participants had been asked to submit a short contribution in advance about the most important issues currently of relevance in their architectural practice. This has become a breve carta, a short letter to which I have added a few examples. The other participants at the symposium were Rafael Moneo, Fuensanta Nieto, Juan Navarro Baldeweg, Antonio Ortiz, Carme Pinós, Emilio Tuñón, and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
What can we architects do in times overshadowed by war in Europe, social inequality and environmental crises, which are threatening survival in large parts of this planet?
It is imperative for us to engage with these issues, to seek answers and offer solutions. Imperative and without self-interest because as architects it is our obligation to society. Imperative and with self-interest because should we fail to do so, we will fall out of time and become irrelevant. In the past few decades, architecture has defined itself in terms of form, style, positions and program; we are now confronted with a radical turn. With a different focus. Recognizing this is one thing, but now we must find solutions and sustainable results. Not the usual talk and greenwashing. We are challenged. We are still learning how to proceed.
Here a few examples from our practice:
24 February 2022. Russian troops invade Ukraine. Nationwide bombing. The Kremlin issues threats and hate speeches targeting the West. Propaganda and hybrid warfare. The complete arsenal, including the threat of atomic weaponry. Not just anywhere, but here in Europe.
At the time, we were working on numerous projects in Russia and its republics, in some cases for many months. Thanks to international architectural competitions. With large in-house teams. With signed contracts in place for many years. Among them, the expansion of Moscow City with parks and numerous buildings.
In one case, we had been working on a project for many years and had established friendly relations with the client. We knew instantly: that’s over and done with.
Within a week, we managed to dissolve the contracts after painstaking discussions and complex legal negotiations. We regrouped our teams and assigned them to other projects. Had conversations with Russian and Ukrainian, Polish and Hungarian staff. Many of them very emotional.
Business relationships in architecture are not commerce. They are based on friendly and sometimes social exchange with others. They may not be personal friendships, but they are real, human contacts. Otherwise, it would be quite impossible to become acquainted with the needs and specific qualities of a foreign location and a different society and to give them architectural shape. We have always wanted to engage in projects beyond Switzerland, beyond Europe, beyond our familiar world. To us, architectural projects are vehicles of perception and experience. Much more than making a statement by leaving behind a personal expression of stylistic preferences.
What do we learn from this? We architects are more than willing to rise to the challenge of building bridges with people and cultures in different societies. We must, however, be aware that we are walking a tightrope and must be prepared to abandon a project if necessary. With all the consequences and consequent losses – financial, intellectual, human and personal.
Humankind is redesigning the planet and destroying its ecosystems in the process. There is much that is disappearing forever. Countless animal and plant species have become extinct. Only in history books will we see the frozen geographic poles and glaciers or the coral reefs. Entire islands and portions of the earth are disappearing or becoming uninhabitable.
Worldwide construction is largely responsible for this. According to the UN Environmental Programme, the building sector accounts for almost 40% of global CO2 emissions, almost 50% of exploited resources and some 60% of global waste. These are substantial numbers and bad news for us architects. Conversely, these developments offer an interesting field of activity with considerable leverage.
We are working with an innovative investor on plans for an office building that has a robotically fabricated ceiling from clay and wood. Currently one of our most important projects! This building, named HORTUS, will help us persuade other investment companies to follow suit and chart new, unaccustomed territory, thus furthering sustainable construction.
One need only look at international architecture journals. We architects have started planning with wood and clay instead of concrete. With beautiful, handmade clay bricks or with recycled, renewable and natural materials. We at H&dM already did so years ago, as in the stone house in Tavole, where we rebuilt the walls without mortar out of material from collapsed buildings, which we had found nearby in old olive groves. Or the Dominus Winery, for which vast quantities of local volcanic stone were collected. And we’re still doing it, especially since it advances one of our main concerns: the materiality of architecture.
Architecture itself actually has great potential to make a sustainable contribution through all of us if we treat the resources that we use and the climate itself as architectural concerns. We learn that from the traditional architecture of past civilizations all over the world. We also recall our own history, our early years. For example, our first project for Ricola: we had such limited means for the design of the warehouse that could use only Eternit panels in one standard format for the cladding.
We cut up some of the panels in the proportions of the golden ratio, so we had three formats to work with. There was no waste. We mounted the panels, grading them proportionately, wider toward the top. The result was a facade with the grace of a Renaissance palazzo, despite the poor materials.
Today the building still has a wonderful quality – even dignity. It all looks so simple, but it is so difficult to achieve. Every single project is a new opportunity to do just that. Yesterday’s Eternit panels have become today’s PV panels or other materials: recycled, found on site, traditional or developed in high-tech laboratories. Political pressure and inspiration from projects in the making will give the building industry the impetus to offer architects a new range of building materials, as in the above-mentioned Hortus building. Even so, it is up to us architects to make the decisive difference through concrete work on our own buildings and our own creativity.
But that still isn’t enough. It’s too late to start thinking about sustainability after contracts have been signed and the project is already on the architect’s drawing board. What if the client suddenly wants to change the program and the floor plans? That often happens. But what if unacceptable spaces, like trapped rooms, result that infringe on our building code and social norms? What if the client insists and we can no longer terminate the contract without sanctions? That happens, too, and it will not be tolerated!
We architects must be more attentive; we must envision the larger context of our design, of our idea for a project. This requires an anticipatory approach. It means that work on a project begins at the negotiating table before even touching the drawing board. Our creativity is already required in the very first conversations with clients.
In the work of architecture, it is wrong to assume a divide between the business side, handled by accountants, lawyers and contracts, and the creative side, handled by designers and planners. Joseph Beuys’s dictum that everyone is an artist is truer than ever. And all work is creative – or to be more precise, all work has a creative potential that needs to be unlocked.
Although I am no expert, I do know that contracts specify fees and responsibilities. But they can also contain agreements on the visions and goals of a project. Goals that the architect has discussed with the client prior to planning. Not all clients are prepared to do that. But we should certainly try.
A case in point: A large-scale, conspicuous project in Asia consists of planning a large residential tower for a private client. Is that something we want to do or should do in a country with an immense gap between rich and poor? In the process of negotiations with the client and trying to define the program for the entire project, we aim for architecture that is as self-contained as possible. The environment, the CO2 balance, energy and food production. A model case, so to speak. It could work. And we have the technical and architectural expertise to make it work.
But we want the project to provide social benefits as well: reasonable living quarters and community space for domestic employees and their families. Funds set aside to improve the hygienic infrastructure of the adjacent residential neighborhoods – beyond the confines of the building plot itself.
We want to understand the specific social and urban conditions to the best of our ability. To this end, we organize a small team and initiate an onsite urban research study. Our goal is to introduce means and measures that will ensure overall improvement of the site. The project thus evolves into a vision with a narrative that is much broader than the original spatial program. This is a new task for us today and we will have to expand our field of activity if we want to do justice once again to the holistic objectives advanced by architecture. Architects can think in scenarios and narratives – and they have to if they are going to persuade clients to join them in navigating a more challenging but also more interesting route.
It is always to the advantage of clients if their architectural intervention in the fabric of a city benefits not only themselves but others as well. When a location becomes more open, accessible and more carefully maintained. When it is not shut off from the rest of the world like a mediaeval fortress, safely accessible only by helicopter – which is already the case in several Mexican cities.
Two years ago, in my “Letter to David,” I described the role of the architect as insignificant in view of global turbulence. We can do nothing, I declared somewhat provocatively.
My assessment was aimed primarily at the dramatic decline in media coverage of iconic architecture along with iconic art and its makers. Compared to the media hype that proliferated in the 1990s, songs of praise have all but vanished, displaced largely by such issues as inequality and the climate crisis. It is a paradox: on one hand, our meaning as architects has declined; on the other, our responsibilities have increased and expanded into fields with which we are less familiar. For instance, the creative work at the negotiating table or the call for social added value through a project such as that described above.
I have often maintained that we architects should be able to work in any country that engages in trade and has diplomatic relations with our own nations in the West. This is an important premise. But it does not suffice. Architecture calls for more. It does not conduct trade with portable goods. It is firmly anchored in the ground, a concrete ground with a concrete social culture and its people. Architecture is the physical expression of a society. The built articulation of its social processes and hierarchies. This is where we architects can make an impact. But only if we are determined to take a new tack and to interfere.
In the 1970s, Pierre and I studied with Lucius Burckhardt, an important sociologist and early champion of an ecological city. We were also under the influence of Aldo Rossi, who was then teaching at the ETH as well. Credo: architecture is architecture. The city built of eternally identical archetypes. Burckhardt + Rossi: is the combination an oxymoron? With no inner connection?
It is exactly this combination of different views that we have always embraced as an opportunity. As potential for a new architectural idiom, which is what architects want to find especially when they are starting out.
Technology and the optimization of materials can resolve questions of environmental sustainability. But a suitable architectural form is also required.
We will remain relevant as architects in this altered world only if we recognize the problems of society and make a difference by impacting conventional practice with our creativity. And we will remain relevant only if we touch people emotionally. Architecture can do that. Sometimes even with beautiful results.
un gran abrazo,
Madrid, 30 de noviembre de 2022
Basel, 18 December 2022