Herzog & de Meuron

AI WEIWEI: It is autumn, you feel somewhat sad?

JACQUES HERZOG: A bit, yes – we haven’t met for quite a while, actually since last April when you took us to this very remote place, Ching-te-Chen, where Chinese porcelain has been produced and painted for centuries. It certainly was a different season with some very warm spring days. We learned about your new porcelain pieces and, of course, about the ancient tradition of Chinese porcelain, which still seems to be very much alive. Traveling together like that means a lot to Pierre and me, spending time together that is not planned time. I always find it a pity that we can’t tape some of our conversations. They’re often fresher and more spontaneous compared to situations like this one where we have to produce something for a magazine.

AW: But you know this tape here is next to a river, the river is moving like the tape, which means we are moving. So we are still on a trip, too. I traveled here to see this new building; it is very exciting to see so many people working for you.

JH: But you don’t like our new building because it has space for an even larger army – as you call it. At least in quantity we can now compete with you. There are three hundred people here and you’ve only got fifty.

AW: We are reduced to twenty; twenty is more than I can handle. I remember when they said your nightmare will be when you walk into the office and somebody won’t know who you are. I am so happy your nightmare has become reality.

JH: Yes, a large company could end in a real nightmare. We feel we have reached a limit in size for the way we are working. Pierre and I are currently very busy re-thinking our form of organization – how we want to work now, in five years, or even in ten years. How many people and projects? The company is as important a project as the architecture itself.

AW: But there is too much excitement. So one building after another?

JH: Yes.

AW: How many buildings are you going to build?

JH: Many of the things an architect envisions die before ever being built. Sometimes even really interesting projects. This is perhaps paradoxically one of our driving forces. You, Weiwei, you know how this moment feels when things don’t materialize that you had in mind. You are working as an architect and as an artist; you do furniture and many other things, some of which are bound to fail, especially in architecture. You can tell, just like us, how much frustration lies in some projects – that one stupidly starts to like, but which then don’t materialize. The Quingdao Film Academy would have been an amazing thing to do together and also the Jinhua Masterplan.

AW: Both.

JH: And that’s why you want to limit your involvement in architecture? Does that have to do with the fact that there is too much friction and you lose too much energy?

AW: No, either you really try to maintain control, to make the best out of architecture, to make the idea become reality, or you lose control and then you fail. It’s crazy.

JH: You have done a few buildings in which we were not involved at all, for instance, your brick buildings in Beijing, which I think are very successful. I say that without flattering you – you are certainly the most talented architect among the artists. The buildings are totally unpretentious, which is very rare. They have something simple and archaic and that’s exactly their quality – they don’t try to be more than this very basic thing of brick.

AW: Because I do not have to prove to myself that I’m better than other architects. I am not in competition.

JH: And as an artist? Do you feel in competition as an artist?

AW: Not really, my art work ultimately comes from boredom, I always feel bored about life so I have to do something sometimes and I never like my art works, you know. Most of the time I am very ashamed when I look at them or talk about them, but one day you become famous, which is also something I am not fighting for.

JH: Now you are pretentious (laughing)… I don’t believe you, really.

AW: (laughing) How can you believe me? Let’s prove it. I stop doing art, you stop doing architecture: let’s do it today, let’s make a test. We are just traveling together.

JH: That would be nice.

AW: We stop today and make an announcement. I stop doing anything associated with art and you stop doing anything related to architecture. I can be a dentist, you can be a hairdresser, okay?

JH: A hairdresser – with my haircut?

AW: You would be bad obviously…

JH: You could switch sides… from artist/architect to client, becoming an important Chinese client commissioning architecture. People keep asking us what it’s like to work as an architect in China. We don’t really have an answer. What would you say? How reliable are the Chinese, how good as clients? The National Stadium seems to be turning into a great success in terms of architecture and also in its public acceptance by the Chinese people. Here we certainly have no complaints about the reliability of the Chinese State as a client! But, as mentioned, we tried to do lots of other things together and probably spent more time on other projects together than on the National Stadium. I think it is really a pity that those things did not go forward. Why do you think this is so?

AW: To me it really hurts, we did our best, all the passion, all the energy, all the good will and all the good people you put in there, too, and in the end it is a disaster, and they do not appreciate what you do.

JH: Did you also have architectural projects of your own that didn’t materialize?

AW: My projects are okay, because I always accepted what happened. I told myself I am not an architect, I am a soldier in the wall, this is a crazy condition… It can be totally disappointing, but I think you do so many interesting things, you and Pierre are so tough in that respect, this is great, it has always been an inspiration for me. Architecture is a very complicated matter, you really have to go through the whole discipline and the control has to be there, but whatever you want to create, you have to recognize the limits. I have to decide how much I want to design; most of my work has been executed in China. I never did a building that had to be perfect in every detail because this is impossible and it’s not my main interest to do so.

JH: But you said before that you were afraid to lose control.

AW: Ah, losing control is losing interest because you are detached from it. At a certain point you ask the questions and realize that the client has absolutely no interest in what you have to offer. That’s the saddest thing: You provide a system that is honest, but they’re really thinking about something else: why all this architecture? It is difficult to realize things, especially for an architect in China, because there is no system that appreciates or protects this kind of effort. That’s why the Olympic Stadium was a very lucky case, one of the very few… because it was basically realized the way you like it.

JH: Well, we think that a stadium – as a building type – is different from other buildings. It is much rougher and based on a few strong ideas. We learned that lesson working on other soccer stadiums – St. Jakob Park in Basel and Allianz Arena in Munich. Other buildings, like a museum or a store, need much more detailing, and the way people behave in them is entirely different from in a stadium. In addition, a stadium is utterly different in scale: It is more like a public sculpture or, in Beijing, like a public artificial landscape. Parts of it are not even so perfectly detailed. We realized that from the start. Even in the initial meetings for the competition where you were present we discussed such things. The design was finally based on steel beams that are very thick, though we originally planned to have a more fragile system. But it would surely have been more difficult to execute and make accessible to the public. Architecture – and this may be very different from art – has to anticipate certain things: it is made for one place, it is immobile, and you can’t just move it around, like taking a painting off the wall. Paradoxically, when an architect understands, accepts, and pushes those limits, great things can happen and it’s almost like art.

AW: Yes. That’s something you can only learn from an architect. And it’s a vital experience because you are dealing with reality. How much can you do, I mean, when you make a first move, a very intentional move… even a rough or raw approach can be nice, so the Stadium really provides a great lesson in losing control and making room for imperfect craftsmanship – and in a very different culture… but still, we are successful.

JH: There were many moments though, during the design phase, where things could have gone wrong. Even after the tough meetings and negotiations Pierre had with the client in Beijing, we didn’t know whether our detailing would be accepted. One key issue was the three dimensional bending of the steel trusses, which turned out to be very complicated. Any change in detailing would have led to a caricature-like reduction of our concept… I guess that your work as a sculptor teaches you exactly where such key points in the detailing and in the materialization process are hidden.

AW: Often in architecture or in art you see a beautiful concept, but later it’s worthless or shit only because of that one thing you have to fight for. You’re so intense and eager to make it happen because all the magic is concentrated there.

JH: We were talking about the importance of the concept and now we’re insisting on certain detailing. The detailing of architecture can never be fully controlled, especially when it’s large scale. So many people are involved and leave their traces. The art of a great piece of architecture often lies in the concept or rather in the strategy of identifying and controlling only those areas where precise detailing is essential. All too perfect detailing in the wrong areas can be annoying – like dressing up for the wrong event.

AW: It’s the wrong kind of effort.

JH: We have actually developed an intuitive feeling over years for such key points in a design. Here, for the Beijing Stadium, we knew exactly which areas we had to fight for and where we could be more flexible in negotiating alternatives. The problem, in this case, was that we could not understand the decision making process on the Chinese side. There was no transparency and we also had to undergo a tough proces in learning how to survive all the endless meetings. Not even Uli Sigg, who is a great diplomat and connoisseur of the Chinese mentality, nor you Weiwei, sometimes knew what direction we were going to move in. There were moments where we thought there must be some great unknown person in the background…

AW: It’s like fighting in the dark. You know there is a potential opponent out there but you don’t know who they are, how many there are, and you don’t know what kind of strategy they are going to use. The whole time you worry, is this really going to be built? Of course once it goes into construction, you feel the emotion even more.

JH: When we started working on the Stadium design competition, the first question for us was whether the Stadium should be a similar but larger version of the one we built in Munich. Often a client wants you as an architect to copy or mimic work that he has already seen and likes. But you, Wciwei, said very clearly that it should be entirely different because the Chinese think differently and expected something different. That was a key moment in a very early phase. We felt free to go for something totally new and unexpected… even more so because we thought that we had no chance of winning anyway.

AW: After we worked so intensely, I remember you telling me before I left that we had won the competition. I thought you were crazy because I never thought it would go through. And later I think it was even more difficult. And you went through such turmoil – Pierre especially. Psychologically, it was crazy. In the beginning, nobody gave us any support, everybody criticized us; all those people from the old architectural school criticized us for no reason. Now of course everybody loves it as a symbol of a new China, or something.

JH: You have the feeling that people really support it?

AW: Oh yes, everybody thinks it is the most important image in China.

JH: That’s also extremely vital to the life of the stadium after the Olympics. We conceived of the stadium working like a public sculpture, like an urban landscape where everybody can climb up and down, meet and dance and do all those fantastic things that people would never do in a western city. There is such great potential in public urban life in China and the life of the stadium can spill out and animate that new part of Beijing. If this works, if people literally embrace our structure, it can be very successful, just as the Eiffel Tower became so successful after the World Expo, for which it was built, was over.

AW: Yes, after the Olympics, it will be put to even better use. It is a stadium for so many people, the design is more democratic, it’s a freedom structure that people can approach from all directions, and when you are inside, there is no sense of a good or a bad location. It’s such a good idea to use a real building that way. I think it will really be appreciated by the people there, because it will become an active element of the urban condition in that neighborhood.

JH: But what if the government says we should put up a fence around the stadium?

AW: That won’t happen because – do you remember – there is this park where people are dancing, singing songs, playing Tai-Chi. It will be an ideal location for people to spend time in.

JH: That experience was decisive. Anyone who hasn’t visited China cannot imagine how surprising it is to see people really use public space and perform in it completely at ease. The Japanese are just the opposite: Nobody uses public spaces and there is no such thing as public squares. Our Beijing Stadium building would therefore make no sense in Japan, nor would it in America or in northern Europe, where people are less eager to claim public space in such a creative way. This is what makes the stadium a project specifically for Beijing, much more than any iconographic references that might be brought to the fore…

AW: Yes, I think it will become part of nature, and China has this tradition of deeply appreciating something like these natural conditions, like a piece of a rock or walking in a garden. So I heard you are building another stadium?

JH: Yes, perhaps. We are thinking of possibly doing one or two more soccer stadiums. We love soccer so it’s tempting to cover those two geographical areas where soccer has its strongest cultural roots: in the south, that is Italy, Spain, or South America, and England.

AW: If you need my help…

JH: We could certainly use your help; we love and sometimes really need to cooperate with artists. The Eberswalde Library could not have become what it is without the collaboration of Thomas Ruff, and many combined efforts with Rémy Zaugg were very fruitful and inspiring – in both directions. Rémy was also great to travel with; the time we spent with him without a concrete project in mind was often a form of collaboration. In fact, traveling with you reminded us of the times we had with Rémy.

AW: RĂ©my is not here anymore, right?

JH: Well… still a little bit. Did you know him?

AW: Every time you talked about him, you said – that was before he passed away – you would introduce me to him but you often forget what you’ve said,

JH: Maybe he slipped into your body. Rémy was more like a mirror though, like a perceptional tool that made one look, and think, sharper. You are more concrete and hands on. Each of the artists we’ve collaborated with is very different. Interestingly, they’ve helped us make the buildings more architectural, and not more artistic. This sounds like a paradox again, but it isn’t. And it says something very significant about the current situation in contemporary architecture. More and more clients, mayors and developers are pushing the global elite of architects to compete for even more flashy buildings. Some of these designs are great and many others are grotesque, as we all know. Our China experience was very helpful and relaxing for us because we never felt any of this hype and ambition on the part of the client. China has produced and accumulated such an incredible wealth of art and architecture over the thousands of years of its history that any attempt to impress or even shock people with architectural extravagances is absurd. The Chinese see things that look daring to western eyes simply as contemporary versions of what already existed in the past. They would not reject architecture for its newness but they might reject it because it simply does not convince them.

AW: Jacques puts it very well. The stadium is not just another building, it is really art… many other ingredients are in there, it’s a mystery. I don’t want to use the word experimental but… it has become real. Usually, with a building, you know how it is going to be from the beginning to the end. But this is a very special case, so much is answered in there and so much of it is a learning process. Jacques, you once said you’d never want to do buildings where you can’t learn something. And, in a way, the stadium is more like a love affair…

JH: The real excitement or, possibly, the real disappointment is yet to come… once we know how well people will really care for the building in its Olympic afterlife, as I explained before. To conceive of the stadium as a public place to be actively used after the Olympics is in fact an experiment. Will it play its role as a public magnet for everyone in the future? Will it become and remain an integral part of Beijing? So the building is experimental in that respect, but it is not experimental in a frivolous sense, like stretching the limits until clients accept eclectic architectural follies.

The Chinese are also very pragmatic people. Dubai and the Emirates are currently witnessing a much more breakneck kind of race for architectural experiments than China. The fury of building and real estate in the Emirates has something more desperate and somehow fragile than in China with its long history.

AW: I think you gave a good definition of the meaning of architecture, as related to existing aesthetics and political conditions and who is going to use it. It is not about money or eagerness or some kind of crazy ambition or a dramatic use of form. It is really about working with all the potential of history and culture. The stadium really does underscore those meanings, the meaning that a piece of architecture can communicate. This is something we have in common. I am an amateur and you two are experienced architects. We don’t allow ourselves to do something meaningless or empty. In fact, we can’t. It is just devastating. It’s almost an existential thing. Of course, we’re supposed to be talking about our collaboration, but to me there are other more interesting things about art and architecture in general, or life.

Architecture is related to human struggle. When you have a river, people want to use it, so they build a bridge or a boat, and this is related to everybody. I am not talking about art but how to come up with the most valuable and beautiful way to solve the problem. It’s a challenge to the ego – to provide the best possible conditions for as many people as possible. That’s what makes it so attractive. Art, of course, is different; art is very self-centered, you know, you can do it by and for yourself, while architecture can provide good will to human beings. As I see it, it really requires a very different way of thinking.

JH: Could you talk about your chairs at this year’s documenta? I think what you did is a very powerful and complex manifestation of your artistic strategies. I was especially intrigued by the fact that you introduce the blur of real and fake in Chinese culture: by using fake antiquities, you spread a fantastic aura of the real within a totally alien context…

AW: Yes, you provide seduction. But then people realize that they are trapped: They see those chairs because they are tired. They are not sitting on culture, they don’t see art, but then they become something else, because this is documenta, it is Germany, because it is Kassel, because it has the name FAIRYTALE. Of course, everything is a matter of a concept but how you set up the original frame will give a completely different scale to the meaning of the project, which can change completely. In art this is much easier, but in architecture, too, I think it is most interesting if we think about how a building is related to a street, to a time-being; it has to somehow include this more aesthetic thinking or philosophical thinking, otherwise it will become nonsense. Things work because you have such an open structure, anything can happen, you are very vulnerable. You always maintain the most vulnerable condition here, so anything can happen and there is no limit.

My architectural work is not so interesting or, rather, it only can be interesting if you look at it as part of my attitude, or part of China at this moment. I know Jacques and Pierre and worked with them, within this context, it can be interesting. Otherwise it is nothing really, because people did it before or it is not well done, you know.

JH: Bice, you have been wondering how we happened to meet Ai Weiwei and why this rather unlikely combination of people ever started to collaborate on so many projects. The story is very simple. Uli Sigg is the person who made it possible. He is – as everybody now knows – perhaps the most important pioneer in exploring the potential of contemporary China, and over the years he has acquired an extremely important collection of contemporary Chinese art. He has known Weiwei for years; they went a long way together and he was the one who introduced us. One day in 2002 they showed up in our Basel office and soon we were making plans to travel together to China. That was the beginning of a relationship that has made quite an impact in many ways, professionally as much as personally, through the sheer fact that we started to experience, witness and – through the design of the National Stadium – even participate actively in the transformation process of this gigantic country. Though, when we started traveling together, we had no plans, no intentions whatsoever. We were just interested in learning more about China: Weiwei did not know us and we did not know him.

AW: But later on, I found a book I’d bought a long time ago, which is your book. I bought it because there is a very basic, small building in it. I thought it was only a model. The whole book attracted me; oh god, I thought, this is an artist, not an architect. So I bought the book but I don’t know which building it is.

JH: Was it the un-built project for a private collector (Froehlich House near Stuttgart)? Anyway, when we were in Beijing – that was in November 2002 – we heard about the competition for the National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, The deadline was actually almost over, it was too late, but then someone told us that it was…

AW: …the Iast second.

JH: It was literally the last second and we somehow made it and were accepted on the list of participants. It’s one of those things in life that are so strange because sometimes you try so hard to get something and you plan every step so carefully, whereas here we won the competition with no strategic effort or clear ambition to start with. And yet, it has ended up being perhaps the weightiest, most important and globally most visible project we have ever done!

AW: It’s so weird in a way. We grew up in such different societies, with such different experiences and relationships and such a different understanding of the world. And there’s something else that makes it so beautiful. It’s a kind of accidental beauty, something beyond your own kind of logic and control. This can happen, but it has to be in synch with your efforts and interests and circumstances. And, of course, it’s much larger than what you prepared and were prepared for. Everything becomes so mediocre, so pale in comparison. This is why I still have this respect for you. You know you’ve made something beautiful, but accidentally.

JH: Yes and no. There was a lot of effort on our side to maintain control, gain confidence and also exert an influence. Pierre made an unbelievable effort, going to China time and again, sometimes only to maintain the contact that would otherwise have been lost in translation.

AW: Actually Pierre, every time I see him… I can’t believe how he managed to survive. And he is so alive with his wife and children; he becomes young again. I couldn’t think about him; it was my nightmare, you know, wondering how he can deal with this kind of bureaucracy. In a meeting nobody really cares what you are talking about. The meeting is just there because they have to have a meeting and another meeting and another meeting, you know – endless. Pierre was always one hundred percent ready to present everything, but nobody is really interested. For example, one day they asked him to come for the… to start the digging, you know, the ground-breaking ceremony. Some Chinese astrologist set up December 24, which is Christmas and Pierre said, in my life no matter how busy I am, I spend Christmas with my family. But then he thought this is an important project, this is China, they have different priorities. So he really flew over. But when he was there, they didn’t even let him touch the shovel.

JH: Well, in the meantime we have moved on. I think our meeting last April was really interesting when we talked about the color to be painted on the inside core of the stadium. It will be red and in a very visible location, so whether there is more brown or more blue in it will make a big difference. The fact that we could stand there and study the different samples all together made it much easier for us to understand the nuances between the various reds and the impact they might have on people from far and close. I think it was worth being careful about that color even if it may seem absurd to even talk about it now.

AW: So careful that you had to fly over to China to decide on what kind of red.

JH: Yes, and the interesting thing is that it is not a question of taste; it’s about making it a warmer or colder red, about the effect in daylight and with artificial light, about shiny vs. mat surfaces, about people touching it, rubbing against it, etc. Strangely, at the moment I can’t even remember what we’ve finally settled on; we were going back and forth so much with no clear positions on either side.

AW: Me, too, but we had a serious and productive discussion. It’s like religion; it’s an exercise of your passion, your belief. And it’s a moment that cannot be extracted from your life because it is inseparable from who you are.

BC: I have one thought: Architecture has a direct use, whereas art has no direct use, but oddly enough, you use a lot of objects in your artwork that have a direct use. And when you do a building, it is of course concrete. But when you look at it again, is the impact really concrete or is it that subconscious effect that you were describing?

AW: We work in two directions but we intersect. I make the useful become not useful; they combine the practical with change and illusion. They open up a perspective so that we can have an understanding of the material or an understanding of space. It is a basis for dealing with perception and when you think about how people use an object, you’re also using so-called knowledge in the sense that “useful” has a meaning. The meaning is the use. And that plays a great role in human understanding and culture. I mean, why is this color, this red so important? It’s not because Jacques likes the color; he also talks about the green of the pitch, which is filled with lots and lots of meaning, like red is, too. It is extremely important to me to use, to respect a set of already concrete conditions, a body of knowledge. Sometimes a change can be devastating; it can make a concrete belief collapse and become a problematic condition. So it is a kind of a trap. Because architecture is also a very good platform for bringing out a kind of surprise, a transformation of deep-seated thinking, of our normal way of understanding things. But when you do make a move like that, you must never ignore the so-called standard of normal understanding.

JH: I like the way you describe the architect’s activities as the useful tending toward the useless, and vice-versa, how your work as an artist may migrate from the useless to the useful. Nevertheless, I take it as a very healthy sign for the status of western society that the artist’s useless works are valued much more highly than the architect’s useful works.

AW: Because they cannot believe the artist can make something useless, they want to make it useful.

JH: Well, art has certainly become very useful and powerful as a new tool in the global financial market.

AW: So it’s turning into a financial problem (laughter).

JH: It has certainly become a problem for traditional institutions and museums, which can hardly afford anymore to buy the best of contemporary art. They are becoming more and more dependent on the mood and willingness of private collectors – and the artists.

AW: Yes, but whatever the case, it always function in terms of how you picture your value, how you spend your money, and how you give identity to your own value.

JH: Quite honestly, I have often thought how we architects could get into similar financial spheres as you and your colleagues with the production of a simple…

AW: …piece of a shit?

JH: Whatever… I think the true reason why the financial dimensions are different for architects lies in the fact that you can’t move architecture around, you can’t move it away from the place it has been built on. Imagine if we could lift the National Stadium off of its foundations and move the whole thing somewhere else, to the Emirates, for example, or if we could take the Bilbao Guggenheim and transfer it to London, etc.

AW: Like the title of my show – “Traveling Landscape.”

JH: Yes, entire traveling architectural landscapes, moving icons away from one place to create a new identity in some other place. Kings and conquerors have done that in the past, mostly with an idea of power in mind. The contemporary version of this could be based on issues of money and vanity: architecture as mobile merchandise. But architecture is traditionally immobile as clearly expressed in the French and German words for real estate; the French say immeuble and the Germans call it Immobilie.

AW: But you can’t move property, and you can’t pack it.

JH: But pavilions can be moved and sold and, therefore, become like pieces of art. Like the Serpentine Pavilions…

BC: There are now collectors who buy these early twentieth century key buildings.

JH: That’s right. It demonstrates that as soon as architecture can be traded like a painting, a sculpture, or a piece of furniture, it creates a market. And the market is the prerequisite that determines prices.

AW: That is really a brilliant idea. Just imagine a Picasso, who always stays in Picasso’s castle, it can never be moved.

JH: So you’re turning it around, making the artworks immobile like architecture. Actually, there was a time when you had to travel long and hard and painfully in order to see the most famous paintings in situ because there weren’t any big blockbuster shows around to exhibit them in. The tremendous increase in the value of artworks and, therefore, skyrocketing insurance fees may well bring back those times in the near future. Insisting on immobility and permanence as opposed to the possibility of making everything, even architecture, mobile and available on the market, can also produce very powerful results, both in art and architecture. Take the New York Twin Towers. We did not participate in the competition for the new buildings at Ground Zero because we felt blocked; we had no clear idea of what we wanted to do there. Every option seemed so weak and impotent. There was no proposal that could come to terms with the original image of the towers. It gradually dawned on us that the only solution would have been a reconstruction of the original buildings. That would have been a really strong statement, perhaps the most radical and even the most innovative proposal, full of disruptive force, touching on issues of time, history, reality, memory…

AW: They missed their chance. If you copied it exactly, it would be the most important building in the world.

JH: It would be interesting at least to think it over before starting a design competition for new towers and some memorial attached to it. Reconstruction was eventually mentioned here and there – but not fully debated with all the potential consequences.

BC: Would people return to a building that is the same?

JH: The fact that you raise that question is very telling in itself. It would indeed be very special, perhaps even a form of magic.

AW: Like reality and illusion mixed together – it could be so powerful. The most powerful thing of all – like it never happened.

JH: Or the opposite: What has happened becomes even more powerful – think of the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which has transformed the perception of the entire city.

AW: And, of course, what has happened has happened – always. It can’t be undone.

JH: What about a project like that as a possible field for another collaborative venture?