Herzog & de Meuron

Frida Grahn: Between 1999 and 2018, you led the urban research institute ETH Studio Basel, together with Pierre de Meuron, Roger Diener, and Marcel Meili. Learning from Las Vegas has often been understood as a model for contemporary research studios on cities, such as Studio Basel. They all analyze urban conditions by doing field studies, use interdisciplinary methods and graphics as analytical tools, and are built on teamwork and produce publications coauthored with students … I was a student at Studio Basel in 2008, and somewhat surprisingly the book was not required reading. I’ve been wondering to what extent the studio concept was influenced by Learning from Las Vegas?

Jacques Herzog: We studied under Lucius Burckhardt and later under Aldo Rossi, both of whom placed a very strong emphasis on the city. Burckhardt’s preferred method was to discover and describe a city’s sociological patterns by strolling around various urban areas, which was perhaps not so different from Scott Brown’s ideas. On the other hand, Rossi insisted on the permanence of urban typologies. We enjoyed and were influenced by these totally contrasting methods—by both ways of looking at and trying to understand what “city” means. Soon after graduation, we started to analyze our hometown of Basel with its historical, social, and political evolution in very specific conditions, as well as its strategic position at the intersection of three countries: Switzerland, France, and Germany … Everything we did with our students was based on the perception and description of the urban conditions of cities around the globe. We discussed the theories of Lucius Burckhardt and French philosopher Henri Lefebvre—but not explicitly Learning from Las Vegas. In earlier years, though, Pierre and I had been rather inspired by Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction.

FG : I see, but was Learning from Las Vegas significant for you for other reasons? In an interview with Hubertus Adam and Christoph BĂĽrkle (2011), you state that Learning from Las Vegas was important due to its introduction of pop art into architecture. Its authors refer to Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Claes Oldenburg. When did you first read the book? When did you first come into contact with the work of Scott Brown/Venturi?

JH : In the early 1970s, while studying with Lucius Burckhardt and Aldo Rossi. I don’t remember when I first read Learning from Las Vegas. I liked that it introduced pop art to architects, who would otherwise not have been in touch with popular culture as a source of inspiration. My own affinity and interest in pop, however, is strongly linked to artists rather than architects. I was fascinated by Ruscha’s gas stations, Hamilton’s collages of “today’s homes,” Oldenburg’s blown-up objects. Clearly our Ricola Storage in Mulhouse, where silkscreen-printed polycarbonate panels with a Blossfeldt motif in serial repetition cover and define the entire building, would have been impossible without my admiration for Andy Warhol’s work. As a side remark: though the inspiration came from pop art, the result is not pop, but rather an “earnest” effect of the spiritual in an otherwise totally banal industrial urban context outside Mulhouse.

FG : In other words, you knew of pop art before you read Learning from Las Vegas?

JH : Oh yes, long before—I was interested in art rather than architecture before I began to study at the ETH . But Venturi/Scott Brown were key in introducing pop into the mind of many architects, most of whom hadn’t been aware of that powerful movement in art before. Burckhardt is not about pop. He could rather be seen as an avant-gardist of the ecological movement. Burckhardt liked to walk—or rather stroll around—with us students discovering and examining so-called unimportant places in, around, and between cities. This is certainly something that both Pierre and I took with us from that time. Even to this day, we keep being fascinated by ordinary things, ordinary architecture, ordinary aesthetics, ordinary life. The good thing with ordinary objects is that they are rather invisible. Lucius Burckhardt liked that, just as we still do now. That may sound like a paradox, since we sometimes do buildings that are so visible and iconic ..

FG : Could you expand a bit more on the similarities between Burckhardt and Scott Brown?

JH : Both Scott Brown and Burckhardt wanted to reorient the gaze of architects away from some academic idealism towards the real world built around them at that time. The normal world—with the difference that the normal architectural aesthetic in the US looked very different, more spectacular and appealing than in Switzerland or Germany.

FG : The title of the second edition of Learning from Las Vegas has the addition The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Scott Brown/Venturi see the discovery of “communication as a function of architecture” as one of the book’s main achievements. The idea that architecture is a language was widespread in the 1970s and 1980s. In Archithese (1982) and elsewhere, you take a critical stance towards symbolism and semiotics. How did you arrive at that conclusion?

JH : A commercial sign and a symbol are different things. As an architect, you cannot build a “symbol,” but you can make a work which is or features a commercial sign. Any architecture, however, has the potential to eventually become a symbol, for peace or for revolution, for hope or for disaster. Time will tell. This is very rarely in the hands of those who commission or design something.

FG : Both commercial signs and symbols carry meaning, based on conventions more or less accepted by society. So, you are saying that a building can’t introduce itself as a new symbol, but that it can carry signs with a predefined meaning? In other words, it’s possible to decorate a shed, but not to design a building recognizable as a “duck” … ?

JH : Don’t make it more complicated than it is! Buildings can become symbols of power, oppression, and other negative connotations, like for instance the former Nazi temple that later became the “Haus der Kunst” in Munich. Today’s generation of visitors hardly remember its dark origins. Often such origins fade away over time and buildings have to live on their own without the “symbolic” or the “sign” aspect that was originally infused when they were created. Think of the Pan Am Building in New York City, which survives pretty well with a totally different brand name. Why? Because of ist architectural and urbanistic qualities: its specific position in the city, its enig- matic shape, its modernistic optimism …

FG : You mentioned Complexity and Contradiction—what has the book meant to you?

JH : I loved Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and read it with great interest parallel to Rossi’s Architettura della cittĂ . Both came out in the same year. They are the last serious and influential theoretical texts, even to this day. All young students in those post-1968 years were inspired by them. But today, the eroticism and newness of these two books has faded away. They have turned into ordinary books recalling a specific historic moment in architecture.