Herzog & de Meuron

When confronting buildings by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, one notices the heterogeneity of external appearance with regard to form, material and character. This impression formed the background to the following interview of Jacques Herzog by Theodora Vischer. An art historian based in Basel and Lucerne, Switzerland, Vischer is author of Joseph Beuys und die Romantik (1983).

Conducted in Basel, May 1988, this interview was first published in German in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of Herzog and de Meuron’s work at the Basel Architecture Museum.

Theodora Vischer: After the Neues Bauen of the period of Modernism and late Modernism, two principles formulated by Aldo Rossi and constantly cited in architectural criticism today have become decisive. They are the call to engage with the city’s structure and the place, the genius loci, and to include architectural history as material for the design. To what extent are both of these demands or impulses valid for both of you [Herzog and Pierre de Meuron] and what use have you made of them?

Jacques Herzog: For theoreticians and architects, the place has always been an essential point of departure in design. In Rossi’s case, this relationship to a place has a very individual dimension. He has tried to categorize place by means of a certain scientific approach, specifically addressing the notion of typology. We studied with Rossi and learned these things from him. However, we have also absorbed something quite different from him, and that is his charismatic personality, which transmits a kind of energetic impulse – something that was perhaps even more decisive in so far as he helped us to develop our own experience of a place, thus sharpening our awareness of architecture.

TV: When you say that Rossi stimulated your experience of a place then it also means that you are not purely interested in formal aspects.

JH: Quite so. We have certainly expanded the notion of place. We have begun to see, to feel, to incorporate different perceptions of a place. Our experience also occurs against a completely different background from Rossi’s. While Rossi’s experience is formed by the landscape of Lombardy, we are strongly influenced by the Swiss situation, especially that of Basel where, after all, quite different images exist. In the beginning, the keyword image was – suddenly, somehow – a motive that we, gaining from our experience, tried to integrate rather collage-like into our architecture. Quite early on, we began to talk about movies, about images in movies – that is to say, we had to recognize the fact that a large part of our experience, of our deficient cultural tradition, is occupied by the experience of the city and of the place as communicated in movies.

After all, the question is, why do these images appear at all? Surely our education – that is, our formation as architects that begins with the brain – plays a role here. We do not emerge from a crafts tradition, but are used to developing ideas with our brains. When we tried to introduce certain details into the first buildings that we were able to realize – details we derived from images such as ideas for door handles, doors, windows, etc. – we took these imagistic drawings of details to the craftsmen, and then we discovered that the drawings actually no longer corresponded with the real world. We became conscious of the break existing between the image-like situations in our heads, and the real world or the conventional production of architecture.

TV: This account of these images always seems somewhat diffuse. Could we speak more precisely about them?

JH: These diffuse conceptions of images are still quite emergent in our first projects, the Frei Photostudio in Weil and the swimming pool for Riehen, while this broadening of the notion of place is much more concretely and precisely expressed in our later buildings. The diffuse quality is expressed in the way these buildings create a somewhat heterogeneous impression, so that the various facades seem almost to belong to different buildings or styles. This is because we were really working with these images, and had first of all to experience architecture, whatever its location, as a building configuration. We had to learn to set aside the image. We wanted, in the end, to establish an architecture in which image could only appear as a brief memory somewhere, no longer so directly applied. At first, the direct application of image interested us, since we actually wanted to immediately duplicate the models, as in the Frei Photostudio, for instance. We wanted to surround ourselves with the images we liked so very much.

It is important that, with these rather disparate images, we were already trying to establish connections in various directions to the diversely structured place.

TV: Therefore you never tried to suggest an artificial identity or completeness.

JH: Right.

TV: Until now we have spoken rather generally about the relation of a building to a place. However, these individual levels of relationships can be designated in more concrete terms. I do not know whether one could include the client’s role in this but surely one can address the topographic relation as in the case of the Ricola Storage Building or the apartment building in Schwarz Park or typological models such as the shed.

JH: I believe it is impossible to separate these issues. The extension of the idea of relationships to the whole is the central force. All aspects that might be available to us as we progress through the project – since we are frequently oblivious to many things… – should be absorbed, understood and included within a kind of investigative and experimental process of creation. For example, we try to set the conception of an image as it might be derived from buildings, such as a shed, into a relation with the production method of a shed. Therefore, one examines the parts from which the shed is made, in real terms, in order to develop forces that counteract this image, so as not to simply return to this image but rather move towards the other elements of the place.

Other design aspects become effective according to each place, and ultimately give the buildings their special character. It is important to us to find the right architecture for each place, which, if possible, is then completed by the city. We have no desire to set up new establishments, but on the contrary, we want to pursue existing inceptions in order to complete the city, so to speak.

The practice of including a variety of elements, of renouncing styles, has also been upheld by other architects for some time now, perhaps influenced by Robert Venturi. Contrary to Venturi’s challenge, however, we are able to use architectures that belong to a much more rigid period of time in terms of their appearance. The Schwarz Park project is one example. Through discourse with the topographic and geological situation, a rather more searching form was developed: a large-scale form that reaches out into nature, one that does not represent a figure created from the outside, but rather from the inside. Yet one could consider this project on its own terms in relation to the style of the grand urban forms of Mies van der Rohe, Poelzig and others, who in their progressive stance would certainly have structured this place in a completely different way than we have. Developed from the specific site, the project carries this questioning attitude with it, even though according to its monumentality and its visual references, with which it is associated at first, it belongs to a time when such architecture was associated with the progressiveness of a modern, pioneering period. Thus, when our work is seen from the exterior, there is a kind of contradiction.

TV: With this last consideration we have reached the question of your attitude towards the other principle, the demand to include architectural history within the design process. It has already become clear from your previous comments that a post-Modern attitude cannot be of interest to you. But isn’t there still a tradition, namely the late Modernism of the 1950s, which has offered a great deal to you?

JH: I think that post-Modernism, understood as a stylistic approach, has never been on the agenda for us. But of course, like many other people today, we can sense the ruptures in our culture, that is to say, the impossibility of coming to terms with things with any clarity. The confrontation with all these equivocal elements has become a central force in our work as well. We can count on nothing – on no building material, on no traditional method of construction, because these things have steadily become useless. In the case of architecture, the 1950s and1960s have already become historic, which means we can only use them as images. The entire technology has since developed in such a way that a direct relationship leads to unsatisfactory results. It is possible to use these images in the movies, because inaccuracies or details that perhaps are not quite appropriate can be blurred on the screen. These images therefore can be transmitted. But in the domain of architecture, in which all such images must be built, this is not possible.

TV: But don’t you think that the 1950s, which actually was your period of experience, included some “right” elements that could be directly valid for you without having to be stage sets?

JH: If one looks at it from that point of view, I would agree. The 1950s are a period much closer to us, and for that reason we can understand the images in an appropriate way. After all, these things are still around, they surround us every day. The buildings of the1950s have, in an almost naive sense, a belief in progress.

TV: There is a curious ambivalence between this belief in progress and a certain stuffiness, a conservatism, which is concentrated in the architecture of the 1950s. I could imagine that for you there is a point of entry in this intermediate position.

JH: That is quite right. This ambivalence has fascinated us for a long time. I have to say that these buildings, to a certain extent, have a surprising quality that I much prefer to the reactionary way of building of the1970s and early 1980s. There is therefore quite definitely a fascination for this architecture. Yet it is decisive that, despite everything, we have to reinvent all these things, because it is not enough to simply refer back to the 1950 or 1960s.

TV: Then what does it mean in concrete terms for the process of design and construction if, on the one hand, the place has an influence, and the belief in the technological aesthetic as a force that determines form diminishes, and on the other hand, certain historical and typological models are unable to provide an answer to this situation but instead emotional issues correspond to it? How is the translation of a complete more emotional image into a new complete architectural image to be achieved? In this connection the question of the conceptual content of your work arises.

JH: In every project, Pierre and I first try to find the conceptual level. Of course, that is not an activity that can be reconstructed in exact terms; it is a process in which there suddenly is a starting point. For example, in the Schwarz Park project the desire to continue the slope in stereometric terms within the building became ever stronger in the first sketches; we noticed that many thoughts could be combined with this initial idea, and a system of relations could be formed. These are very intuitive moments in design. It was the same for the design of theTherwil House, where we used the idea of a courtyard offering a public domain and superimposed a rather more private part in the shape of a shed.

TV: Take the example of this shed.The house is no longer a shed – with only pale references to that image and now assumes a very specific position within this composition. There is a conceptual process behind that.

JH: This conceptual aspect is important to us, as it enables us to intensify a project the longer the design process takes. We can therefore intensify a quality, we can include possibilities of which we are aware, right to the floor finish. These parts then can always, so to speak, be referred back to the whole in a circular way.

In the case of the Therwil House, we at first considered building a prefabricated building on top. We then noticed that this alien body, as a kind of objet trouvé, a kind of stage set, would run counter to what we were trying to achieve. A path leads from the courtyard into the house, not only in reality but in terms of materials as well. We represented various versions of concrete as a masonry material, not because we are especially interested in concrete, but because it gave us the opportunity to define the coherent constructionof this place. The image of the shed increasingly became a form of wooden boards and prefabricated concrete panels, which are structurally just as related to the wooden boards as they are to the architecture of the courtyard and the plinth. The longer we dealt with this theme of concrete, the more the image of the shed was relinquished to a structural idea. In the end, the shed actually became unimportant to us and we were able to move more freely vis-à-vis this image. This process has become important in our work, compared to the Frei Photostudio, where the images are still somewhat present in an anecdotal form.

TV: This development away from a rather anecdotal handling of images towards architectural images that represent a structure transfers the weight from an image-like part to an architectural whole. An element no longer stands out to the point that it immediately recalls a related association; instead the relationship between the individual parts becomes important and creates the architectural image. I would be interested in how you – in contrast to the house in Therwil – characterize as an architectural image the Ricola Storage Building, that monumental and faultless building that suggests a statement.

JH: In many ways, the storage building is a special building, primarily because we did not have to deal with the interior space. All the same, in this case too all the elements are part of a set of relationships, to the place as well as to the building’s contents. When one stands in front of the building, it suggests a 19th-century industrial structure. It is certainly recognizable as industrial architecture from the overall view, but this image dissolves very quickly when one approaches the building. The entire structure seen more closely is subordinated to the idea of stacked boards, in which the support and weight of the individual parts is revealed. Yet this image of support and weight actually occurs. In this building, we pursued the coincidence of representative and representing elements to a new extent. Of course, the notion of layering also refers to the natural ground – to the limestone of the old quarry – onto which the building’s load was directly transferred. The bearing of loads expressed by the building is intended to assign a role to the ground. Limestone is, after all, a sedimentary rock, resting in layers, and thus actually corresponds to the storage building’s constructional principle. Therefore, in Ricola too there is a clear relationship to the place, even if perhaps, with regard to the building type, a new and spectacular entity has been created.

I understand the coincidence of representing and represented elements as a quality that appeared in the field of sculpture during the 1960s – in the case of Richard Serra, for example – and which surely must have once existed in the domain of architecture as a matter of course. This identity has been lost from the domain of architecture, and we persistently seek it.

TV: In your architecture new patterns of relations are created that are not identical to the sum of the analyzed parts, in contrast to the initial image that might stand at the beginning of a design process. It seems to me that your conception of the model is symptomatic of this idea, a conception that allows the model to collaborate with the prospective, sensuous pattern of relations.

JH: Initially we had incredible problems with the model as an idea or object. Above all, we had problems with those ubiquitous large-scale models, painted white, which we look down upon as if we were giants. The entire world of images, so decisive for our architecture, was thus reduced to a stereometric, uniform expression, which does not have paramount relevance in our attitude. At the beginning we had tried to formulate an attitude toward representation in such a radical way that we consciously rejected this entire set of questions concerning “jeux et volumes sous la lumière”, which comes from Le Corbusier and describes architecture as a stereometric and volumetric game. Of course, questions of geometry, mathematics and proportions are certainly important, even in our work. But as a matter of principle, we considered these models unsuitable and we began to work with special photographs and videos. We made models especially for video recordings. The images we then obtained referred to the world of images from which they had come, or from which they had emerged to some extent. That is to say, images emerging from the media world, in which the architectural images made by us could engage a flow of images as part of the observer’s experience.

TV: For me the decisive quality in these photographic and video models is not the reference to existing images, but the fact that your new architecture can already be experienced as space and image; already the model is not manipulated as a model but rather as reality.

JH: Another aspect of this quality is that the building appears within such a model as part of a sequence of events, of a dynamic process and not a static one. The act of confronting the model as an object increasingly interests us. We have begun to work with bigger models, which set up a relation to the later project in terms of structure and materials.

TV: Can you offer an example?

JH: Consider the model for the Schwarz Park project. We began by using plywood as a base, and from this base we then cut out the shape of the building, so that the building’s conceptual idea, developed from the escarpment, could be experienced from the layering principle of the glued pieces of ply; plywood is, after all, a material built up in layers. In that sense, the model realizes itself, in a different manner from the video model, as one aspect of the design.

In the end, the decisive factor for us is that every object we create – the drawings as well as the models – is part of the resulting architecture from the standpoint of the object’s own image or material structure, allowing the conceptual idea to be experienced and not merely serve as an illustration. Thus we try to overcome the distance between the medium, or the experiential reality of the medium, and the experiencing person, a distance that has become so characteristic of our time.

TV: Let us consider your relationship as an architect to the fine arts. This connection seems exemplified to me in the conception of models just discussed.There is of course the fundamental difference in the fine arts, which unlike architecture are not tied to particular functions. And it seems to me that another decisive difference is dissolved by your conception of models: namely the dfference between the architect as a model-maker and the artist who works at a scale of 1:1. Can one say that your fascination for the fine arts lies in their categorically-defined quality of realizing an immediate and unexpected experiential value?

JH: There are certainly a number of connections between our architecture and the fine arts. At first, I resisted them. Then I noticed that all these divisions that we have set up in our culture are not necessarily based in the act of representation itself.

One of the effects of the changing situation in which we find ourselves today is that the whole crafts tradition has been lost, and we actually must create anew with every building in this complex manner. We participate much more strongly in a new creation, even if it refers to traditional images, than architects before ever did. Therefore, we are actually in a situation very similar to that of a painter or sculptor. That is, after all, another reason why there has never been so much bad architecture: one can no longer rely on anything. It is a completely disorienting situation for an architect.

I find very interesting your perception in our approach to models of the need to work at the thing itself, to avoid creating a surrogate. This surmounting of the distance is a decisive concern for us.

TV: You do not elaborate the individual parts by themselves, but rather always seek the relation of parts to their surroundings. In this regard, how do you view your design for the fountain for the Marktplatz in Basel?

JH: In some of our works, such as the fountain project, one initially might assume that the work is rather more closely allied to the realm of sculpture, while a large-scale work such as an apartment block, in which the functional aspects appear to exist in the foreground, surely is less representative of a sculptural work. What differentiates the architect’s work from the artist’s actually is not, as we have gradually realized, what substantially inhibits us or makes this difference from the fine arts insurmountable. What handicaps us in a substantial way is not our ability to open or close doors, but rather lies in the difficulties existing in our time. It is the lack of identity, which is of course equally strong in the apartment block as it is in the fountain, or any other task.

TV: We have seen that the “how”, the conceptual work has increasingly moved to the forefront. What is the role of materials that you use in abroad, noticeable and differentiated way?

JH: We are trying to extend the notion of place to materials as well. We are trying to expand the role assigned to materials in traditional usage by changing their form and making them available to a new manner of perception, thus gaining a new sense of tension at the place.

TV: There are therefore no principal qualities that you assign to individual materials. But once again, is it the situation in which the material is used that determines the specific character it then emanates?

JH: All materials interest us in the same way. When one speaks of materials, it always depends on how they are joined together, in what manner they are used. Take stone for example. In the Stone House in Tavole, the rock has been used in a conciliatory way vis-à-vis nature. The stones are part of the landscape’s artificial nature; they are stacked without mortar, like steps among the olive groves. Every stone is fitted into the geometric structure of the house. In this sense, the stone is used like paint, to some extent akin to the paint in the Blue House or the house in Dagmarsellen. In the project for a theatre in Visp – for which we have actually developed the same building structure as we did for Tavole, with a controlling geometric concrete frame structure and filled-in stone – the rock has a much more aggressive character. Here, every stone indicates the undefined sense of place, in which housing quarters have been located with an incomprehensible arbitrariness and coarseness that have no relation to the place or its traditional architecture. In Visp, this structure behaves like a boulder.

TV: You have spoken of the material’s poetic quality, its invisible qualities. Do you mean that completely unknown qualities can be revealed depending largely on the manner in which a material is used? Or are there also fundamental qualities that you assign to materials?

JH: No, the quality lies in the work itself, where the material attains its specific value that leaves its bare materiality behind; that is almost anaxiom in the fine arts, be it the paint for painting or any substance for traditional sculpture. What interests us beyond this is that a part of the intellectual quality of the design lies in the fact that a material is no longer a purely representative means and therefore no longer restricted to the visible surface. First of all, the material experiences a further division: our attempt to reach, as it were, the material’s atomic structure. We have little faith in the material’s external appearance because we are unable to derive any self-evident quality from it. After all, we are dealing with solid bodies, which therefore have a crystalline structure, understood in the chemical sense. These crystalline structures, which represent a kind of spatial imprint of the forces that exist between the individual atoms, are invisible to the naked eye. Yet they are a reality; they permit access to an understanding of the materials’ qualities, which are more interesting and complex than the usual applications of the construction industry or the understanding that the creators of Modernism had of the concept of honesty towards materials. We will see to what extent we will be able to incorporate such considerations in our architectural work. There are beginnings in the Therwil House, where the various forms that reinforced concrete takes have experienced a kind of decomposition, or in the Schwarz Park project, where the forms of the configuration can be understood as a geometric expression of the place’s natural morphology.

TV: Let us return once more to our interview’s point of departure to the issue of the heterogeneity of your buildings’ appearances. In our conversation, the impression of heterogeneity has diminished in light of an attitude which could be labelled “referentiality”. The climate in which this attitude produces expressions is formed by an ambivalence between conformity and challenge, and this emerges from your buildings and from your reflections.

JH: This impression corresponds to our view of the buildings and to our intentions as well. I believe that there are places already so strongly predetermined or prestructured that very subordinated, well-suited interventions, which only accentuate the place in a small way, are more appropriate than loud statements. And there are other places where much more has to happen, or where – in the case of the Vienna-Aspern housing development scheme – there is actually nothing there, a kind of new foundation. But even this new foundation once again refers to the situation of the development, which is located on the city’s periphery. The appropriate response therefore becomes much more a key to understanding the place, the topography, surroundings and position towards the city than an attempt to build up a new and independent centrality.

TV: Is it therefore possible to regard this oscillation between conformity and challenge, this recognition that every building can only be in the place where it is and nowhere else, as the binding and obligatory element of your work in which the “heterogeneous appearance” is almost a necessary expression?

JH: Yes, absolutely. We do not construct types that could be grafted elsewhere in a collage-like manner, like standard products. That is unthinkable, even though there are recurring motifs in our work, which might appear in completely different places.

TV: You are therefore not developing a new style and in that sense no new utopia, but instead carry on a discourse with the existing elements in a determined way. This attitude is neither acquiescent nor purely affirmative. Could one say in your work that something is developed, which is oriented towards a “realistic whole” or searches for an integrity based on experience?

JH: Ultimately, there is an enlightening force in our attempts to create a referentiality, to build up a system of relations. By that I mean the possibility to penetrate these architectures, to recognize that these systems used in our design – as far as conception, structure, color, external form, and soon, are concerned actually form circuits leading to ever new points of view. A design is enlightening when the process of creating an architecture can be opened up, can be circumscribed, can slowly reveal an identity because of the questions posed. The tentative, searching character is enlightening, which even the final adopted form can still express.

Perhaps an element of utopia, or whatever you want to call it, is attached to that. I believe we are trying to create a piece of reality that can be dismantled, if you will, and therefore becomes understandable. After all, we are surrounded by so many things and secrets we cannot decipher, to which we have no access. For that reason, we are producing objects that offer their own language. Such an offering expresses hope. This is of course a utopian attitude; an enlightenment position is, after all, also a utopian attitude, not one of resignation, and is far from an affirmative approach.