Herzog & de Meuron

Asked what architects can do about impending environmental catastrophe, social inequality, poverty, the degradation of the planet’s resources, and the many other night-mares that face us, Jacques Herzog’s reply was bracingly terse. “Nothing,” began his open letter, published by Domus magazine. It was written during the bleakest months of the pandemic lockdown in answer to questions from its editor, David Chipperfield, trying to start a public conversation with the architectural profession.

“We architects cannot prevent the commercialisation of art, and certainly not a real estate boom. That relates to international monetary policy and investment strategies. Which architect would refrain from building a pretty little tower, thus actively supporting the real estate bubble, boosting his own prominence and generating square kilometres of vacant residential and office space? We architects need clients. The more famous the architectural office, the more it will attract not just potential clients and investors, but governments as well.”

Had he chosen to, Herzog might well have been able to avoid all architecture’s messy politicking. In the 1970s he was exhibiting his work as an artist in Basel, alongside Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Ian Hamilton Finlay. The Stampa Gallery still holds charcoal on paper artworks that he made during those years. But despite the compromises that architecture demands, he decided to leave the art world and try to build. “There are more people in art who are interesting, who explore and are curious. On the other hand, architecture offers opportunities that are not available in art, specifically in view of urban architecture and dealing with cities,” he explained to one interviewer.

While acknowledging the commercial uses of fame, Herzog and his co-founder, Pierre de Meuron, are sceptical about the cult of architectural celebrity and the flood of exhibitionist buildings that it has produced. Since the two began work on their first commission, an attic conversion for a Basel doctor in 1978, they have established a reputation for original thinking and a collaborative approach. The official name of the office still bears their names, but H&dM (Herzog & de Meuron) have grown into a sophisticated organisation with more than 600 people, owned by its 16 partners and associate partners.

They have worked all over the world, de-signing hotels for Ian Schrager in New York, shops for Miuccia Prada in Tokyo and museums from Hong Kong to Doha. They built Munich’s football stadium, and designed another that would have been even more imposing for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, had the plans gone ahead. They have also designed several hospitals, as well an impressive amount of social housing, and many industrial buildings. Some of their projects are intentionally on a monumental scale, others are much humbler; each of them is driven by ideas as well as by utilitarian concerns. “For us a new project is always a new start,” says de Meuron. “You can use your experience, but to build in India and to build in Basel is different. Every project has its own reality. We should always reflect that. If you don’t like a chair, you put it in your cellar, or you can give it away. A building is not like that. It is immobile, and it’s there for decades. The client has a programme and a brief, and we enter into a pact with them, to achieve what they need, but we have to care about all the other things that matter as well.”

They have never been committed to any particular architectural language. Instead they have explored a wide range of sources and starting points. Postmodernism, high-tech, and deconstructivism have all come and gone since they opened their studio, without leaving much of a trace on their work. Their two most powerful early influences were the artist Joseph Beuys, whom they met in 1978, and Aldo Rossi, the Italian rationalist architect – their professor when they were students in Zurich.

While each of their projects needs to be its “own thing”, as Herzog puts it, they share two interconnected strategies. One is an unusually close working relationship with artists. Over the years they have collaborated with Rémy Zaugg, Ai Weiwei, Michael Craig Martin, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and many others. It’s a relationship that depends on the architects having self-confidence, to be willing to cede control long enough to allow another sensibility to permeate the architectural concept at a fundamental level. It is the polar opposite of confining art to a closely defined area of wall, or space. The other H&dM strategy is to go back to what might seem like the first principles of architecture. Speaking of the practice’s newly built National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, Herzog went as far as to suggest that architecture is “an archaic practice, a quality that is precisely what allows it to survive in this digital age”. They have made buildings out of such ancient materials as mud and copper, timber, stone, and rammed earth.

Without becoming formulaic, this openness to ideas from outside the conventional boundaries of architecture, together with their fascination for materiality has allowed H&dM to push back against the diminishing role of the architect. In many circumstances, architecture has dwindled to a choice between one commercial product for the skin of a building and another.

It’s not how H&dM see architecture.

Herzog and de Meuron see a connection between their work and the context of Basel, the city in which they first met, as seven-year-old schoolboys in 1957. Though it has less than 200,000 inhabitants within its official limits, Basel is Switzerland’s most international city. Almost 40 per cent of the population are foreign born, the result of its location at the point that Swiss, French and German frontiers meet. It has an airport that is actually on French territory. Unlike other major Swiss cities, Basel’s prosperity is built on the research-led culture of its pharmaceutical industry, rather than banking. It’s where Albert Hofmann began his experiments with manufacturing psychedelic drugs, and invented LSD in 1938. The city has an equally strong commitment to contemporary art, and both elements inform their work.

Basel architectural history is distinct. It was where Hannes Meyer – the Marxist who succeeded Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus, later moving to Moscow – was born. Hans Schmidt, a founding member of the Swiss communist party, who had also worked in the Soviet Union, built several houses in the city, and de Meuron acquired and restored one of them. It’s a period that interests them, but this is, in their words, a different time, and not one for architectural manifestos.

Back in 1992 H&dM explored a potential future for Basel, and what they called a ‘trinational conurbation’, speculating about how the city could grow across international borders. It looked at where the city could accommodate high-rise buildings and suggested new uses for the semi-derelict freight yards and frontier zones. It mapped the city’s eventual future. Basel today is, in practical if not political terms, a city of 500,000 people, since it includes territory in Germany and France as well as Switzerland.

“I am Francophone,” says Pierre to de Meuron. “Jacques wanted to experience French culture, so we studied together in Lausanne for a year, then we went to Zurich. The time of the masters was over when we were students. The heroes, Mies and Le Corbusier, were passing away. We were not following anything, it was more a process of finding out what was relevant; in a way it was a relief, we could explore what we were interested in.” Then they returned to Basel to open their studio. Herzog suggests that the two of them could have gone to London, but they weren’t ready to cross that frontier.

In fact, it’s hard to see how they could have built a studio like theirs anywhere but Basel. In Britain, a building contract is the start of a legal battle over money and blame. In Switzerland, it is an agreement between two parties that have a certain mutual respect.

On a hot late afternoon in August, Basel looks like a model for urban utopia. The streets are traffic free; cyclists give way to pedestrians; the trams are frequent and spotless. Both banks of the Rhine are packed with groups of families and friends, taking a swim after work in the now clear waters of the river. The embankments are lined with cafes and food trucks.

It’s a city that wears its wealth lightly. Outside the Drei Könige, the city’s traditional grand hotel, a new Bentley has been lovingly painted with the hotel’s name to suggest that it has been the subject of an attack by graffiti artists armed with spray cans.

If Basel has shaped H&dM, they have certainly helped to shape the city in return. At the most modest, they have built an open-air public swimming pool on the edge of the Rhine, and the most visible schemes are their designs for Roche, the pharmaceutical giant, culminating in two of the tallest office towers in Switzerland. H&dM have refurbished and designed an extension to Basel’s Stadtcasino and built the Messe hall, home to Art Basel, where billionaires wander the aisles stocking up on Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter as if they were wheeling trolleys around the aisles of a supermarket.

H&dM work from two spaces in the city, but the original office is a complex of buildings of varying provenance all overlooking the Rhine. Entrance is through a copper gate perforated and puckered, much like the cladding that the practice designed for the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The oldest section is a free-standing 19th-century villa, sitting on a thousand-year-old complex of cellars. Its exterior walls are painted a shade of oxblood dark red, while the floors and walls inside are lined with wood that creaks and groans as you walk from one room to another. The most recent extension is a block directly overlooking the river, designed and built by the practice. Around the courtyard is a modelling workshop, and a refectory. A metal box accommodates a meeting room.

Architecture is not for the fainthearted. H&dM have not escaped wounding criticism for some of their projects. They devoted their installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 to their Hamburg concert hall – much of it took the form of hostile newspaper coverage of constant cost escalations. “And we got attacked for that too,” de Meuron remembers. Their project for a new museum adjacent to Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin has been attacked for not doing enough to address climate change. In London, Griff Rhys Jones led the campaign against their plans to build on top of Liverpool Street Station. In Paris, the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, faced down opposition to her determination to build the 180-metre-high Tour Triangle, the first skyscraper in the city for 40 years. “It’s very painful,” de Meuron confesses. But despite Herzog’s apparent fatalism about architectural practice, it did not stop H&dM from making the financially even more painful decision to stop their Russian projects as soon as Putin invaded Ukraine, in 2022. And they speak of their interest in working in such charged atmospheres as Hong Kong and Jerusalem, where architecture can take on a political role.

Read in its entirety, Herzog’s reply to Chipperfield suggests a rather less astringent approach than the bluntness of his terse opening words. He does acknowledge that architecture can play a part, at the very least, in making life “more pleasant”. He points not to any of the prestige cultural projects that have defined H&dM. Instead, he singles out the clinic that they and their partner Christine Binswanger designed for the long-term rehabilitation of paraplegic and trauma patients in Basel, a low-slung timber building set in a park, designed to offer people deprived of movement for long periods the consolations of sunlight and a connection with the seasons and the weather. It has an interior designed around those who spend each day flat on a hospital bed, unable to move, understanding the importance of the ceiling.

“There is practically no other building by H&dM that embodies such a holistic combination of landscape, city and interior. And which provides an experience equally accessible to all those who live and work in those spaces. Patients, doctors, healthcare workers, visitors. Obviously, architects always say that they learn from their projects. But in this case it isn’t simply lip service. Healthcare is a totally neglected field. Architects were rarely allowed to get involved, and when they did, they were unable to turn the hospital into a worthwhile, liveable place. Even some of the medically best-appointed clinics in the world are often boring boxes, ugly monsters made even uglier by proliferating extensions.”

Herzog and de Meuron have had a special relationship with London going back to 1994, when they were appointed to transform the derelict Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. It wasn’t their first project outside Switzerland, but it was the one that marked their emergence into international prominence. In contrast to the pristine polish of MoMA’s new wing, built at the same time in New York, Tate was the first major cultural institution ready to take on a redundant industrial building and give it a new life.

They went on to build an apartment tower at Canary Wharf, the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford and the Laban Dance Centre in London. The London connection underpins the Royal Academy’s exhibition on their work this year. At the opening, Pierre de Meuron talked about his work in Brazil, Christine Binswanger discussed the Zurich children’s hospital and Jacques Herzog gave an account of his design process for a project for the Alexander Calder Foundation in Philadelphia.

Pierre de Meuron has treated the practice itself as a design, one that has become as significant as any of his architectural designs. In doing so he has created the infrastructure on which his partners, all with different priorities, can rely. “Of course, 45 years ago we didn’t see what the studio would become one day. But there were two of us from the start. It’s always been good to be able to question your own thinking, to be able to debate within the office, to work with different characters, with different skills. We are generalists, but we also have specialists within the team, people who really know about sustainability, or about technology.”

And they remain generalists. There isn’t one team of designers devoted to tall buildings, or another made up of residential specialists. H&dM’s architects work on the whole range of the practice’s work. Senior partner Christine Binswanger for example, who joined in 1991, is working simultaneously on Vancouver’s museum of modern art, and the Zurich children’s hospital. “We have a spread of partners of different generations, and from different origins, which is what makes it work,” she says. Jason Frantzen, another senior partner who took the decision to move from America to live in Basel, leads the team for the National Library of Israel in Jersualem, but also built a car park in Miami after joining in 2005.

“The company is constantly moving; we are thinking about how we can improve what we do. We think about how we are perceived, and how it will be after Jacques and myself stop, how it will be when we hand over. There will be no families and no third parties involved,” says de Meuron. “Ownership is going to those who work in the office.” As Herzog puts it, “This is not about altruism; Pierre and I want to make sure that we go on working on interesting projects for as long as we can, and this is the way to do it.”

Text by Deyan Sudjic; photography by Florian Spring