Herzog & de Meuron

We met Jacques Herzog a long time ago. Shortly after the completion of our first film ‘Koolhaas Houselife’, we had an opportunity to attend the harvest of the legendary French wine Petrus, in Pomerol, in the Bordeaux region, where Herzog & de Meuron renovated and extended the old winery building. We made a film of this unique experience with a focus on the dialogue between the sober, elegant design of the architecture and the joyful, exuberant night gatherings of the grape pickers after the long days of work. (Pomerol, Herzog & de Meuron, directed by Bêka & Lemoine, 51 mins, 2013)

Recently, Herzog & de Meuron asked us to collaborate on a new film project about their first building dealing with medical care, the Rehab, built in Basel twenty years ago. (Film currently in post-production.)

Shooting this film was for us a way to experience empirically all that is being said in the conversations gathered in this book. The building is a rehabilitation centre for severely injured patients where people learn to reconquer the foreign territory of their suffering bodies and the space around them, which has become a land of constraints and dangers. The film looks closely at how the building itself plays an active role in the healing process, offering a sense of comfort and sensorial pleasure to individuals who are often immobilized for months. For us, this experience was a striking demonstration of how influential architecture can be on our physical and emotional state. In preparation for this conversation, we sent Jacques a short description of the aims of the book with a couple of questions to give him a sense of what we wanted to discuss. The day we met online, unexpectedly Jacques arrived with a written text he had worked on, based on the elements we sent him beforehand. He told us that the topic had been so important for him, since the early days of his practice, that he wanted to be precise in his answers. The first response in the following conversation is actually our translation of the text he read to us in French. After that the discussion continues in a spontaneous way.

Louise Lemoine: Bonjour Jacques!

Jacques Herzog: Bonjour Louise, bonjour Ila! I like your topic of the ‘Emotion of Space’. It is traditionally more associated with art than with architecture, or at least that is what I thought back in those days when I was still considering whether to go into art or architecture. But I was wrong. The more time I have spent exploring the potential of architecture, the more projects I have worked on, I came to understand how powerful an effect architectural space has on the human psyche.

You asked about emotional memory, whether I could remember some strong emotion I felt in relation to space. Of course, I have many and can perhaps describe them as unsettling – in German there is a good word for it: unheimlich – and nostalgic. These are the emotions that predominate in my memory of spaces. Nostalgic in the sense that it reminds me of something that is not there anymore. The passing of time somehow undermines the potentially positive emotions that a space might trigger, the feeling of: “I have been in such a space before.” It makes me think about the huge amount of time that has elapsed. It’s not necessarily a negative feeling but my emotions are cloudy, as if there were a filter in front of them. I have the same feeling when I look at photographs, a kind of sadness. My brother loves photography; he collects them obsessively and eventually put together one of the world’s largest collections of historical photography. He is as fascinated by it as I am depressed! The accumulation of a past that is dead and gone. I don’t keep many photographs, except postcards, which I like when they contain some information, such as a mountain pass or interesting details in architecture. But even those postcards, which are strongly anchored in my memory, are like heralds of death to me. Collecting, in the sense of accumulating objects from the past, is somehow alien to me. I’m not a collector; I’m more of a „hunter“ – always after something yet to be found. Even so, my understanding of space is deeply rooted in an awareness of memory and all the emotions that go with it. Regarding your initial question about architecture’s capacity to provoke emotions, I don’t think emotions are prompted by a specific form of architecture. It can be beautiful, ugly, banal, anything. That is also why our architecture has no signature style; I am not interested in style or references.

Ila Bêka: To go into more detail on this point, could you describe how you experience a space, physically, emotionally, when you discover it for the first time?

Jacques: Often, almost instantly, I get a sense of whether it feels good or bad, of whether I like it or not. Not aesthetically but purely from my emotional perception of the space. In this context, architecture plays a key role. What influences how I feel the first time I enter a space? All of the architectural elements come into play.

First the light, whether it is artificial or natural and all the shadows it creates, the smell of the space that might overwhelm or bother me, the sound of a floor or of a wall – because you can also hear architecture! Then, the colours, the materials – people love touching materials, feeling their texture. The forms, the shapes, the proportions and the furnishings inside also play a role. These latter are especially important with respect to psychological patterns. I often rearrange things around me. My wife must think: “What the hell is he doing again?” When we go to a restaurant or arrive in a hotel room, for instance, I often feel tempted to change the position of the bed, or to rearrange tables and chairs around, because it doesn’t feel right in the space. Is my back in the right position with respect to the corner or to where the light comes in? Even when I am at a friend’s house, in my mind I start to rearrange the position of the furniture — and it feels embarrassing to have such narrow-minded thoughts!

Another obsession of mine is to watch and analyse the movement of people in a space. Their performance, so to speak. In the city or out in the countryside, the way someone moves in the space reveals a lot about their psychology, about how they feel. What is their body language? Do they seek protection or enjoy exposure? Where do they choose to sit down? Protected by the crown of a tree or under a rock? Or rather on the grass, exposed to sunlight? It is like a kind of theatre, a play made of human gestures performed in the space. In architectural space, broadly speaking. These gestures are informed by architecture but in a reverse order they are transforming and shaping that very architectural space! That is why I often look at cities as petrified sculptures of psychological patterns and human behaviour.

Louise: In your architectural practice, how do you manage to provoke emotions and awaken sensorial perception in the spaces you design?

Jacques: I would say that filmmakers and painters can do this very well because they have a narrative that drives what they are doing. So, I understand why this is a central question for you, Ila and Louise, being filmmakers. Architectural interiors often play a key role in films. Think of Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, who were a big inspiration for me in the 1980s, as well as Antonioni and Louis Malle. We all know the repertoire of their cabinets of horror. Interiors, especially with Hitchcock, with dark satin and velvet curtains, foyers with heavy neo-baroque wooden railings often curved and winding, foreshadowing worse things to come. Hitchcock loved this, but stairs also figure prominently in Antonioni’s ‘Identificazione di una donna’. I was fascinated and inspired by cinema in my early years as an architect and even before when experimenting with video myself. One of our very early projects, the Lego House, is key to our understanding of architecture and in particular to how psychology and memory are related to architecture. Our Lego House features stills of a video filmed inside an architectural model built out of the Lego bricks that Pierre and I actually used as kids. The project is a testimony of that period and may embody quite exactly what you are looking for in this conversation. We continue to apply this understanding of psychology in our work. For example, Miu Miu in Tokyo with its half-open cover or the Prada Aoyama building which is a more sci-fi inspired psychological space. A more recent example is the use of mirrors in the Basel Stadtcasino. Mirrors also play an important role in my personal surroundings, not to see ourselves but to actively reflect the space around us. If I were to analyse my interest in psychology as a tool, I should say that it certainly isn’t about references. Many colleagues work with references in the sense of, say, pop or postmodernism, but I just can’t. It’s somehow against my nature – this constant looking back at the past, like the way I feel about photography.

From what I just said about the performance of people in space you can sense my interest in an architecture des gestes, a gestural architecture, as I call it. This is completely different from pop or postmodernism; gestural architecture does not appeal so much to memory, knowledge and education, which are central elements of referential architecture. On the contrary, “une architecture des gestes” appeals directly to gestures people understand apart from their education; it appeals to things learned from personal experience, from life experience, from the street, much like the way kids learn.

Louise: You mean, our instinctive gestures.

Jacques: Exactly. I think this instinctive and gestural approach, avoiding any form of reference, is a strong tool, something I wanted to push especially in two recent projects: our Autobahnkirche, a highway chapel in a remote village in the Swiss Alps, and Calder Gardens, a space dedicated to Alexander Calder in downtown Philadelphia.

Louise: I am really interested to hear how much the observation of gestures, movements and subtle signs of people’s intuitive behaviour in space, plays such a role in your practice. This is fundamentally what we have been working on in most of our films. We very much try to capture people’s awareness of their experience of space and time. That’s why we often ask ourselves how we can develop that sense of awareness and sensitivity towards space. Our general education, from early childhood, doesn’t provide any tool to question how we relate to our surroundings, its qualities, its defects, or even the consciousness of our body in space and all the elements that impact our feelings. Do you think there would be any way we could better develop that collective sensibility to space prior to architecture studies? Could it be a mission of elementary school for instance?

Jacques: I haven‘t thought about it. It could be taught in various ways. Starting in kindergarten, for instance, when kids play around, such as with Lego or dollhouses, which is what I personally loved to do a lot as a child. To have children arrange dolls and furniture, plants and animals differently in space is something you can certainly teach. It is also helpful to walk and talk, describing the things you see on your way, which we did with Lucius Burckhardt as his students in the early 1970s. We learned to pay attention – to important but also to unimportant things, such as weeds for example. He called that “promenadologie“. That was a very healthy experience.

Ila: The way you use mirrors is particularly interesting with respect to this idea of developing more awareness of present time to experience it more consciously. You said that photography is deeply depressing for you because it is bound to memory and nostalgia of a past time, and the mirror is quite the opposite; it’s probably the only form of representation which remains in the present, as a living form. It’s a surface with no memory and reflects the fleeting present in real time. But more than a representation, it can even be considered a duplication or even a multiplication of space and time in the present, allowing us to intensify our experience of being.

Jacques: That’s a good point, Ila! Mirrors are about the HERE and NOW. And mirrors are not just mirrors. They can be more or less reflective and have different shades of color. I am thinking of using such a mirror for one of the rooms inside the above mentioned Highway Chapel. I am interested in the direct confrontation which it will evoke with its vis-à-vis. I also like the double connotation mirrors have as something banal and commercial but also something magic like the surface of a puddle.

Louise: We wanted to briefly discuss some of your projects that have a more emotional impact than others. Over the years, the work of your office has shown a lot of interest in three kinds of projects that have a great emotional impact: stadiums, museums and care centres. Since antiquity, stadiums have probably always been the emotional spaces par excellence, as much as sacred spaces can be, I guess. Knowing your personal interest in football, we can imagine that you design stadiums not only from the perspective of the architect but certainly also from the point of view and experience of the spectator. How much has the spectator in you taught the architect to better understand what a stadium should be?

Ila: let me just add a brief comment. Most forms of art, like painting, sculpture, literature, are representations of a past emotion or a past event; they share emotion through their representation. In contrast, architecture creates a space to be experienced in the present. The space of a stadium acquires a special existence when all the bodies are together, sharing a collective emotion. The architecture is simply the shell that provides the space for that to happen. Being a football player myself and an enthusiast, I know – in fact, we all know – that a stadium without people is a very nostalgic space, even gloomy I would say. [Jacques smiles] Yet when it is filled with people, it turns into a living organism.

Jacques: As you say, the drama of architecture is that without people nothing works. Crucial to our work is the idea that architecture is a kind of stage for human performance. In a stadium, museum, health centre or rehab centre, you need to anticipate that performance. The idea is not to tell people how to behave, but to invite them. Without their involvement, architecture is dead; you get lost, or led astray by other factors like style or references. The question we should really ask is “How do people perform?” At Rehab Basel, patients may be immobile for weeks so that the ceiling and horizontal views are obviously very important to enrich their perception of nature and the world around them. So that was one important focus in working on that project. When we did the football stadium in Basel, I didn’t know of any other stadium that had been designed by an architect; they were always in the hands of contractors. Stadiums have lost their primitive, archaic, powerful, spatial, threatening and frightening quality, which I particularly love in English stadiums. They used to be ugly, yet extremely impressive. Stadiums in the 1970s were built with these glass ceilings and all this shit that was ‘architectural’ but had nothing to do with human emotions! I mean as a football player, you’re a hardcore fan, and you just want your team to win and the opponents to be scared. So we did everything we could to bring people close to the pitch, to enhance things like sound and colour. These ingredients feed into people’s performance. If that succeeds, then these places become architecture; architecture is almost a byproduct. For me, there has never been a conflict between understanding the psychology and behaviour of people and my own architectural translation; they have always gone hand in hand. I never saw it as a handicap because I have never been interested in a personal style. If anything, my personal style has always been this intention to understand where we are, where we go, why we do what we do. Maybe conceptual is the word to use in this context – a conceptual approach which has to do with how people perform and how people behave, which is in turn related to questions of psychology.

Louise: Could we say that the figure of the architect is in some ways related to the role of the conductor, the “chef d’orchestre d’émotions”, in some ways?

Jacques: You can make these comparisons, but I don’t know… The conductors I have met tend to be self-centred, believed they were greater than the musicians, greater than the concert hall and even greater than the composer. You might be right though. I think the architect is ultimately – I hope this does not sound hypocritical – not so important. You should just do the job right, never missing the opportunity to offer the platform to allow people to do things in their own way. Speaking of stadiums, which are such a specific form of architecture, every club obviously has its own tradition but the common denominator for a football stadium is its hermetic quality. It’s like a marmite [a casserole], it’s enclosed. The pressure grows and is contained. The Bird’s Nest is different from all other stadiums that we have done. It is a stadium for athletics, not football. It has this sense of antiquity with an open sky and a grid, and the athletes don’t compete against each other one-to-one, they are more of a group. We had to catch a different spirit in the architecture because after the Olympics, it had to be more than a monument: it had to work for the people; it had to be inviting and appealing and to feel like a park, not like a marmite! Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been able to serve other purposes or performances, like marriages or people simply hanging out there. As an architect, my most urgent desire was to design a stadium that could have a post-Olympic life, which meant that it had be conceived in a completely different way from a football stadium. This is a good example of how an architectural concept is related to the understanding of people’s psychology.

Ila: If architecture can be considered as a stage to decipher people’s psychology through their behaviours and gestures, do you think the opposite is also true, i.e., could architecture also have the power of influencing people’s collective psychology? To which point can shaping the space of a building, or even a city as a whole, become a powerful, or even, dangerous tool?

Jacques: In general, I don’t think architecture can pro-actively change people’s collective psychology, except when it is conceived on a large scale under dictatorships, like the Soviet Union, East Germany, or in Nazi Germany. Most such ideological architectures were conceived so they could represent the idea of never-ending power and inspire awe. Like the Haus der Kunst in Munich which I revisited recently.

I think that buildings can obstruct or inspire public life through the way they are conceived. We opted for the latter when working on Beijing‘s Bird‘s Nest which had been built in a moment when we were all hoping that China was on the way to becoming a more democratic country. As its nickname suggests, the stadium has been accepted since the beginning, and still now after the Olympic Games, as a place where people like to gather in a friendly way, like in a public park. This is not an ideological piece of architecture but indeed a political one since the rather iconic grid structure of the building serves as an urban topography for people to hang out and discuss.

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