Herzog & de Meuron

Philip Ursprung: In your most recent projects, as in Prada Tokyo, one sometimes has been feeling they are bursting in space like iridescent soap bubbles.

Jacques Herzog: For years we toyed with the idea of creating a perfume. We were convinced that basically architects should design the 21st century’s perfume and not fashion designers or athletes or film stars.

But in spite of or maybe because of all these talks with perfume makers, fashion designers, and the CEOs of the fashion world, we haven’t been able to realize our idea so far. Now it’s probably too late. The world of perfumes has since been intellectualized and renewed primarily by Comme des Garçons, Prada, and Gaultier. In the world of fashions, which is always somehow fascinating, things move much faster than in architecture – getting dressed, getting undressed, transforming oneself, giving shape, trying out sculptural possibilities, examining the quality of surface texture, inventing a style, and discarding it again. Fashions affect all of us because everybody wears something and expresses something with what he or she wears. Perfumes are part of that, and while the available range is greater than ever before, it’s still somehow limited. The really interesting thing about perfumes is not actually the scent itself, but rather the memory that is stored with the scent. Smells and scents can evoke experiences and images of the past, almost like photographs. For us certain smells always produced architectural images and spatial memories – almost like an inner film. We were therefore never interested in producing a specific scent but rather a library of smells and scents that one might access like a kind of interface between fiction and reality: perfumes that smell like sweat, like oil paint, like wet concrete or warm asphalt on which it has rained, or like an old kitchen. These scents do not conform to conventional ideas of what smells good. We would have liked to work on such an unusual project because it would have added another facet to our understanding of architecture as a far-reaching field of endeavor. In the meantime the idea has become stale. These or similar scents already exist and they’ll vanish again, like all the others.

And another thing about scents that come and go:

This is an aspect that applies to architecture as well, namely that it leaves a mark on us and reminds us of our own history. One need only think of the school houses of one’s youth, whose architecture makes a lifelong impression, especially in connection with a specific smell. I don’t know if the uncomfortable feeling often caused by the memory of the architecture of our own past has do with the fact that it evokes a time that is over and, with it, a whole portion of our lives, or whether we project the usual frustrations of growing up onto these architectural memories. We can certainly design better or poorer, more pleasant or less pleasant architecture, but, like perfume, it is the experience associated – or not associated – with it that is decisive. There is a difference between experiencing a victory or a defeat in a football stadium. Memories and experiences are always individual. This aspect of elusive emotions that define the aura of a place plays a role in our perception of architecture. Architecture can not be neutral and is, in a sense, a very old-fashioned medium inasmuch as it completely involves us physically and refuses to let us be detached about it.

Philip Ursprung in conversation with Jacques Herzog, 2002