Herzog & de Meuron

Ornament, Structure, Space. A conversation with Jacques Herzog Basel, Winter 2006

Jean-François Chevrier: We are in Basel, in the ‘Villa’, your firm’s oldest building. We are in the meeting room adjacent to your office, a homely, rather bare room. On the wall I can see a magnificent picture by Rémy Zaugg, which describes the portrait of a painter by Picasso, after El Greco. It is a work derived from Picasso, itself derived from El Greco. Such palimpsest-like depth is characteristic of the pictorial work of Rémy Zaugg. Rémy died not long ago; his collaboration with you was a determining factor in the development of your work, and he was personal friend.

Jacques Herzog: Yes, Rémy is no longer with us. We have lost a friend and a close collaborator. He was very important, especially at the beginning, in the development of our thinking on the city, on architecture, on painting, but also on perception – a shared obsession of ours – and on the world generally. Right up to the end Rémy remained a very close friend, but we saw each other less. One of the painful sides of life is that you have less and less time to devote to personal contact and discussion. Early in our careers we had the time to go on quite long trips, to discuss things late into the night, to exchange ideas in depth, to take risks in all directions, in short, to lead a life of great openness. Rémy was central to this phase of our life and we, I believe, in his. Then we became professionals, with a reputation to uphold and appointments to keep. As your career as an architect progresses, you enjoy greater freedom, you are allowed to do more things, but at other levels you lose out.

What was interesting was our naiveté: we did not know what art or architecture were, we did not know in advance how to do things, we were starting from scratch. It is difficult to retain such innocence. Death means that something is no longer in your life. We continue to find certain of our older projects interesting. But it is no longer possible to do them – I don’t deplore that fact, I simply note that it is the case. I have often described this experience as being like a voyage to a planet that you visit and which afterwards ceases to be there. But that disappearance is also deliberate: you no longer want to go back. All the things we did with Rémy are testimony to that kind of journey.

J.-F. C.: The work that Rémy Zaugg left open and which he virtually never displayed was his great series on Cézanne, Esquisses perceptives. It is a set of variations, on La Maison du pendu in particular. Underlying this work, there is the paradigm of the picture, or tableau, in Cézanne. In Rémy, you can also see this paradigm of the tableau as an equivalent of the world, not in the sense that it is a complete programme of representation, but in the sense that it absorbs all sensations, becomes the sensing, perceiving subject. In Cézanne, there is no programme, there is an experience and a subject, which inscribes itself in the tableau. That is why in Rémy Zaugg we find painting as inscription. I saw yesterday when visiting the Roche building, that the first ‘picture’ you see when you enter says ‘I am the subject’: ‘Ich, das Bild, ich fühle…’ (‘I, the picture, I feel’). It is the picture speaking, not the painter speaking through the picture. Not only does the picture speak, it also feels.

J. H.: It not only feels, it also smells. The smell of a painting, or rather the olfactory perception of a painting, was very important for him; smell as sensation was among the paradoxical capacities he attributed to the picture as dead subject. His work evolved increasingly around death.

J.-F. C.: In the West, the tableau is the model for the autonomous work of art, at one and the same time an equivalent of the world and an equivalent of the subject. It was a major invention. The fact that you were in contact with someone who thought in that way, and did so from an analytical standpoint, integrating language and the fragility of history, is highly important.

J. H.: What counts for us is not so much the status of the tableau but more the quality of the perception it implies: the human senses come together in the tableau’s concentrated world, the source of which is the will to make the perception come alive again. Fundamentally, it is in perception that life expresses itself. Rémy made a distinction between artistic and other modes of perception, and especially everyday perception. Creative vitality expresses itself in this perceptual energy, which is richer and more intense when confronted with a work of art than, for example, an advertisement. The idea of equivalence runs counter to the ideology according to which a picture simply represents. We were in fundamental agreement with Rémy on this point. I think our architecture provides confirmation of it.

However, although early in our career we took on projects focused on the autonomy of the creative work, architecture does not lend itself well to this. The ‘picture = subject’ equation cannot be transposed. That is one major difference between art and architecture.

J.-F. C.: Rémy Zaugg designed the colour scheme for the Roche building. You often call upon artists to design the colours of your buildings.

J. H.: We are believers in professionalism. Ideally, the ‘professional’ for words is a poet. Others simply make technical or technocratic use of language, although some are more gifted than others. The same is true of colour. When an architect selects a colour, he does so according to his own taste. There is nothing worse than such recourse to individual taste. If the choice of a given colour (all colours are marvellous) is not conceptually grounded, what will be missing is forcefulness, precision: all the things that make architecture interesting. Our work with Rémy related especially to colour. Even the colours of the seating for the St. Jakob Stadium in Basel – red and blue – was carefully studied. We did not use exactly the traditional red and blue of FC Basel as such because even a football club may change the precise tone of its colours to match changing fashion. The stadium interior is red because red prepares the human eye for more intense perception of the green of the pitch. We then asked Rémy to advise us on which red to choose. His answer was of course: ‘it depends which green’. But in the open air, in the real three-dimensional world, there is not just one green, there are a thousand. That was a very interesting experience and in the end we still opted for a red. Even if the effect is not as hallucinatory as I imagined, it is still very powerful. The Roche building is another example.

J.-F. C.: This building exemplifies the way you have worked on the relationship between art and architecture. The library stands on the street, and from there it develops back in depth into the laboratory area. The separating wall, painted in blue, gives the area linked to the street a vertical continuity, a reference to the ideal sky seen from the street. The blue wall is a sort of internal façade. I find great beauty in the way the diffusion of the blue from the picture is applied over the entire depth of the building, and the fact that that depth is occupied by laboratories. Laboratories are places where research is done. The relationship with the tableau present in this building is emblematic of your own spirit of research.

J. H.: In this building, surface and space become a single entity. Space here is no longer conventional, defined by walls on every side, but a layer through which you pass. It is a little like walking into the tableau, physically.

But the next level of scale is the city. Since 1988, we have been working on the metropolisation process of Basel, on the city’s transformation into a trinational metropolis. What was new, other than the intrinsic interest of the urban planning project, was the phenomenological method we adopted: our gaze is critical, but it is also ‘naïve’. It is a way of discovering things you walk by every day in a city and not seeing them. You simply describe what is there. It was also the way Rémy did his pictures on Cézanne. Of course, you neglect some things with that kind of description. We have tried to correct that since. A morphological describing of things was not enough. We had to find tools to enable us to describe daily life, the way people move about, to take sociology and psychology into account. Still, a city’s psychology can be read by looking at the material world – a city is like a built psychogram.

We ask questions raised by specific things, rather than by what is generic. Unlike other architects and town planners, we do not believe that globalisation is taking us toward a generic city. Cities are moving towards the specific. But not in a romantic sense, one in which every city would have its own character, existing autonomously in an unchanging world, different from other cities. The specific, the concrete world of a city or a picture, shows signs of sickness, a process of sclerotisation. Oddly, very comparable things are put in place in cities, but each city has its own qualities and its own forms of sickness, and these produce landscapes. Difference has always been perceived as a quality in our culture: our culture is founded on differentiation. But the other side of the coin is differentiation in decline. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the ideal, Platonic world in which we would be free of difference as an issue and therefore free of the Other, of human life, cities, pictures and individuals.

This question starts to get really interesting if you go back in time to the ancient, Roman city. Cities were then built virtually identically in terms of layout and types of building. But they all evolved differently. Today, you will find Starbucks and MacDonald’s everywhere. But despite such signs of globalisation, cities evolve differently. Cities, or their inhabitants, react differently to the same phenomena, and especially globalisation.

J.-F. C.: A distinction needs to be made between specificity in evolutionary change and difference as a distinctive characteristic of a system. Artists are asked to produce signs of distinctiveness. It is a social function of art, to which it cannot however be limited. An architect who worked only to produce distinctive signs would never become part of the evolutionary change in things, of what produces real differences.

J. H.: I think that many of our colleagues live with an imperative of existence, of being seen and therefore of producing distinctive signs. This exerts enormous pressure, and is a source of terrible fear. They are capable of creating such signs with some force but increasingly it is difference within sameness – a caricature of difference. It creates architecture that is egotistic to the point of caricature.

The Firm
J.-F. C.: Producing differences that do not boil down to a personal brand image presupposes close attention to processes, to evolutionary change, as well as work on oneself. That is obviously what you are looking for. It makes itself felt in the way the firm operates.

J. H.: Pierre and I were very young when we began to work together. We have got into the habit of there being two of us. That is a source of some difference to start with in terms of centres of interest, character, and so on. That may be why we can work with partners and allow them visibility. Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger joined us fifteen years or so ago, more recently Ascan Mergenthaler, Robert Hösl, and now Stefan Marbach. That means there are seven partners, or rather two plus five given that each of us has a specific role and responsibility in the development of projects and in the organisation of the firm. Each of the partners has responsibility for certain projects whose progress they follow on a daily basis and for which they organise the work to be done by the teams. Our role, Pierre and myself, is to inspire and assist all the projects. The pace is not dissimilar to that of a university or a school: we see each team once a week or every fortnight. We do not go in for ‘group therapy’; all the partners do not meet up to monitor progress on every project. That would be ridiculous, but more importantly it would create a sort of participatory democracy that would be false: architectural creation is not democratic, no more than artistic creation is. On the other hand, it is important to work with partners whose options and cultures are different. That is a way of working that guarantees there will be differences within the office itself, more than if we worked in a more hierarchical way, with invisible teams who put up no resistance … We expect a degree of resistance from our partners. It is difficult, but it works quite well. Our five partners are all very gifted people who could easily start up their own offices.

Our former four-person organisation, with Harry and Christine, worked for a time but today it would no longer be possible. Seen from outside we were a group of four ‘leaders’, seemingly more or less at the same level, leading an ‘army’. Now it is seven strong, the group is too heterogeneous to continue to work in the same way and nearly two hundred people work in the firm now. Being in a group of seven produces more interesting competition for me and Pierre. It is egotistic, but simultaneously altruistic.

J.-F. C.: You accept approximately 3% of the commissions you are offered. That isn’t many and it implies draconian choices. In the last few days I have spoken with several members of your staff and I was told that proposals are considered and chosen collegiately. But if a project is to be accepted, either you or Pierre have to approve the choice.

J. H.: We have to want to work on all the projects we select and to work on them in the context of the other projects already underway. Our work is the whole set of projects. It would be ridiculous if we did too many museums or more and more stadiums. It is the context of the office as a whole that enables us to judge how interesting a proposal is. Like local soil or wine, a project has a certain potential, which depends on the client, the budget, the landscape, the programme, and the possibilities of changing it. We are now in a position to refuse commissions and we therefore try to select those that excite us, those that do not leave us unmoved.

With the partners, we try to develop a culture of discussion, round tables, even if we do not hold many meetings of all seven, these being tedious and time-consuming. It is obvious that seven people cannot run an office at the same time and the firm is managed largely by Pierre. As a group of seven we discuss the people who work with us, project selection, the hiring of new staff and a good many other things. It gives us a feeling for where the others stand. If we were too far from each other on such points our differences would become insurmountable.

J.-F. C.: This method of distributing the creative idea, divided but always applied to specific objects, produces a kind of mosaic. The creative spirit is diffracted and you are the moving focus.

J. H.: The focus is dual, Pierre and myself. Pierre runs the firm, but that does not stop him keeping abreast of the projects. We think differently but we see instantly what is missing in a project. That also comes from the independence we retain with regard to individual projects: we can create projects, but we can also destroy, attack and transform them.

Like scientists or sportspeople, an architect’s energy can sometimes be at a low ebb. Ideally, a partner will bring a lot to a project without Pierre or I having to intervene, but this sometimes leads to situations in which teams become closed to our intervention. In certain cases, some try to push a project into a state of invulnerability. This is frequently a crucial moment that needs to be overcome. It is at that point that it is absolutely necessary to intervene and open up a new perspective, add a dimension or even destroy everything developed up to that point. It is sometimes unbearable to see a project that is virtually finished, as if it were already built and changes can no longer be made. An architect does not work with his own hands and a time always comes when he can no longer destroy what he has done and start all over again. A lot of money and a lot of people are involved. This inertia is a danger, but it is also an interesting condition. It can be difficult for people who work on a project every day to see it come under fire. They tend to defend it. I can well understand that. When I was a student, I was very upset when the teacher destroyed my project. I had not yet understood that you must always leave a certain distance between yourself and the creative work to allow it to stand alone.

J.-F. C.: Yesterday when I arrived I visited the REHAB centre. Shortly afterwards at the office I met with Christine Binswanger, and I learned during our discussion that she is the granddaughter of Ludwig Binswanger, the great psychiatrist. I could not help making the link between her family background and the building’s characteristics. REHAB is a place of suffering. It is also an extraordinary place for new life. Never before in a hospital have I had such a feeling of suffering overcome, such focus on return to life. Christine says that she has not read her grandfather’s writings, but throughout her childhood in the clinic, which was also where the family lived, she had the experience of living alongside the patients, who were in fact mentally ill. In a project such as this, what are the relative contributions made by the partner, the firm’s traditions, and your interventions, those of Pierre and yourself?

J. H.: The process whereby this project was conceived is no different from any other. Like us all, Christine is partly defined by her life history. Her own is particularly interesting and has left a profound mark on the way she has evolved in the group. Christine is highly social, and the organisation of our office is, I think, very similar to the large ‘family’ in which she grew up as a child in the Binswanger clinic.

The patients treated by REHAB are not handicapped mentally, they are physically impaired. They have seen their world shrink dramatically from one day to the next, and their physical space is restricted. We tried to understand, to imagine what happens when, suddenly, your possibilities for movement become reduced to that extent. The transparent globes that light the rooms from the ceiling are an attempt by us to concentrate the world and nature in a tiny space through the interplay of reflections. It is like architectural LSD!

J.-F. C.: There is also a great breath of air. Concentration breathes, as it does in Cézanne. We find ourselves here in the presence of an exemplar of a form of architecture that can only be specific in terms of programme and location. Architecture must absorb all the potential of a place. Concentration can breathe because it has assimilated its immediate environment.

J. H.: Yes, it does seem to me that we went quite a long way with this project. The building plays the role of an instrument that restores movement, freedom. The idea of freedom is very important: the freedom to breathe, see, move and rebuild independence. The ability to discover the world again. That is one of architecture’s ancient dimensions. And that also takes us back to art. Dieter Koepplin spoke of prostheses in talking of the works of Beuys. Matthew Barney inherited this notion of objects as prostheses enabling human beings in a fragmented or fractured world to regain some degree of potential.

J.-F. C.: In this building, the architecture is obviously a construction of space for the body. But a prosthesis is in contact with the body; it remedies the inadequacies of the body’s organs. Unlike Matthew Barney, you produce space, light, an ability to breathe, that is to say things that are intangible, which cannot replace the body because they are of a different nature.

J. H.: It is another strategy to help human beings in a fragmented world. The artist works in this world and all creative works, or almost all, draw on the utopia of the integral body. We are constantly trying to reach the same utopia, in different ways. Through the interplay of reflections of light or by opening up visual perspectives, we try to offer REHAB’s patients the mobility, the freedom they no longer have.

Form and Programme
J.-F. C.: Great attention is paid in your work to form and the seductiveness of form. But the project programme adds another dimension. It seems to me that there is a great deal at stake in this relationship, to the point that there is sometimes a feeling that the seductiveness of form is there to help you to persuade the client and influence the programme.

J. H.: Your approach is interesting – our work is very often seen as being the other way round. There are people who still see our work as a formal game with the external envelope. With large or very large scale projects, the planning has become important and we work on this very actively, as in the case for example of Forum 2004 in Barcelona.

For small projects, it is easy to reconcile seduction of form and function. There is a close dialogue with the client. In big projects there is a brief that dictates everything that must be built – an auditorium or art galleries or a shopping mall or all that at the same time – but what is missing is the idea of the city, of integration into the real city, into the social life of the city. And it is there that work done on the brief beyond what has been planned by the client commissioning the project becomes imperative and frequently decisive for the success of the building. The building will survive in the city (and the architect will be able to continue to work) only if he successfully integrates it into the city.

For example, in Barcelona, we proposed to create a wedding chapel, a market, bars and a fountain underneath the ‘Blue Rock’ of Forum 2004. The building had to be put up very quickly and the overall programme is only coming into place now, two years on the opening. It is essential for the future of the site. This building will then have everything to allow it to function, and it will be able to become a central, iconic element in the urban jigsaw puzzle that is Barcelona.

The seductiveness of form is very important. It engages all the senses, it makes perception more intense. That is how an iconic building takes on the monumental ‘permanence’ described by Aldo Rossi.

J.-F. C.: It should be added that such development of the programme, and the reappropriation of the building are facilitated when collective investment has defined the initial relationship between form and function. Collective investment tends to disappear when the brief is focused on image. In that case, it is difficult to imagine such reappropriation, even if the programme has been effectively defined, because it will have been too image-centred.

J. H.: Take the example of Beijing National Stadium. We could have designed an outer skin that was simply decorative. There would have been an outside and an inside and nothing in between. Outside, the city; inside, the stadium and the sports spectacle. We concentrated on the intermediate zone. We created a structure that had depth, one that we compare with the space under the Eiffel Tower. The Chinese are very fond of public space, and we think they will like this space and that they will make good use of it. We try everything, which is in the hands of an architect / urbanist that this Olympic stadium, more than others before, will have a life after the Games. Naturally, there will have to be a new programme for its interior. That will depend to a large extent on the activities held there, rock concerts or whatever. For us, this is an open area, one that can be used as a semi-roofed space. Everything happens in the layer between a highly functional space, the interior of the stadium, and the city.

J.-F. C.: You have sometimes been criticised for giving preference to surfaces. But the seductive effect you are looking for is also important in the treatment of light, space and many other factors. In the case of the shopping mall in Munich, the Fünf Höfe, you have taken account of a quality that might be called ‘glamour’ called for by the very nature of the project. We could discuss the details. I am not entirely convinced by the inverted garden effect. The Italian-style café is very attractive. I see your expertise in all these details but I find their sheer accumulation disturbing; it tends to blur what seems to me to be the strength of the project, its urban integration. In this particular case, how do you see the relationship between seductive impact and working on the project programme?

J. H.: I don’t really know what ‘glamour’ is in this context. I shall try to explain to you what we were trying to do. The Fünf Höfe is in a very densely built-up area and we were working with what was already there, both older and more recent. We tried to invent a European model for the ‘shopping mall’. A shopping mall is a closed, air-conditioned interior space within which you move from one shop to the next, from one chain store to the next, with no change in temperature or in quality of air. We wanted to infuse that space with natural elements: rain, sun, snow. Each courtyard is different; the colours and even the smells differ. The aim was to draw the attention of shoppers to the place where they are, beyond the shopping mall, to keep their feet on the ground, and prevent them moving within a purely commercial universe, guided by goods for sale.

In some places, it rains inside. We certainly used devices to seduce, and played around with surfaces, but with a view to providing a physical experience. An example: the courtyard with the perforated copper walls.

J.-F. C.: The work on scales is very persuasive. In the hall designed by another architect the scale is not right. The change of scale you have produced between the front and the rear is very interesting. All of this is part of an integration in the city. But detail can become an obstacle to the urban experience when you see an accumulation of details rather than their integration into a holistic perception. It is true that in the case of a shopping mall it is particularly difficult to give primacy to holistic perception given you are already in a space overloaded with detail, with a multiplicity of objects that need to attract the eye, to seduce.

J. H.: The Fünf Höfe shopping mall is not a new object; it has been slipped into what exists already; all the frontages were givens, with one exception. It is a spatial process that unfolds from exterior to interior. It is spatial thinking, and I would not know how to do it better or differently now. When you walk around the shopping mall, you have no unitary perception of it. It is not a single thing in itself. What you have is courtyards within an existing set of buildings, each very different. It is the exact opposite of Prada Tokyo, which is an almost monolithic, coherent project. Fünf Höfe is not coherent; the details change to reflect the themes of the various courtyards. But there is an overarching idea. It is not a classicist model, but rather a medieval typology seen through the models for post-War reconstruction. We gave priority to the diversity of the spaces. We were very interested in the system of courtyards characteristic of Munich: it was imported from Italy in the 19th century and revisited in the 1950s. It relates to Bavarian pride in a city of the North inspired by the South. This project is a continuation of the city’s architectural diversity.

Ornament, Structure, Space
J.-F. C.: That brings us to another point: the relationship between ornament, structure and space. You work on specific projects, avoiding any creation of a brand image. But it is possible to discern lines of force in your approach. The first would be the relationship between ornament and structure, but structure seen in depth: ‘space’ therefore. When you think in terms of this relationship you are thinking not only of the building’s façade, but of its depth. This is particularly noticeable in a some recent projects. At what point in your approach, in your view, did this ornament / structure / space relationship first appear?

J. H.: Our first commissions did not permit us as yet to influence the programme and define structure, interior space, ornament or planning as we would have wanted. We were more restricted, in terms of the commission as well as where our tools were concerned. For the Ricola storage building, for example, we did not really have access to the inside of the building: it was a totally automated storage facility. But we saw the incredible quality of the site, and we understood that we could invent a new space on the outside between the rock and the building. We have always tried, in one way or another, to create a relationship between space and skin. At the beginning, we were less concerned with structure. In the case of the Ricola storage building, there is a relationship based on structural analogy between the visible stratification of the rock and that of the building’s façade. Some constructions, like Prada in Tokyo, the Beijing Stadium or the Flamenco centre in Jerez, apply the idea that the skin creates unity and that it has depth. But we have never deliberately sought such unity – it came about during our work as a way of integrating the various components of the project. If that unity is missing, and it is not really present in contemporary architecture, you are creating pop architectural designs on which you stick decoration like wallpaper.

When ornament and structure become a single thing, strangely enough the result is a new feeling of freedom. Suddenly, you no longer need to explain or apologise for this or that decorative detail: it is a structure, a space. In actual fact, I am not particularly interested in either structure or ornament or space as such. Things start to get interesting when you bring all these elements together in a single thing, and if you can experience it, by moving through the building, by using it. We try to respond to questions and antitheses that are simple and almost archaic: up/down, open/closed, far/near, dark/light. In the end, we prefer not to talk in terms of ornament, structure or space. Those are technical terms, which we have learned, but to which we attach no value. When you integrate them into a whole, it is easier to make them disappear.

J.-F. C.: For the Prada Epicenter in Tokyo, you go so far as to make the ornamentation load-bearing. You make a distinction between ornament and decoration. The ornament is not something added on, but becomes one with the production of form. We see again here the theme of ornamental form in nature which you set out twenty years ago in a theoretical text, Die verborgene Geometrie der Natur [The Hidden Geometry of Nature] and which we can see for example in Karl Blossfeldt, whose photographs you used. Ornament is part of an autogenesis of form, something very different from decoration. That ornamental dimension has another virtue: it is expansive, it overflows the frame of decoration, of decorated structure.

J. H.: The use of ornamentation allows us to avoid looking for form as such: form, whether geometrical or organic, just comes about, via the ornament. It is a process behind which you can disappear as ‘creator’. We also thought about this type of process with Rémy Zaugg. We do not particularly like rectangular shapes, but these are the predominant forms in the rational, functional world that has grown up in the course of the 20th century.

When we introduce ornamentation, such as the perverse graffiti in Jerez, we can play with it like a genetic code and it will generate things that are interesting. Likewise, the pavilion currently on display in the garden of the Beyeler Foundation is the outcome of three-dimensional experimentation with ornamentation. Bringing together within a single entity what are termed ornament, structure and space does in fact bring us closer to creation in the natural world. But think of the numbers of artists before us (I have Gerhard Richter in mind, for example) who have been fascinated and frustrated by the question of the process of natural creation!

At the same time, we are not against decoration. I am even quite attracted to kitsch, including things that are poorly executed, B-film studio sets, pastiche and the like. Of course, you cannot base an approach to architectural design on that, but it can be interesting to find elements of this kind in a building, especially in the way surfaces are treated. Wallpaper and fabric wall coverings can help give a space ‘closure’, intimacy.

J.-F. C.: Both are in Matisse, ornamentation and decoration. But ornamentation is predominant.

J. H.: What fascinated us in Matisse was the way he uses ornament, which enables him to destroy perspective and shape, and we decided to transpose that into architecture. The photographs Thomas Ruff selected to be applied onto the facades of the Eberswalde library flatten the building, making it look like a rectangular cut-out, distorting the form of the building

J.-F. C.: Ornamentation is expansive, it overflows boundaries. Like grass, it spreads outward, it does not want to be restricted, and it gets everywhere. Ornamentation is barbarous. The great cultures of ornamentation are barbarian cultures, and Islam.

J. H.: Islamic architecture uses ornament to mask bare surfaces. Like Protestants, Muslims consider that the divine is in bare surface and not in ornament. The opposite is true of Catholic and Orthodox cultures. I was born into a protestant culture but I have always admired Russian and Greek Orthodox use of image and decoration. Later, as architects, we discovered the potential of decoration as a tool for the destruction of ‘valid’ form. We have problems in seeing such and such a form that we will be giving our construction as valid per se. It is difficult for us to say: ‘That’s the form I want, no doubt about it’. Ornament has helped us overcome the obstacle of form. When we discovered Arab architecture we immediately understood that it was a way of avoiding the display of form. Ornament makes the introduction of doubt possible.

J.-F. C.: We should go back to Adolf Loos, because some of the issues in his philosophy seem to be to be relevant today. For example, the linkage between the ornament and the sacred. Loos is not against ornament as such, he is against ornamentation that is eclectic, profane, bourgeois, gemütlich … His conception is dandyistic, aristocratic, anti-bourgeois, but not revolutionary. He wants to restore the link between ornament, the sacred and nature. If ornamentation is distinct from decoration, in the bourgeois meaning of the term, that distinction is violent in a way that can be linked to the sacred. The sacred, where it comes into play, produces violence, creates an opening, breaks down existing boundaries and creates others.

J. H.: I agree in principle, but we would need to agree on the precise meaning of the term. If you translate it by the German Erhaben [the sublime], you are in the same company as Heidegger and Barnett Newman. That is a dimension that does not interest us – the idea of the sublime has become somewhat ridiculous. If you are to be able to work with the sacred [das Heilige], you need to find the way back to a more accessible, or more straightforward sensibility. Very few architectural constructions, when you visit them, awaken a visceral feeling in you, change your perceptions, impress you to the point that they bring you up short. That is in fact how Loos defines architecture. You can have such feelings when you visit the Convent of La Tourette, or Chartres cathedral. Ideally, we are seeking to produce a shock of that kind, to break down the lethargy with which architecture is usually perceived, which stems from the automatic habits of day-to-day living.

What may remain from religious feelings is the feeling of being alive, of having understood or rather perceived something; it is the experience of a place where you can find renewed energy by reaching deeply into yourself. It is the same experience as standing in front of a painting, when suddenly you see it as it truly is. It is not religiosity but that kind of intensity that can be achieved in architecture, and it is our greatest challenge.

Ambiguity, Territory, the integral Body
J.-F. C.: You work within ambiguity. You seek unity, a gathering together, a form of permanence. But you must compromise with situations that are contradictory and you assimilate the contradictions, you interpret them, you introduce doubt. Robert Venturi was referring to the work of William Empson on poetry [Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930]. I don’t know on what basis you have redefined ambiguity in architecture, but I observe that it is the case. I am thinking here for example of the Basel signal boxes. When I stand in front of one of these, it is not a hieratic object, it is not a monolith: the ornamental complexity of the outer cladding prevents such effects. Neither is it the inscription of a sense of place – we are not dealing here with any mysticism of place. Neither is it an image: its integration into an environment stops you seeing it as an abstract image. You have worked on its ambiguity: the building combines mutually contradictory qualities, without cancelling them out.

J. H.: We do not really set out to work in this way – it is a kind of reflex, or a process. I cannot explain it. I don’t think one can really explain this like a recipe, but of course it seems as if we were almost frightened by the idea of building unequivocal constructions. Like a door that is open or closed, or like an advertisement.

J.-F. C.: Referring to the title of a play by Alfred de Musset, Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée [A door must be either open or closed], Duchamp conceived of a door that was always open and shut at the same time.

J. H.: He takes the most obvious thing to make visible the system of paradox. We are not interested in this kind of visualisation. We are more interested in the effect on the viewer / user.

J.-F. C.: Ambiguity defines poetry, whereas paradox is logic. The other advantage of ambiguity is that it is very close, in psychology, to ambivalence: love-hate, contradictory feelings. You have just defined an attitude, a psychological wellspring. Secondly, ambiguity has a potential for criticism in a world where efficiency is a dominant criterion linked either to communication, or to a pop – to be more precise, a semiological-pop – norm. In your case, this poetic and critical dimension seems to me to be particularly important, because you have never ceased to work on surface effects, on image, which are essential characteristics of the pop norm. You introduce a blurring effect and a contradiction into that norm, rethinking place, the urban, natural form and the psychology of materials.

It appears to me that the change of scale in your work obliges you to define more systematically what you have always been doing. You have always worked with ambiguity. It is neither a style, nor a personal brand image; it is more a method of working.

J. H.: But it is a method that it is impossible to adopt deliberately. The result would be catastrophic. I have never thought in terms of categories; I have never tried to categorise our projects. That is an idea I am beginning to find interesting. But ambiguity is not a category.

J.-F. C.: You referred to Rossi’s theory of the monument. An alternative to the monument is territory. Behind the ideas of place, urban space, there is the city, which is analogous to the creative work, but there is also territory. Territory is a geographical notion, not an artistic one. In architecture, the relationship between interior and exterior makes it possible to rework the relationship between private and public, to produce a territorial intimacy that can be distinguished from domestic intimacy without necessarily bringing in any normative concept of public space. It seems to me that the starting point for your thinking on the monumental is territorial intimacy.

J. H.: Beijing Stadium is a monument in an almost classical sense of the word. The Barcelona Forum was designed as a monumental element to establish contact between the city, the Avenida Diagonal and the sea. In both cases, we needed to create landmarks. Since the Tate Modern, Herzog & de Meuron have been receiving commissions on a global scale. That fact brings with it new responsibilities to architecture and the city.

Unlike other European countries, e.g. France, the UK or Germany, there is no real culture of the monument in Switzerland. But in the cities of countries that are developing rapidly (China, Russia, and the Muslim world) and which do not have the same democratic base as European states, monuments are necessary if chaos is to be avoided. The monument is a historical notion that needs to be redefined. Just as each project raises the question of whether architecture is even possible, there is no answer in principle to issue of the monument. An iconic quality is indispensable to architecture of urban scale.

If a building does not have that quality, it has failed. But it is not enough on its own. Today, there is no tradition, no standard that can guarantee that quality, like colonnades, for example, which were once characteristic of monuments. The monument, as we see it, calls for something anti-monumental. In Beijing, for example, we are trying to insert an intimate space into the middle of public space. In Barcelona, a similar contradiction is produced by the covered area under the building.

In both these cases, intimate aspects help erase the monumental quality of monuments that would otherwise be in danger of becoming over-heroic. But in San Francisco, for the de Young Museum, it was the other way round. The ‘monumentalisation’ of the construction by its tall tower seemed to us to be very important in order to underscore the socio-cultural and urban role played by the institution, standing as it does on the borderline between the city and Golden Gate Park. There was a very lively debate into which Pierre threw himself in a spirited defence of the tower. We told the client that the tower of the old building had allowed the museum to become a symbol for the city. But for us, it was much simpler than that – the building would have been invisible without some part of it emerging from behind the trees. The museum would have been a totally interior design. The tower is a striking element seen from outside, but it also allows the city to be seen from the museum, like a tall window.

J.-F. C.: In the case of the Walker Art Center, the territorial dimension is more limited, less spectacular. The building is less sensual but has a great urban presence. It extends the old blank, hermetic construction of Edward Larrabee Barnes and puts it right back into the city, on the street.

J. H.: We did in fact put it back on the street. In most American cities, streets do not define the city or the experience of the city as much as they do in Europe. We adopted a European treatment of the relationship with the street. A bus stop was created – it was a tiny revolution in the conception of urban territory in the United States. But the work is not finished. New gardens will be implemented once the Guthrie Theater will be demolished. We wanted not only to root the building in the city differently, but also to define it in relation to the nature that has disappeared. That is perhaps a Zauggian move, the evocation of vanished nature. We are recreating the prairie, trying in that way to reintegrate the existing Sculpture Garden, which is looking detached and unimportant in its current existence. The current building of the Guthrie confuses everything. The new gardens will make it possible to reconstruct a situation in which the autonomy of Barnes’ design will be restored.

J.-F. C.: The most sculptural part of the construction is the auditorium. Here you find a depth, a substance in contrast with the building’s overall austerity.

J. H.: Many people were very critical of our use of exuberant ornamentation; they thought we had gone mad, that we had sunk to the purely commercial. In reality, the ornamentation inside the auditorium extends into the garage and even into the future gardens, and vice versa.

J.-F. C.: We were talking about the sacred. Aiming to restore the sacred to architecture today is dangerous, and probably impossible. But the sacred can be a horizon, on condition that it is conceived in relation to day-to-day existence. And that is in fact a modern tradition. Additionally, the sacred has often been associated with a sense of place in Loos, in Barnett Newman. Such an association is problematic in the modern day.

J. H.: The sacred has critical potential because it is a taboo in today’s architecture. Criticism must include a questioning of what is assumed to no longer be part of architecture, of what has been excluded from it. Architecture is in danger today: leaving aside hypervisible constructions designed by a few architects in the ‘star system’, a large number of modern buildings are not built by architects.

If the architects are no longer capable of questioning the boundaries of architecture, and also of reconstructing things that have been forgotten or lost, of restoring a certain quality to architecture, including and especially in daily life, then architecture is finished. Never forget that there is absolutely no guarantee of its existence.

J.-F. C.: The socialised body is fragmented. Trying to find a place for the integral body is an exercise in utopian restoration. The redefinition of utopia by the goal of the integral body enables us to avoid constantly seeing in utopia a reference to an ideal society. It was a core ingredient of the first romantic / utopian Marxism, which saw an opposition between individual and social emancipation and a state of alienation. Utopia can then be defined around the body, around the psyche, rather than around an ideal society that would absorb individuals.

J. H.: Architecture cannot answer those great questions; in that domain it is useless. However, as I was saying, it is the place where our perception as a whole is formed and is measured. No other discipline requires the totality of the senses to such a degree. We have never stopped working on a reconstruction of the integral body.

Take our project for Christian and Cherise Moueix in California. In the Dominus Winery, you experience the climate, the heat. You are at one and the same time outside and inside. It is a project of contrasts: landscape, interiors, climate. Inside-outside. The filter effect of the wall of stones stops you being exposed to the naked heat. It is a little like being in a cathedral when you experience the coolness of space physically.

J.-F. C.: In 20th century art, the sacred, which you have just mentioned again, was often expressed in a search for reduction, for abstraction, which is a new form of a very ancient goal: the dematerialisation, the spiritualisation of matter.

J. H.: Ad Reinhardt looked for the blackest black all his life. What excited me about his search, what fascinates me about art, is the extremely physical quality of works produced with a view to getting rid of the physical dimension. You see an effort and its failure. But what is most important is the effort. That creative energy, that form of madness, is highly perceptible, physically, in works of art.