Herzog & de Meuron

I have been asked to talk about poesis and production. As far as I understand the thematic for this panel, which was written by Ignasi de SolĂ -Morales, the terms poesis and mimesis are here seen as unconnected and even opposed to each other.

I want to raise some different questions, which in many ways turn on the same question: How can one work today, in the time in which we live, as an architect? The traditional form of dialectical thinking, based on the separation and isolation of one element of the thinking model in order to enhance and strengthen the other, has come to an end and can no longer be used in architectural (and other?) design processes. This “heroic” form of dialectical thinking, which denies any link between seemingly opposed systems, has its historical roots in the 19th century.

Rather than seeing artificial and natural processes as opposed to each other, today we see them as one thing, as a continuity of things. We no longer believe that nature and society, or nature and the city, are dialectically opposed. By nature we mean biological, chemical, and physical processes, processes that we try to describe in order to understand nature. We also mean artificial and artistic processes that allow us to understand our own natures, our perception and sensation of nature, and our effect on and alteration of it.

We have learned much from reading about chemical processes and crystallographic descriptions that compare microstructures, i.e., “invisible” structures such as atomic grids of materials, to the “visible” aspects and qualities that these materials or substances reveal to us in everyday life. My partner de Meuron and I have put together some thoughts on this in a text entitled “The Hidden Geometry of Nature.” We were curious to know more about things that, although invisible to the naked eye, are becoming extremely effective and that, ultimately, are responsible for such things as the shape, color, or physical stability of an object. For example, largely due to the differing mineral qualities of (invisible) crystallographic structures, a mountain of granite takes on shape different from that of a mountain of limestone. Although people constantly separate the visible and the invisible worlds, there is a link between them. Even today most people (including architects) understand “reality” as something they can see or hold in their hands. They cannot or do not want to accept the existence of the realities hidden within either natural or artificial objects. This has major consequences not only for the way in which architects conceive architecture, but for architecture’s economic and ecological impact on society.

Our first project dealing with the problem of natural/artificial processes is the Diagonal competition in Barcelona, in which we proposed a pond system that works as a biological water purification plant while serving as a public garden. At the time nobody understood the project. Many read it as an ecological ideal and not an urban planning strategy intended to solve one of Barcelona’s main problems, the nonexistent relationship between the city and the ocean. In the past few years we have welcomed the increased activity of landscape designers in France and Switzerland who suggest treating the city and landscape in a more integrated way.

Our approach is phenomenological. All that we have ever designed comes from observation and description. All that we have ever done has been found on the street. All of our projects are products of our perceptions projected onto objects. This is why our buildings are each so different from one another. Because we turn our heads in different directions, the buildings arise from changing perceptions.

Of course one can also find other, more stable and recurring elements in our work. These come up again and again like constants in a mathematical equation or, to go back to natural processes, like attractors. Can these architectural attractors (e.g., shape attractors, material attractors, or space attractors) be understood as ontological categories in an architect’s work? Does the presence of these attractors in one’s work mean that the work is basically ontological rather than phenomenological? We don’t think that such classifications are helpful in understanding anyone’s work. All interesting, coherent work reflects many influences and differing, sometimes paradoxical qualities, stable elements and changing elements, a parallel existence of phenomenology and ontological, attractorlike elements. This is the same for art, film, literature, and even architecture.

Tradition doesn’t exist anymore. This is true not only in architecture but in most areas of our culture. An architect can no longer base his or her work on traditional information. This means that all of the former security and self-evidence of architectural work in traditional cultures has vanished. An architect has to base his or her work on something else, something that he or she must bring to the project. But what? Ten or 20 years ago, modernism still hoped for a new modern tradition while postmodernism offered to remake imagery from past eras. Today making an object is a new problem each time. What is a theater? What does a window look like? How should a railway engine depot or even such a simple thing as an office building look?

We don’t mourn this lack of tradition because it opens up new, previously nonexistent possibilities in architecture. We like to take advantage of the possibilities offered by new materials and tools such as video and computers. This doesn’t imply a distaste for traditional objects. We love traditional architecture – Swiss mountain houses as well as Japanese or Arab courtyard buildings. This architecture can tell us many secrets if we are willing to listen to and are able to deal with the fascination connected with these buildings, but we should be aware of the forces at work in the age in which we live. There is no such thing as timeless values. Time is a reality; time is part of the project. Time changes, not very fast, but with a constant and invisible rhythm. Perhaps architects are not so aware of time because they cannot see it. Filmmakers and writers can express time; they can use it as a working tool.

As time changes, how will architecture change? The 1990s are different from the 1980s. The early 1980s produced an almost baroque period, with a lot of money invading the market. Art brought astonishing prices, which led to a euphoric growth of gallery spaces and museums in which both the objects displayed and the buildings themselves were realized in picturesque styles. It was a bit like the 1960s – anything seemed possible, and leading architects outdid each other in mannerist, high-tech, and deconstructivist exercises. The leading architecture of the past few years recalls art deco. Many cities and enthusiastic politicians rivaled each other by pumping a lot of money into their architectural projects. Many of these enthusiastic projects are now stuck, not only because of economic strictures but because the whole spirit of the 1980s has been affected by crisis. We see the 1990s as a period in which everything will become less certain and less stable. The conditions under which one works today have to be redefined almost daily.

Clients’ decisions are systematically made very late, as if they were waiting for some additional information from an unexpected source. Decision-making processes have become even more complex. This puts the architect in a state of constant uncertainty, which also implies constant openness. The globalization of the economy allows investors to move not only capital but also production processes from here to anywhere with unprecedented ease. We have seen this happen recently with some of our clients. The economic world is not a world of rationalism and well-calculated, logical strategies. Rather, it is a market in which psychological and coincidental aspects can be decisive. We can face this chaotic reality more easily with a conceptual approach to architectural problems than with a stylistic, individual approach.

Architects should not work with quotations but rather try to give their buildings a more direct expression, to make them work like signs or – even better – like music that anybody from anywhere and with any cultural background can understand. Architecture should be based on simple (but not reductive) ideas: for example, the wall and the opening in the wall, or the differing and changing quality of surfaces. Architecture should be thought and constructed with the most contemporary materials, but because any available material is as contemporary as any other and because we never favor one material over another, we leave the choice of materials completely open to the building’s concept. Without such a conceptual base any material is wasted, dead or almost dead, serving only the individual designer’s pleasure. Buildings are not intelligent. Facades are not intelligent. Hopefully the architect is intelligent enough to waste his or her own intellectual energy rather than the energy of the building structure. Intelligent design processes in architecture and engineering create low-tech buildings, for example, buildings technologically based on a minimum of energetic input. High-tech buildings should remain exceptions, where the highly developed technological equipment is motivated by specific, difficult conditions. Otherwise such buildings become either boring, individualistic stylistic exercises or tourist attractions.