Herzog & de Meuron

Gerhard Mack: Herzog & de Meuron are restoring the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, a building that is vital to the history of New York. Looking back at what you have done so far, one realizes, of course, that working with existing volumes is seminal to your work; you might call it part of your DNA. You have always attached great importance to it. Your career actually started with various refurbishment projects. Here you are, two young architects in the early 1970s and instead of predictably dreaming of building something new, you say to yourselves, let’s look and see what’s already there and what we can do with it. And let’s do it in a way that is different from postmodernism’s schematic reaction to modernism’s permanent call for something new. That was the impetus of your earliest work. Do these beginnings have a historical significance that goes beyond the pragmatic requirements that young architects have to meet?

Jacques Herzog: Our early refurbishment projects really were pragmatically motivated. In the second half of the 1970s, modernism suffered a major economic crisis. It was a time marked by recession following the economic boom after the second world war, the oil crisis, the Club of Rome with the first call for caution regarding the world‘s resources, and the realization that resources are not unlimited. Renovation was almost the only available work and it applied to regular buildings that were not necessarily of great historical significance. The recession had an ideological component as well. The enthusiastic, optimistic nature of modernism began to crumble. Modernism thought of history as an impediment to the goal of creating a new tradition, a new future, a new society. The existing world had to be overcome. That is certainly an option. But as a result of the crisis, the advisability of sweeping everything away to have a tabula rasa was questioned. That was the point of departure for our biography. If we had been born 10 years earlier, we would have been more profoundly influenced by an intact modernism. But as it was, this historical break enabled us to develop our own issues.

Gerhard Mack: By the time you started building, postmodernism had already taken a retrospective turn.

Jacques Herzog: Postmodernism developed a nostalgic interest in the highlights of history. History became a model instead of an impediment. Architects like James Stirling, Richard Meier, and Mario Botta–in fact the Tendenza movement as a whole–believed that you shouldn‘t abandon the old on your way to a new society. But since we were not familiar with the old that they were referring to, it meant nothing to us. We have to look at the world we are living in and deal with it; that was our everyday reality. And there certainly was a lot of ‘world.’ This is what lies behind the approach that has been crucial to our work throughout: to look at the world with which we are confronted, regardless of era, regardless of whether or not it is highly regarded. In the early years, we did attic extensions and renovated façades, and much later the conversion of a former power plant into Tate Modern. This is about concrete and conscious involvement with something that comes from another age and needs to be updated, and it’s also about overcoming taboos or preferences that tend to extinguish the dimension of time, which is ultimately essential to architecture. At the time, even in very small projects, we learned that architecture is something constructive and constructed, which in turn produces constructions and is therefore also subject to change. In contrast to ETH Zürich where we were both employed as assistants at the same time, all the key issues of architecture were exemplified in concrete objects.

Gerhard Mack: How would you describe your approach in terms of Tate Modern?

Jacques Herzog: We ‘discovered’ the potential of the turbine hall and made it the centerpiece of our design. It’s like the nave of a church. It was obvious to us that the architect, Sir Giles Scott, had envisioned a cathedral for machines. We tuned into this idea and reinforced it: we took everything out of the hall and lowered it, making it even bigger and mightier. At the time I compared this strategy to aikido, a Japanese martial art that involves absorbing and appropriating the energy of one’s opponent. We built our Plywood House around a tree, to draw attention to the tree. The Ricola warehouse in Laufen deliberately draws attention to the cliff directly behind it. So we make people aware of what is already there: the form that we produce brings out the properties and qualities of the world around it. At Tate Modern, the context is larger: the huge space and the precise placement of the building within the urban fabric forms a counterpoint to St. Paul’s Cathedral on the other side of the Thames. This relationship was barely perceptible; it had been overwhelmed by urban growth.

Gerhard Mack: The Museum der Kulturen in Basel is a very recent urban example of the way you incorporate existing environs. The museum lies hidden in the Old Town just below the Cathedral. How did you go about giving the building a new visibility?

Jacques Herzog: We used several strategies. To begin with, we turned the previously neglected courtyard in the rear into the new entrance. This reversal unites medieval buildings with the rear façades of 19th-century buildings, without any intervention on the part of the architects. We wanted people to experience this area as a space where various components are interrelated. The first thing we did was to lower the courtyard so that it is now level with the lowest story of the museum. That way, when you enter the courtyard, you don‘t have to decide whether to go up or down. We wanted all of the stories to be equivalent. Secondly, we use plants to unify the surfaces in the courtyard. They come as a surprise; they look exotic; and since they change with the seasons, there is also something temporary and fragile about them. As a result there was no need to make any major modifications in the buildings. Besides, some of the buildings were already overgrown with ivy and wild grape vines so the new vegetation connects with what is already there.

Gerhard Mack: You also replaced the roof of the Museum.

Jacques Herzog: Our initial mandate was to plan an exhibition space for temporary presentations. We placed this extension on the roof and deliberately made it clearly visible from outside to draw attention to the Museum’s new entrance. At the same time, we wanted to integrate the new roof into the existing roofscape. That’s why we covered it with glazed tiles, similar to those already used in the historical context. On one hand, it’s an invasive modification, and on the other, it’s an almost tender gesture because it resonates with the shapes and materials of the Old Town. And it is, of course, the key architectural element in transforming the former backyard into the new entrance.

Gerhard Mack: You took a much more explicit approach in the historic center of Madrid, when you converted an old industrial structure opposite the Royal Gardens into the CaixaForum. There you can sense a certain lack of respect towards the existing substance of the building. It was almost completely destroyed. What is the rationale behind that?

Jacques Herzog: True, not much of the building has survived. In contrast to Tate Modern in London, the interior did not provide space suitable to the demanding program that called for doubling the existing volume. What was really worth preserving was the extremely compact masonry of the building, consisting of delicate bricks, reminiscent of ancient Rome. We were extremely impressed by the powerful physical presence of these walls in the narrow alleyways of the historic center and we wanted to heighten that presence. Paradoxically we managed to do that by cutting off the bottom of the building, so that it hovers above the ground, which gives it more weight and the bricks more visibility. This impression was much more vital to us than preserving the appearance of the building before we got involved. In addition we wanted to create an area where people can meet and enter the premises without having to stand in line in an alley. The public space underneath the CaixaForum is analogous to the turbine hall at Tate Modern. It is appreciated not only by visitors but also as a meeting place for other people who do not plan to enter the building.

Gerhard Mack: Your approach to the industrial structure was therefore much influenced by the requirements of its use as a cultural center. You focus on the material of the historical substance. Do you often use this strategy?

Jacques Herzog: In this particular case it simply had the greatest exploitable potential. But it could have been an interior room as well. If we had started with the question of preservation, we could have said, okay we will restore the existing hall, we will renovate and stabilize it and make do with the limited volume. But as architects we have a client and specifications. The extent of intervention is determined by the preservation authorities. If it is very limited, you do a different project.

Gerhard Mack: Is the substance of the building a kind of Ping-Pong partner that you use to bat your ideas back and forth as they develop?

Jacques Herzog: Ping-Pong sounds a little frivolous. But we do, of course, go back and forth, thinking about what to preserve and what to tear down. If that weren’t the case, it would mean returning to an approach that breaks off the process before it’s been thought through to the end. As I said, we are interested in the world as a world that exists, not as an ideal, fictional, or empty world on which we are setting foot for the first time like an astronaut on the moon. Modernism tried to do that and was tripped up by the resistance of the ordinary, by the habitual nature of everyday life. That doesn’t mean that we love it but we have accepted it as the material of our lives and our work. Our designs and projects mold or modify what is already there. Anything new comes from our projections on what already exists and not from an untouched, innocent world. But the means of projection are purely mental; we do not want to tie them in with established values and taboos. That’s why the methods we use to put our thoughts into practice are as diverse as possible, ranging from reconstruction to simulation.

Gerhard Mack: A project in progress that pools a number of strategies is the expansion of the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar, a world-famous museum because of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

Jacques Herzog: It’s a fascinating and very challenging project. It changes the urban fabric of the location by adding a new piece of architecture that evokes historical forms. It’s challenging because we want to avoid the pitfalls that have made lots of experiments with historical forms less than successful. The project integrates disparate elements of urban development in Colmar. The Museum consists of a monastery with neo-baroque baths nearby. In between there is a parking lot and an old canal that has been covered over. An extension will provide more space for contemporary art.

Gerhard Mack: Actually you are radically changing the urban situation.

Jacques Herzog: We’re restoring the canal that used to be there and is still uncovered in other parts of Colmar. That completely changes the situation of the existing buildings. In addition, we are dividing the large plaza—now a bus terminal—into two sections. The neo-baroque baths no longer have to match the monastery; they will stand alone. We are also introducing a smaller scale that is more appropriate to a medieval town than the large plaza, which was just a place to park cars. We emphasize that by reconstructing a gatehouse based on old documents that we found in the archives. The monastery as a self-contained unit is upgraded, as it were, while the neo-baroque baths and the extension form a new complex in counterpoint to the monastery premises. The new building for temporary exhibitions is therefore essential from both an urban and a curatorial point of view.

Gerhard Mack: How does that work?

Jacques Herzog: The size and the three-dimensional quality of the new extension for contemporary art correspond to the monastery church of the medieval complex. The analogy is intentional because all our experiments with a modernist volume and modernist appearance were not subtle enough: too obviously old versus new. We replaced the vertical ribbon windows of the original competition with windows that have pointed arches reminiscent of the early Gothic windows in the churches of Mendicant Orders. The slits that we initially planned would have broken up the façade too much. We wanted to find a window shape that is defined and not a slit that cuts through the whole wall, so we came up with the idea of using pointed arches. In the model they looked like ghosts. We thought that was interesting and wanted to explore that. But to avoid simple emulation, we worked out a way of relating them directly to the construction of the wall so that you only realize from close-up how new and different they are from the manual craftsmanship of Gothic construction.

Gerhard Mack: Could that be described as simulation that revamps an old, familiar image in a new and disconcerting way?

Jacques Herzog: We did not want simulation in the sense of a reconstruction; we wanted to generate a specific constructive reality that would evoke in the minds of viewers a certain (historical/Gothic) form. It’s like the experience of looking at a photograph close-up and studying all the pixels as opposed to standing back to make the image come into focus as a whole.

Gerhard Mack: You also apply that phenomenon to the façades of the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the TEA on Tenerife.

Jacques Herzog: Yes, we did think about that at first, about pixel versus image and image versus pixel. But then the pixels evolved into real elements of copper or poured concrete, so that the original visual idea was no longer relevant. That’s as it should be. Architecture should be an open-ended system, so that it can be perceived in various ways and not confined to the image the architect has in mind.

Gerhard Mack: Could one say that you use the historical substance in Colmar as a sculptural mass?

Jacques Herzog: We have no ideal image in mind. We are more interested in ‘optical illusions’ or rather in subverting ideal images. Perception lures us into believing what we see. The images that architecture can evoke are only appearances and like almost everything else on this planet, they are subject to the deceptive nature of sensory perception. We try to counteract that with architecture that involves all of the senses. That’s the crux of what architecture can achieve. The medieval shape of the windows in Colmar and the local materials establish a link between the new and existing buildings. At the same time, from close-up you can see the construct behind this impression, which in turn establishes distance again. Constructing and deconstructing the perception of architecture has always interested us. Ideally, that should work as well in architecture as it does in nature; nature is, so to speak, the prototype of the existing world that we were talking about before.

Gerhard Mack: The Musée d’Unterlinden focuses less on such effects but even so, I think that in many cases your approach to the existing world is highly sculptural. It is an artistic strategy and you use it to find out how a built substance might be gutted, dissected, elevated, or modified, as you have done for instance at Tate Modern, the CaixaForum, and especially in your proposal for the Casa Museo de Goya in Zaragoza. We detect shades of Gordon Matta-Clark but also a certain lack of respect towards historical substance.

Jacques Herzog: The competition for the Museum in Zaragoza gave us an opportunity to try out something radically new.

Gerhard Mack: You take a very exciting concrete approach. In the historical building you have inserted four rooms that are reconstructions of rooms that Goya had painted in other buildings. They do not relate to the museum architecturally but only to Goya, to the subject matter of the building.

Jacques Herzog: We really hope to be able to execute this project when Zaragoza has recovered from the economic crisis. It means a great deal to us because, on one hand, the proposal is very precisely conceived, virtual and imagined in the truest sense of the word, and on the other, the physical, concrete, spatial, and constructed proposal is already so clearly defined.
The idea is to reconstruct rooms painted by Goya within the building that is to be refurbished as the Espacio Goya. These rooms, for instance the one located in the church of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid, will be physically and mentally present but not as in the national museums of the nineteenth century, which actually removed murals and spolia and reassembled them in the capital city. We are only interested in the reconstructed, empty room as an abstract and yet very concrete shell, in its reconstruction as brickwork that is inserted into the building of the Espacio Goya. Originally we planned to project Goya’s paintings onto the walls but then we suggested doing without space-filling simulative projections. Instead of marking the presence of Goya and his oeuvre through illusion, it would be marked by the physical presence of the room in combination with documentary information like books, small format reproductions, text, diagrams, etc., somewhat like a study center. That would make the rooms devoted to Goya more neutral and give curators the opportunity to present other artists as well.

Gerhard Mack: Your inserts are spaces of absence that brilliantly leave room for a host of ideas about presence, history, and interpretation. Does that imply a certain critique of society?

Jacques Herzog: In our society, the interplay of what exists and what is new has become extremely convoluted. It’s become a mishmash, almost a free-for-all. There is no interest in getting to the bottom of things and uncovering truths. Even terms like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ have lost their currency; they seem to belong to a past age. It is easier to pursue particular interests when things can’t be distinguished, when issues are blurred, as they are, for instance, in referendums. This applies even in such a small, straightforward country like Switzerland.

Gerhard Mack: Does your critical attitude towards these social tendencies fuel the more radical thoughts embodied in your architectural and urban models, somewhat like modernism being fueled by tabula rasa fantasies?

Jacques Herzog: We all know, of course, that the tabula rasa as a model for renewing society didn’t work. But we have reached the point where a bit of plastic surgery here and there will no longer do; it really is time for radical change and that means addressing issues of energy, food, mobility, in other words, issues crucial to the urbanization of our planet. We are also going to have to find more radical responses to urban planning and transformation. Work on a single architectural object may seem almost ridiculous in view of such concerns—but it isn’t. We always take the singular building seriously as part of a larger fabric, as part of daily life that involves the participation of many people. For instance, cutting off the bottom of the CaixaForum building is a radical, transformative statement both for the location and the people who meet there and use the building. There’s something liberating about that. But in relation to society as a whole, such an incisive step has much greater consequences.

Gerhard Mack: You are responsive to modernism’s destructive tendencies and its tabula rasa fantasies and yet you yourselves basically practice something else. As you said, you work with what exists and exploit its energy. In the case of the Park Avenue Armory, you practically fade into the wallpaper of the building’s history. You opted for a micro surgical approach diametrically opposed to the way monuments are ordinarily reconstructed in the United States.

Jacques Herzog: The foremost families of New York society celebrated themselves there. In the period rooms, you walk into sacred territory. The rooms are the creations of the best designers that were to be had in those days. It would be utterly inappropriate for us to force a contemporary spirit on such a monument. We wanted to revitalize the original concept of these rooms, which cannot be found anywhere else. In this case, consideration and respect have priority over making an authorial statement. Incidentally, simulative, reconstructive models and total restoration are not mutually exclusive although the complete restoration of a whole room is of no interest to us as architects, and it’s not necessary either. And, of course, total restoration also entails total destruction and extinction of the very thing you’re trying to bring back to life!

Gerhard Mack: It never ceases to amaze me: Even in New York, a city of permanent renewal, the Holy Grail of modernism, you have reacted with almost ‘unmodern’ delicacy and discrimination. Your proposal for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art showed great respect for previous phases of construction—a far cry from complete demolition.

Jacques Herzog: New York is no longer a city of permanent change and hasn’t been for a long time. The MoMA competition was, in fact, a drastic demonstration of that. The MoMA extension does not reflect the spirit of expansive modernism; instead it is a tribute to a finished, historical period. Our proposal was different although it did respect the environs. As I said before, because of our background, it has always been a crucial concern of ours to pay attention to what is already there—including modernism. But that’s not a moral motivation; we’re just convinced that it makes for better projects. We have also begun working in places where there is nothing for us to tie in with, nothing that might be preserved. In those cases, the tabula rasa is a promising strategy. But even in central European society we have reached a problematic point where there is just too much mediocrity. So we also explore the possibility of destruction instead of extension, in other words an iconoclastic strategy, in order to find a new openness and new movement again. The methods may then be different from those of modernism or from countries like China and India. Modernism wanted to manifest as an image of itself. Modernism was also a style. We now try to look at a site from a different point of view, which means trying to institute change through a focus on perception. There’s a famous German song that says we see but half a moon, and yet it is so round and fair. And so it is that many things we safely mock because we see them not.

Gerhard Mack: Doesn’t a subversive mindset play a decisive role as well? In Colmar and Zaragoza you haven’t torn down the old buildings. Instead, you changed the character of the place by giving them a thematic twist, by assigning new positions to them within the ensemble. You never changed the architecture of the rooms in the Museo de Goya, but the four inserts give them an entirely different syntax. You clean up the courtyard, you put the building on display as it were, and you change it through just one radical, sculptural gesture.

Jacques Herzog: That’s true, to a certain extent. In those cases we used the potential of simulation and disguise. But on the other hand we already took a tabula rasa approach in some very early projects. For the exhibition “Berlin morgen” in 1991, on which we collaborated with Rémy Zaugg, we suggested using mountain-like wall slices to mark the middle of the reunited city. Our demolition in this case took the shape of heightening, of adding something. The idea reappears in our proposal for urban development in Basel along the Rhine River. We echo the specific structure of the historical, riverside city, by establishing a similar relationship between the urban architecture and the river in the northern and eastern parts of the city, but in radically contemporary form. Paradoxically, the application and repetition of the existing situation leads to a completely different and yet still familiar city. That approach is not entirely unlike the one we have taken in refurbishing the Armory, but the result could not be more different.

Basel, May 17, 2011
Translated from German to English by Catherine Schelbert