Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd.
4056 Basel, Switzerland
1. An Introductory Look at the Plan of a City
When we look at the plan of a city such as Basel, we can distinguish compact geometrical forms that define the centre and other, more amorphous forms that characterize the periphery. Between these areas we find “zones of disturbances”, which either correspond to specific or particularly dense industrial areas, or to railway systems, whose fluid form is contrasted by the crystalline forms of the historical districts.
2. The Architectural Project: A Projection of the Architect’s Perceptual Frame
Our perception of the city is closely related to the architectural products we create. Indeed, these architectural products tend to be identical to our perceptions of the city. We try to seek our architectural images in the same way a detective searches for evidence at the scene of a crime, or in the way a scientist attempts to find systems in Nature. Everything lies before us already, yet sometimes we have to make enormous efforts to perceive even the simplest relationships. We are faced with a puzzle whose complexity increases as our culture becomes more and more discontinuous. What then is the model that we carry in our mind’s eye and upon which we base our project?
The scientist builds models that allow him to qualify and describe how Nature functions. Similarly, we use architecture as a kind of model or tool to help us perceive our urban reality; that is, to grasp a set of phenomena, to establish relationships between them, and to give them meaning. For this reason I shall make a comparison between the scientific model based on atomic theory and our perception of the city. The interest in this comparison lies in the fact that the scientific model offers us images of a material world. The image of the invisible is important because it allows us to interpret the image of the visible as a part of a global process; in other words, as an element of a connection of parts to a whole, as occurs with natural objects to a degree of complexity and variety that would be difficult to achieve in the case of artificial objects.
3. The Crystalline Body of the City
The formation of a crystalline structure depends on the forces that act between its atoms and molecules. The degree of attraction between these elementary particles is related to the specific structure of the crystalline mesh and, consequently, to the external form of the substance. There are crystals whose geometric structuring allows for stronger forces of attraction and there are other crystals whose particles move more so that the entire structure of the crystal has a greater tendency to transform.
The old traditional city can be compared to a solid crystalline body, as described in physics and chemistry. Its structure possesses a specific form that is analogous to that of a solid material such as metal, stone or ceramics. Yet this structure also has the inherent tendency to transform. In crystallography, this tendency is defined as the degree of hardness of a material. This hardness can be broken down if energy is applied or if another substance is used as a solvent that will cause the internal structure of the material to transform into a new state of aggregation. For example, when salt is added to water, the specific structure of the crystal is slowly destroyed and transformed into a new state.
The historical centers of our cities (which include the palaces, squares, monuments and churches of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical periods) also seem to us to be stable, crystalline bodies. In our minds (and simultaneously from the perspective of the slow and cautious planning conditioned by Swiss democracy) these compact historical centers appear to be intractable and unchanging, so that as students we never considered them to be actual architecture, nor to be the product of a working process that would engage us for the rest of our lives, but rather as fixed elements that would have to be repaired from time to time, like teeth.
4. The Dissolution of the Crystalline Body
Without a doubt, the political and cultural energy that predominated while these historical districts were being created cannot be compared to that which exists today. The unity and adherence to tradition with which the crystalline bodies of the historical city were built, evolved from a specific logic that would be unimaginable today. This is why we cannot tolerate the type of contemporary architecture that suggests the possibility of restoring old traditions by simulating the styles and forms of the past. Neither should we be influenced by the cynical argument that this simulated historical architecture reflects the taste of the majority.
We find ourselves removed from the historical struggles between the Church, the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie. We learn of these struggles from books and we continue to live in the patched-up remains of their cities. However, we understand these struggles from our own perspective and with our own variable perceptions, the way we would contemplate a painting by Velazquez or Goya.
Just as the compact city center corresponds to the crystalline body model, so can its dissolution be compared to the transformation undergone by matter through the application energy. The transformation of a crystalline structure to an amorphous aggregate corresponds to the dissolution of the traditional city and to the emergence of today’s less specific, almost cartilaginous urban forms. This cartilaginous urban mass is the most direct expression of our contemporary cultural energies.
Our feelings may be divided over these facts, yet we feel at home in this new urban environment, because we were born and raised in the midst of this process of dissolution (which in the case of Swiss cities began just after the end of World War II). Indeed, many of our projects are directly related to the non-crystalline condition of the city, such as the Foto Studio Frei, the Schwarzpark, or the Railway Depot. On the other hand, we want to distance ourselves from the latest craze over the city periphery (a caprice typical of those architects who still feel that their world can be justified on the basis of images from films by Antonioni or Wenders). The current dissolute condition of the city periphery is more the result of political and cultural impotence than the expression of a society evolving, towards greater sincerity and individuality.
Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron