Herzog & de Meuron

“You can’t just leave a city as is. If you do that, it will die.”

Jacques Herzog speaks about why the Swiss oppose change, how specific our cities are despite globalization – and why Herzog & de Meuron do not aspire to a style of their own.
by Finn Canonica

Good architecture is more than the making of buildings. It does not simply design spaces; it also designs the areas around them and, in this way, it creates a place. Miyuki Street is a small, not particularly attractive location in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. There’s no reason at all to spend any more time there than the few minutes it takes to walk through the street – if it weren’t for those two buildings diagonally across from each other, both of them built by Herzog & de Meuron for the Prada fashion empire. The larger one looks like a large, curiously alive rock crystal with a honeycomb interior. Its antithesis – the latest product of the Basel architects – stands diagonally across the street. It is a mysterious steel chest with what looks like a softly upholstered interior although it is actually a thick layer of copper. It is impossible to see inside the building. It is as if the steel canopy, which also forms the façade facing street, were saying, “Come inside, quick, quick, before my lid closes.” In one respect, this project is characteristic of many others by Herzog & de Meuron: we are confronted with a visual enigma and it takes a few moments to realize that the solution is patently obvious. These two dramatically distinct buildings on Miyuki Street mysteriously join forces to lend a very ordinary street an identity in an otherwise frequently faceless city. As an all-embracing thinker, Jacques Herzog compels us to constantly recalibrate our own thoughts when in conversation with him: the urbanization of Switzerland, the forces of globalization and its consequences on the built image of the world, the significance of local identity, the World Expo in Milan – the spectrum of the things with which the architects at Herzog & de Meuron are productively involved is immense. In the rooms of their Basel office, architecture is understood in the best sense of the word as a discipline that brings all the threads together. Switzerland would do well to take an in-depth look at the visions proposed by its numerous, world-class architects.

Das Magazin: Jacques Herzog, the world is permanently accessible on every smartphone. Why are there still world expositions? Aren’t such events an anachronism?

Jacques Herzog: In their conventional form, yes. And they’re also a waste of money and resources. The last World Expo in Shanghai is an excellent example: an accumulation of pavilions each with its own pretentious design and containing exhibitions that could be anywhere in the world and therefore don’t make much sense. The participating countries each design distinctive pavilions to represent themselves and thereby paradoxically become indistinguishable. It’s a design competition but it should be about content. And then the exhibition closes and nobody remembers what the theme was.

Das Magazin: The Eiffel Tower is probably the most enduring object ever produced by a world expo.

Jacques Herzog: The Eiffel Tower and the Crystal Palace in London are exceptions. They were technical achievements that could only have been built for a world expo. National pavilions can’t afford investments like that anymore. So the idea of a world expo has to be abandoned or radically revisited. Visitors see a more or less coherent show that is somehow related to the larger theme of the exhibition but the minute they leave, they forget everything. Except maybe the endless Gastro mile and the stress when they needed a restroom.

Das Magazin: And yet you have decided to cooperate on the master plan for the Milan expo.

Jacques Herzog: We became involved because the founder of slow food, Carlo Petrini, was on the team. Petrini is impressively enthusiastic and inspiring. His thoughts on the production of foodstuffs with respect to specific landscapes are compelling. We went to see him in Piedmont in 2004, when he founded the now internationally renowned University of Gastronomic Sciences. We agreed to join the team because of the declared aim to take an entirely new tack. It was supported by everyone including the then mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti: more content and as little design as possible. And we felt that the theme of the exhibition, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, addresses appropriate and very urgent issues.

Das Magazin: The exhibition opens next week. What will it look like?

Jacques Herzog: Our main concern was to counteract the silly design competitions for each national pavilion and to focus on content: how each country specifically contributes to providing food for the world. The sustainability of the plan was just as important. The land is now a huge green area next to the trade fair. We argued against putting up another faceless complex in the style of Milan’s satellite cities. We thought it would be wiser to hang onto the land and turn it into a large urban garden for the production of foodstuffs. It would be a kind of Garden City containing individual buildings and restaurants, almost like a village, in contrast to the density of metropolitan Milan and it would be a unique asset, making the premises of the adjacent trade fair more attractive. We worked out a plan in collaboration with architects Stefano Boeri, Richard Burdett and Mark Rylander. Carlo Petrini was our mentor.

Das Magazin: But there will also be national pavilions.

Jacques Herzog: Yes, of course. They are ambassadors for their respective country. The point of the Expo is to provide a platform for different countries and specific landscapes with their specific qualities and challenges. As many countries as possible should be represented. Unfortunately we did not manage to persuade the organizers of the Expo to encourage countries not to individualize the architecture of their pavilions. To this day, it’s not clear where the opposition came from … it would have been such a good chance to set an example, with Switzerland as the first country that agreed to participate. What a missed opportunity! We kept arguing that the most important thing was to invest in the design of the garden and not in the building. There is no “national design” that can express a “national identity”. That’s what Hofmann and Meili tried to do in the buildings they designed for Switzerland’s national fair in 1939. As early as 1964, attempts to create or define a national style at the Expo in Lausanne had to yield to the visual dominance of modernist architecture and in today’s globalized world, trying to express a national identity through architecture is necessarily doomed to failure. That’s why we suggested standardized pavilions in various sizes and combinations, with spacious roofing for the promenades and squares. We withdrew from the Milan project in 2013 when we realized that there would be the same old competitive hodgepodge of pavilion design.

Das Magazin: Can you describe the master plan?

Jacques Herzog: Milan has adopted the form and infrastructure of our master plan. As in Roman cities, there will be a cardo and a decumanus, two primary axes, one running north to south, the other west to east. We envisioned a table in the middle of the cardo – the main boulevard of the Expo – where every country could present its products in front of its own pavilion. The strength of our concept lay in the immediacy and symbolism of the idea: a long table that would host every country in the world. As mentioned, the individualized pavilions undermine our idea.

Das Magazin: What will be left after the Expo?

Jacques Herzog: I’m not sure anyone knows. The problem with politics in Italy today is their unpredictability. The Expo is on extremely accessible land so the survival of the garden idea is questionable.

Das Magazin: The Expo 2015 will offer an opportunity to become familiar with Milan. The city is harder to embrace than Paris or Rome, for example.

Jacques Herzog: Milan is not as hedonistic as Rome or Naples, but it’s still a myth. For us in Switzerland, Milan is the first city in the South, with all the promise of the South. Who hasn’t experienced the excitement and anticipation when the train pulls into Milan’s fabulous main station?! And then? The monolithic coherence of the city is fascinating – a treasure trove for architects – but there is not much ‘lightness’ in Milan: no bodies of water, no elevations, no particular topography. Milan is the quintessential stone city.

Das Magazin: So it’s exactly what a lot of people in Switzerland don’t feel comfortable with. The anti-urban reflex is strong among the Swiss although the urbanization of the country has long since become reality. Why is that?

Jacques Herzog: Despite increasing urbanization, Switzerland is not defined by the urbanity of its cities. Switzerland has no metropolitan cities and probably never will. Although the country has become completely urbanized, it has no proper cities and no untouched landscape anymore either. Is it possible to change that? And: should it be changed? I think, if it comes down to it, the Swiss don’t really like their neighbours. It’s because of this basic attitude that they appear to be unfriendly somehow and slightly aloof. They want to set themselves apart and not commit to anything. This is confirmed by the way people have been voting in recent years. You can try to interpret that and you can consider it good or bad. But whatever the case, it’s an expression of a profound desire for freedom that has secured many advantages for Switzerland in the course of its history. In contrast, the essence, the very idea of a city rests on cultivating contact, trying to bridge gaps, seeking the public arena and also accepting it.

Das Magazin: According to the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre – he specialised in urban theory – the more social interaction there is the more urban the place.

Jacques Herzog: Difference is crucial to Henri Lefebvre’s philosophy. Urbanity emerges when differences collide and engage in productive exchange. This applies to a certain extent in the centres of some cities in Switzerland. It requires density and a certain mass. But those are exactly the things that meet with resistance here as shown by voting patterns. Changing zoning laws to accommodate more buildings or to allow for higher buildings – that’s anathema for people in Switzerland.

Das Magazin: An increase in density also means displacement. Greater density in cities often takes place at the expense of the less affluent.

Jacques Herzog: Social balance is Switzerland’s strength. That’s why we need space and housing for all levels of society. A strong middle class is essential to prevent the rise of ghettos for the poor and the same for the rich. Increasing the density of neighbourhoods or building new ones can provide very attractive housing to satisfy all requirements. It’s a question of architecture and city planning. There have long been successful models of that kind. The problem is that the political extremes, both the left wing and the greens as well as conservative nationalist parties have successfully blocked such developments.

Das Magazin: The timeframe has shrunk in politics while more and more is being expected of architects and planners. They are supposed to build Switzerland but the political authorities provide no guidelines for the Switzerland in which we should live. The country is torn; city and country are at odds.

Jacques Herzog: In all the years I’ve been working as an architect, I have never met with so little appreciation of the need to continue building cities. Yet, the fact is inescapable: you can’t leave a city as is and just preserve it. If you do that, it will die. We have to keep changing it and that inevitably changes the life of those living there. It’s hard for people to understand this process although, in the meantime, various models for public participation in planning have been implemented.

Das Magazin: Has ever been different in Switzerland?

Jacques Herzog: I remember my father proudly showing me the modern architecture of the new school of applied art in Basel in the 1960s. That was incredibly exciting to me as a boy. We loved going to construction sites! There was an appeal to living somewhere that was modern. The tables have since turned and the critical, sceptical attitude is understandable considering the ugliness that has flooded Switzerland since the sixties. Scepticism and criticism is never bad, but if there is no pleasure, no delight, no readiness to try and welcome something new, even if it’s bigger and different from anything you’ve known before: that’s bad. It paralyzes planning in Switzerland and reduces it to joyless, technocratic squabbling in an effort to simply find the lowest common denominator.

Das Magazin: Federalism is an additional obstacle; it’s so extreme in Switzerland that it’s almost something of a fetish.

Jacques Herzog: Federalism is the inviolable DNA of Switzerland – but it has to change, too, if we want to maintain it. We need a federalism that is a better reflection of everyday reality: competitive multi-cantonal regions and metropolitan regions. A strong Zürich region is not enough. In fact, it backfires and provincializes Switzerland. Geneva and Basel, and other cities as well, should be equally fostered. The challenge for us is to design a Switzerland that is efficient and competitive. Politicians are aware of that and national planning has been organized accordingly. But this really fundamentally federalist image of Switzerland is not perceptible yet and it certainly hasn’t taken root in the minds of the people.

Das Magazin: The issue has been debated for a long time but doesn’t seem to produce any results. There is no enthusiasm for anything new; it’s as if people had lost faith in progress, at least when it comes to city planning.

Jacques Herzog: Building a city actually means building a place for people to inhabit in the future. But what kind of a place will that be and what should it look like? The livelier the debate, the more people and organizations involved – neighbourhood associations, newspapers, television programs, schools and universities – the greater the possibility that something will change and be implemented in society as a whole. We want more debate and not less, committed and pragmatic debate and not the querulous, populist and prejudiced opinions that are often flaunted in the daily newspapers.

Das Magazin: You are sceptical about the future of land-use planning. In an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last year, your reaction bordered on satire.

Jacques Herzog: Planning in Switzerland doesn’t work from the top down – but it doesn’t work from the bottom up either because we are too conflicted. There is no agreement whatsoever on the direction that developments should take in this country. Exceptions are large global companies that build with urban density and develop their premises in a much more interesting way than the government or individual investors can do with their proportionately limited means.

Das Magazin: A reproach that is often levelled at your guild goes like this: Renowned architects like you design only expensive prestigious buildings. They’re no longer interested in conventional housing.

Jacques Herzog: The design of housing in isolation is less interesting than working on an entire neighbourhood where several architects are involved. It still exists but it has become the domain of major investors who now build large interconnected and uniform blocks of flats or housing estates, in contrast to the historical neighbourhoods that were erected in our cities in the wake of burgeoning industrialization. In those days individual small investors or families acquired a piece of property that accommodated a single building. This meant greater variety of the kind that we consider ‘beautiful’ today although the individual buildings are not always that exceptional. This model is basically no longer economically viable. So the dilemma in urban planning is not primarily a question of architecture and aesthetics but rather the consequence of economic changes in our society.

Das Magazin: In purely theoretical terms, what would be the best means of giving this country architectural contours?

Jacques Herzog: With a radical idea: you can only build on land that has already been built upon: a parking place, a garden bed, an abandoned shunting yard, an underused building plot, in other words, the forgotten or neglected non-places in our cities. For some time now Pierre de Meuron and I have been investigating scenarios of that kind at the ETH Studio in Basel along with our assistants and students. It’s quite an enlightening process of perception because it makes us aware of so much that we don’t notice in ordinary places. And in addition, it reveals a potential that we underestimated. Repurposing is a very real and fruitful political alternative.

Das Magazin: Let’s talk about The Inevitable Specificity of Cities, a publication recently issued by the ETH Studio in Basel. You and your colleagues tear apart the idea that globalization is making look-alikes out of the world’s cities.

Jacques Herzog: Naturally there always more Starbucks, McDonald’s, Zara, etc. all of these global conglomerates. But this phenomenon applies primarily to pedestrian zones in city centres and business districts, in other words places where there is no ordinary everyday life anyway. But where ordinary life really does take place in residential neighbourhoods, industrial districts and on city outskirts, developments are extremely different, often, in fact, as a reaction to globalization. So cities are becoming more and more specific as time passes.

Das Magazin: The opposite thesis, advanced by your colleague Rem Koolhaas in his book Generic City, attracted considerable attention twenty years ago.

Jacques Herzog: That thesis was extremely important at the time. It was stimulating, provocative, bold and simple; it provoked a lot of necessary debate. But it is wrong. Most of the theses and theories in the history of architecture have proven to be unusable and yet they were once important in order to advance the debate on how to build cities and promote development. Think of the ideal city of the Renaissance, the cities founded in the Middle Ages, the revolutionary utopias of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France and Russia or le Corbusier’s Radiant City. If you take a closer look, you realize that all of these theories and utopias simply couldn’t capture or contain the actual development of cities; reality refused to cooperate. All the cities of the Roman Empire, for example, had the same layout; most of the buildings were even identical. And yet, in the course of history, they each developed in their own ‘specific’ way.

Das Magazin: Which factors lead to what you call the “specificity” of cities?

Jacques Herzog: There are three major forces that influence cities in the course of their history and development: their location, that is, the territory where they develop; the power structures in which they are embedded, which may, for example, be political or economic in nature; and finally, an aspect that my colleagues and I describe as “difference”. The latter refers to the ability of the city to diversify, for instance, economically, or to generate cultural multiplicity. The combination of these three forces imposes a specific pattern on every city, which is the source of its difference.

Das Magazin: You seem to have become more sceptical when it comes to larger, overarching theories. You advocate looking, just looking – something like a virgin gaze, if that’s possible.

Jacques Herzog: We are more interested in thinking and looking than in theories because it feeds into our practical work. But we are not anti-theory. We have long been associated with the Basel sociologist Lucius Burckhardt, and Aldo Rossi, who was our teacher at the ETH, certainly doesn’t eschew theory.
We often compare architecture to a landscape, an artificial topography created for people in which they feel comfortable. In the course of our career, we have worked on increasingly large, public and sometimes extremely visible projects in completely different societies all over the world. It is decisive that these projects work really well. In some cases they have been accepted by the urban population to such an extent that they ‘take the building for granted’. A ‘theory’ would never allow for such a diversity of projects. You might use the word ‘strategy’ in our case, a strategy that is based on precise observation with no preconceived ideas, no assumptions. An architect has to understand a place before modifying or changing it. That is a great challenge because in architecture the change is meant to be permanent. In recent years, Herzog & de Meuron have built extremely visible objects in prominent locations. It is important to us not only to fulfil the client’s brief but also to create something for the public: places that give people a sense of local identity, a sense of a specific atmosphere while, at the same time, still being connected to the world at large. Buildings have to be embedded in the social life of a city. Only then can they survive; only then does an architect create something of lasting significance.

Das Magazin: Tate Modern is a good example. The South Bank in London was essentially a non-place and now it has become a place where people congregate.

Jacques Herzog: Yes, Tate Modern is a very good illustration of what I mean when I speak of ‘permanent change’. The building has allowed for a completely new public place. It is not only a museum; the Turbine Hall, as a public zone, has become a meeting place for all of London and it attracts a spectacular 5 million visitors per year. A lot of people go there just in order to stand in the space, for which an artist creates a new large-scale installation every 12 months.

Das Magazin: What does it feel like for you when you go back to the Tate?

Jacques Herzog: It’s gratifying to see the space so well used and so popular. But we don’t think of it as ‘our’ building; we don’t have a personal relationship with buildings: they have been designed by us but not for us and they have to function without us.

Das Magazin: To ask a fundamental question: what actually is architecture?

Jacques Herzog: It is an attempt to make life more pleasant. Without buildings, we would have to live outdoors with no protection from wind and weather and enemies. People became sedentary about 12,000 years ago and ever since they have been trying to create ‘architecture’ as something permanent that they don’t just use but also enjoy.

Das Magazin: We spoke about cities, metropolitan areas and agglomerations. Let’s reduce the scale. What is the most important element of architecture?

Jacques Herzog: Architecture plays a role even for nomadic peoples, for instance, a grave, a cave painting or a fence. A fence or rather a wall, as its more solid manifestation, may well be the most fundamental element of architecture. It distinguishes one side from another: it defines inside and outside; it separates yours and mine. Without walls there would be no human civilization – the only place without walls is paradise because everything was one and there was no difference – and it wasn’t necessary.

Das Magazin: People have always created architecture even without professional architects. Is perhaps the role of the architect overestimated?

Jacques Herzog: The above-mentioned book about the specificity of cities describes a lot of cities, and not only in the third world, where entire neighbourhoods are the consequence of ‘informal’ planning, many of them built without architects and even without professional construction companies. Many of these neighbourhoods are not simply slums and housing for the disadvantaged but rather much more complex social, economic and aesthetic communities. In a country as strictly regulated as Switzerland is, places like that are inconceivable – and yet earmarking areas in our agglomerations for experiments in self-regulation might be more interesting than the participatory construction of the 1970s, which led to relatively conventional design. Informal neighbourhoods in Nairobi, the Nile Valley, Casablanca, Mexico City and Belgrade are incomparably more vibrant than many places built by professional architects.

Das Magazin: How quickly do you notice that a given building has quality?

Jacques Herzog: You can tell right away whether a building has been motivated by certain ‘ambitions’. Buildings can look pretentious just as people can. That’s what makes the buildings erected by laypeople so interesting: they are characterized by a lack of intent, a kind of innocence. You can often detect aesthetic preferences, which we tend to write off as kitsch, for example, when we see them in front yards of Swiss homes. Informal neighbourhoods are different: they are built out of necessity. Structures of that kind always have a distinctive quality. Every building in this country is unmistakably intentional, full of ambition. You can tell right away when architects have so-called ‘good taste’. Actually ‘taste’ is the worst thing of all especially when it spreads across the entire country – like those huge rectangular windows that have been dominant for years and blindly stare at us out of rectangular boxes.

Das Magazin: You said that there is no HdM taste. On looking at all of your work, one could even say there is no HdM style, no signature, no recognition factor.

Jacques Herzog: We have never aspired to anything that might be called a typical style of our own. Pierre de Meuron and I have always loved trying things out, being experimental – ever since we were in grade school together. It’s the way we are. We’re curious by nature. Doing without a distinct style was not a deliberate decision. It took a couple of years and a few buildings for us to recognize the potential and newness of this approach. We were acutely aware of how challenging it is to tackle new projects entirely without any self-imposed rules; but we also realized how unbelievably liberating it could be. To this day, we do not want to be slaves to a pattern of iconic buildings that would instantly communicate “Herzog and de Meuron” – as opposed to the new, specific location that can be created and communicated by a building. In that respect it’s not wise to represent a style or a certain taste. We say that over and over again not out of modesty or to castigate ourselves but because we want to maintain our independence and because we are curious about new possibilities.

Das Magazin: There is no HdM style but there is a path that you and Pierre de Meuron have charted in your work. Your early buildings, like the minimalist museum for the Goetz Collection, can be interpreted as a response to the postmodernism of the 1980s, those buildings that look like great big coffee mugs or have façades resembling the Acropolis.

Jacques Herzog: Our appreciation of art and our artist friends were a vital factor when we first started out: sixties Minimalism in the United States, Pop Art, but also painting in Germany and, of course, Beuys. The strongest influence was probably Conceptual Art – not necessarily individual artists, but the strategic power of concepts. Every project acquires conceptual shape through a distinctive strategy of its own. The concept has to be so good that you don’t notice it anymore when the building is finished. The building has to be perfectly self-evident in its location – period. Historians will dig up architects and their ideas anyway if there’s a need for it.

Das Magazin: Later you introduced ornaments. In a sense you reconciled Minimalism with the ornament. This synthesis turns a lot of your buildings into shimmering objects; they feel organic and very light. And they are always objects that are unprecedented in appearance. They look as if they had come from different age, as it they were gigantic figures on a board game made by extra-terrestrial artists.

Jacques Herzog: In the vernacular ornament is often misunderstood. It is not decoration; it is not about sticking something onto the shell of a building. The ornament is constitutive; it determines the shape of the building. Ideally, in our best buildings, construction, space and ornament can no longer be distinguished; they merge into one. If that is achieved, it is practically self-explanatory. You don’t have to rationalize the ornament; a great serenity prevails.

Das Magazin: To my mind, that is excellently demonstrated by the Prada Aoyama building completed in Tokyo in 2003. It’s a complex building and yet it’s clear and rational; it’s unreal, like a living being that is hard as a diamond and soft at the same time.

Jacques Herzog: There are earlier examples, the stone house in Liguria, the Dominus Winery in the Napa Valley. The principle is obvious, for example, in 1111 Lincoln Road, the car park we built in Miami and in the Olympic Stadium for Beijing.

Das Magazin: The spectrum of your work is extraordinary. A gigantic, extremely complex museum project is underway in Hong Kong; last year you built a natural outdoor bathing area in Riehen near Basel, a comparably tiny project with an almost Zen-like simplicity. How do you manage such extremes?

Jacques Herzog: I’ve tried to explain that with our lack of taboo; we make a concerted effort to avoid the trap of predetermined aesthetic and theoretical premises. We want to approach each project with a virgin gaze – as if it were the very first one. And there’s something else: you needn’t always have the same opinion.

The conversation took place in Basel, 12 April 2015.
Translation: Catherine Schelbert