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Interview: Jacques Herzog

March 24, 2015 /

JACQUES-HERZOG.jpgJacques Herzog. Image courtesy Herzog & de Meuron.

With close to 400 employees, offices at five different locations and 40 projects on four continents, Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron is one of the largest and currently, perhaps the most successful Swiss architectural practice. Recently, however, some of their high-profile projects have caused a bit of a stir. The new Messe Basel trade fair hall and the Roche Tower have been criticized for dominating the skyline in Basel as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg continues to blow the budget. We spoke with Jacques Herzog in Basel about his curent trials and tribulations, as well as his influences and goals.

Ulf Meyer: Mr. Herzog, your Opus Magnum, the new trade fair hall in your native Basel, has been inaugurated with the Baselworld Watch and Jewellery Show. People can now form their own opinions about this controversial project.

Jacques Herzog: Yes, much criticized before it was built, the project now enjoys broad acceptance and is met with enthusiasm. Accommodating the vast volume of the building was one of the most difficult tasks we've ever faced, much more so than the design of a small cabinet piece in a protected space. Le Corbusier once divided projects into four categories: "facile", "très difficile", "très facile, practique, combinable" and "très généreux". The most difficult task is to design a commercial project of this scale that has such a one-sided brief, like the Messe. Trade fairs are ordinarily housed in big boxes. The size of the hall is gigantic by Swiss standards. It's time for a change of scale in Switzerland because land is at a premium - and not only in the Canton of Baselstadt. The new trade fair hall also comes with a bonus: a covered plaza under the building. That's important, especially with respect to public acceptance of other large-scale projects like the new high-rise buildings that are currently planned in Basel.

UM: The next time I visit Basel, I will see Roche's 180-meter high-rise building towering over the city. It will not only be the tallest building in Basel but in all of Switzerland.

JH: It is not our aim to break records. The Canton of Basel is territorially limited and that, of course, also applies to corporate headquarters like Novartis, Roche and Syngenta. These companies are understandably interested in providing a maximum of floor space within the confines of their premises. Besides, it makes sense to concentrate workplaces. One might say that the premises of the Messe and of the pharmaceutical companies are "global cities within a local city". The side-by-side of local and global life has great appeal and is one of the qualities of cities like Basel or Zurich. Our greatest achievement in connection with Messe Basel was not the design of the façade but creating a location that, in return, has an impact on the city. Megaprojects can have a numbing effect or an inspiring one. Working with Nick Serota on Tate Modern, we were able to turn the turbine hall into something unprecedented, and it has helped give the Tate a new identity. People love the place and filled it with life from the very beginning. How people respond and react is crucial to every project but especially to large-scale projects. Do people get added value from the project? This requires architects who think conceptually and with an eye for urban planning rather than focusing on optimizing business operations.

UM: Basel is going to have three or more clusters of high-rise buildings in the future. Is anybody thinking about or making plans for the city as a whole, above and beyond the development of separate islands?

JH: A high-rise concept is in place that defines suitable locations. Such buildings are, of course, more acceptable in some places than in others. It wouldn't be appropriate for urban planners to propose high-rise buildings in the old town. Nonetheless, the jury chaired by Basel's chief urban planner recently accepted a bid for just such a project in that very area! That's hard to understand and led to opposition…

UM: …although the tower was only supposed to be 60 m high and not 180 m like yours.

JH: The Roche tower is in an entirely different location. Cities need urban density -and changes in scale in relation to the existing urban fabric. That means high-rise buildings but on sites defined with great care, like acupuncture in the human body. We feel that a plurality of typologies is important but also stricter building regulations because the cities that we all like have always had strict regulations.

UM: Which cities do you mean?

JH: All of the cities prior to modernism. Since then, no decent neighbourhood has ever been built again, not anywhere in the entire world. A simple fishing village can be beautiful simply by having a uniform building height, colour scheme and proportions.

UM: Places can be beautiful without architecture.

JH: Absolutely. But nowadays it takes a great effort to come up with things that ought to be self-evident and reasonable. The economy has changed and in business, it is no longer desirable to be small in scale.

UM: The automobile also has introduced a new scale.

JH: Yes, and so have modern centres of trade and logistics. We can't undo these developments.

UM: Are there limits to the growth of your business?  You have already achieved everything, including the Pritzker Prize and the Japanese Praemium Imperiale.

JH: As in the high-rise buildings, it is not just about size or quantity. Pierre de Meuron and I are not getting any younger. Architects can be active still at the age of 80 or 90 if health permits, but even so we are constantly reorganizing our office and the most talented young people working for us have or will become partners with shares in the company.

UM: What goals do you still have?

JH: No goals in the sense of projects, but Pierre and I do have the goal of always doing better work, of finding still better solutions. We have the good fortune of working with exceptional people, not only in-house but also with good clients and interesting briefs. Unlike in the fine arts, in architectural projects, you can and in fact must allow for friction with others and you have to commit to a goal. Our best projects are those realized with the close involvement of the client. In a process aimed exclusively at good architecture, the more intelligent solution will prevail no matter who suggests it. It's not a matter of functional solutions but of holistic ones. Architecture is an archaic discipline of holism. As long as that holds true, we will be happy to continue working. Unfortunately, at the moment there aren't enough educational institutions that teach architecture as an "archaic discipline of holism": although there is a lot of talk about interdisciplinary work, architecture itself has to address people on all levels: all of the senses have to work together. Operations have to function - that's always the easiest part - but that in itself does not make for good architecture.

UM: At ETH Studio in Basel, you succeeded in setting up a new curriculum.

JH: It was an attempt to put that kind of thinking into practice on an urban level and separate from the University at Hönggerberg in Zurich. We'll be working there for two more years.  

UM: Which younger architectural colleagues do you find inspiring?

JH: Japan has an interesting and vibrant scene, which has arisen out of the conditions of the crowded urban fabric. We have friendships among younger colleagues, for instance Tatiana Bilbao in Mexico City, and that affects young architects here as well so that networks emerge, for instance with HFF. To me, the most interesting "younger" practitioners in Switzerland are Buchner/Bründler, Kerez, Olgiati and Christ/Gantenbein. One of the most compelling presentations at the last Biennale was Olgiati's; he's provocative, a maverick, which appeals to us and is also necessary if you want to make an impact beyond a small, sated country like Switzerland.

UM: Is there any artist today who is as profoundly inspiring as Rémy Zaugg once was?

JH: We continue to be inspired by artists we have worked with. For me and Pierre - and also for Christine Binswanger, who joined us when our work with Rémy was at its most intense - Rémy is still very much a presence and "alive". We shared and still share a long path with Rémy. Today we have the privilege of working with Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky - in a different way though, without being directly involved because our buildings are models for these photographers. Artists like Ruf and Gursky see our work differently from the way we do. Their view of things bounces back and gives us a new perspective. That was one of Zaugg's ideas: perception as a creative act. That involves everyone and not just the authors of a work of art. Posing a challenge to the perception of others is therefore vital for us, an artistic strategy that we apply to architecture and that has left its mark on our work ever since. Another artist who taught us a great deal is Ai Wei Wei. We've been working together for 10 years, the last time for the Serpentine Pavilion in London and currently for an exhibition that we're preparing in New York.

UM: Of the four artists you've mentioned, Ai Wei Wei is the only one who designs architecture as well - as a very talented layman.

JH: He is an exceptionally talented artist and designs architecture at same time. He takes an extremely conceptual and radical approach, which we love!

UM: In an aging society, is there widespread opposition to large-scale projects or even to change per se? Three major projects in Germany - the new main station in Stuttgart, the airport in Berlin and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg - are all beset by scandal, eternally delayed and hopelessly over budget.

JH: The Elbphilharmonie will not fail, it will turn out well, although achieving the aspired added value in Hamburg was a struggle. In all three cases the client is the state. But since a democratically elected government is not designed to act as a client, that role is usually delegated to someone who represents the state. The problems that arise are often caused by the resulting convoluted contractual situation.

UM: So it's more a problem of processes and institutions than of substance? Are people generally wary of change in a saturated society?

JH: I don't know about the projects in Stuttgart und Berlin, but in the case of the Elbphilharmonie, popular acceptance has never been an issue. The debate about the acceptance of projects, their morphology and typology, should be settled as early as possible in the planning stage to avoid ending up on the wrong track in urban planning, which is what's happening with the University Hospital in Basel.

UM: But the call for bids and building ordinances permit the solution that you criticize.

JH: Yes, but that "permission" does not mean it should be implemented in a project. In such sensitive urban locations, other faculties have to be activated in order to anticipate the reactions and feelings of the public and of politics. The tower of the new Biozentrum at the University of Basel, which is 70 m high and even farther away from the Old Town, has been described by the president of the City Planning Commission as "barely tolerable"! When it comes to architecture and city planning, you can't lie. The urban, social and ecological consequences have to be clearly communicated in order to win over the majority.

UM: Are you building a museum for yourselves with the Dreispitz Archive that is currently under construction in Basel?

JH: Museum? No. To start with, the new building is a large archive for our plans, models and all the works of art from our artist friends. How accessible it will be to the public remains to be seen.

UM: Haven't you already demonstrated how you can make a collection "semi-public" with the Schaulager?

JH: Yes, but the Schaulager is a world institution and we are just an architectural office.

UM: Doesn't your success make you feel dizzy sometimes? With projects all over the world and a staff of almost 400, you can't know the names of all the people working for you anymore and probably spend more time in the air than on the ground.

JH: That's why most of our staff is concentrated in Basel; we set up offices elsewhere only as needed. But whether we want to stay so big is a question we are thinking about. Currently 40 projects are making demands on our energy and concentration. And we do sometimes turn down projects that would be too much for us.

UM: What has changed in your life by being awarded the Pritzker Prize?

JH: That's a prize every architect aspires to. Important prizes increase visibility and appeal, and sometimes open up avenues to new groups of clients. But prizes help only if the quality is right. Everything else is decoration.

Last updated: March 25, 2015

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