Jacques Herzog | icon 009 | January 2004

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photo: David Levene
words Kieran Long

Jacques Herzog's lecture left the London architecture scene in a swoon last month. This was the biggest gig I have ever seen by an architect in London, and Herzog could have packed out the capacious Union Chapel in Islington twice over, judging by the people looking for spare tickets outside, and the queues stretching along the street.

The comments of one architect in the bar after the lecture were final. "I just think I might as well pack up and go home," he said, grinning broadly, having seen one of the masters of contemporary architecture give a command performance. Not only that, but also this is a master who has just dramatically reinvented what we may have thought was a formal vocabulary that was identifiable and consistent.

Herzog & de Meuron, for the inconceivably few people who might not know, is a practice which has had a wonderful year, completing the most talked about building of 2003 - the new Prada store in Tokyo - and winning the Stirling Prize for their Laban dance centre in Deptford, London. Their record in this country is excellent - two buildings, two hits (the other being Tate Modern, completed in 2000). Despite criticism of Tate Modern from many quarters - Will Alsop the most prominent - it remains the most successful new arts institution in Europe. Laban has been even more comprehensively lauded by critics and public alike.

The partners are now embarking on a new phase of their practice, with projects such as the Beijing Olympic Stadium in China, the Schaulager contemporary art space in Basel and the Neue Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany, which are likely to confirm the Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss as the premier architects of their generation.

Herzog is, as a character, utterly charming, but he does not suffer fools. His English is fluent, but he often uses the difference in language in a way that makes an interviewer feel more than a little inadequate. A common response from him is: "I don't think that's a very interesting question, really", and more than one interrogator during the questions he took after the lecture was cut down to size with a simple: "That question is too imprecise. I don't have an answer."

As his lecture came to an end, and the questions started to get dull, Herzog finished with a soundbite that would have sounded rehearsed from most: "We must find a way to do something forbidden, without getting punished." A typical Herzog flourish. These are as much metaphorical as literal, mixing a devil-may-care flamboyance with a certain way of making you feel part of his gang.

The practice was founded in Basel by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 1978, when both partners were 28. The ebullient Harry Gugger joined them as a partner in 1991 and Christine Binswanger became the fourth partner in 1994. Two more people were elevated to partner status last month, to cope with a workload that encompasses more than 50 current projects and employs around 200 people in offices in Basel, London, San Francisco, Munich and Barcelona.

The natural enthusiasm and energy of Herzog is tangible, and speaking to me after the lecture he talks very much as if the practice is far from reaching its capacity to take on more large-scale projects. He says: "Everything is changing always. I like it the way it is now. We are able to cook things very steadily and with a lot of energy. We try to organise the company well, to collaborate with artists and other architects, and also try to change and form ourselves constantly, and as long as this works well we do it this way." Their work with artist Michael Craig-Martin on the colour scheme of the Laban centre is typical of the in-depth collaborations undertaken by the practice, and they are currently working with Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei on the Beijing stadium.

However, the trend towards ever more diverse and large-scale projects may not continue forever. "If we feel we need to change and become smaller again, I hope that we would be ready to do that," he says. "Change needs always a lot of confidence and trust in yourselves, and also a certain awareness, you know. You should always be able to keep a certain distance to what you do."

His persona exudes this distance. He has the air of a jaded habituŽ, and his dismissive attitude towards some issues, you feel, belies his creative focus. "You are very full of passion with something," he says. "But at the same time you keep a certain distance from what you produce everyday, with a view that is almost bored, you know, so you can in a more reliable way say 'yes, that's what's interesting,' or 'that's just another step in a too idiosyncratic dimension'."

Herzog has formed himself into the rigorous but louche libertarian, flinching away from what he sees as the evils of interpretation. He avoids questions and comparisons like the plague - one questioner at his lecture made comparisons between the practice's work and the baroque. Herzog would only say: "It's your job to make those comparisons."

He says: "Narrative always justifies what you've done. Justified is being excused, and should be removed. It [a building] must stand on its own, otherwise it's ridiculous; it's a decoration. It must justify itself. The more you push your work in a certain direction, the more there's also a danger in doing things for the sake of themselves. And that's as ridiculous as something else being boring. But this is in fact not even a very good question; we shouldn't mention this, it's so clear that architecture should have a certain robustness, a certain simplicity, a certain self-evidence, even if it's the most daring thing, it must stand by itself."

His role as author seems interesting to him only as long as the project is in production. "I think you have to move away from people, and move away from what you've done. You have to be very faithful and unfaithful at the same time. I have friends, like the ones I play soccer with, but I have to be dramatically unfaithful. A project is always a departure - once something is done, then it's gone."

To distance himself from a theoretical meta-narrative, Herzog has created an alternative vocabulary with which to describe his work. While he still says that he considers Herzog & de Meuron's work to have a more "intellectual" approach than that of Frank Gehry, his descriptions now stress both the process of making a building, and use metaphors of natural processes or impulses.

Prada Tokyo, for example, was a commission that gave the practice the luxury of trying out different approaches, partis and materials, honing the project with the backing of the client, Miuccia Prada. Herzog describes how final design decisions, particularly on issues such as interior finishes, were made only after extensive practical testing. Cladding is still a paramount concern of the practice's work, and Herzog describes how the coverings for the transverse structural members in the building went through stages of being clad in felt, rubber, stone, wood, resin, silicone and metal, all in the name of suppressing the extraordinary rawness of the structure that had characterised its construction - cladding in order to make them, in Herzog's words, "more like bones".

He elaborates further on these natural themes, such as the tree-like imagery that prompted parts of the structural strategy of the Beijing stadium: "It's to give a project a language that you can kind of unconsciously read and understand, and nature has that. But I'm not a natural romantic at all, it's just that you can learn from that." Can this apply across cultures? "Absolutely."

This is increasingly important to the practice's work. While Herzog still says that he is interested in building outside of Switzerland mainly because it gives an opportunity to build types they otherwise wouldn't, they are now on the international A-list, evidenced best by the Beijing stadium, which broke ground on Christmas Eve, and will be complete in time for the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

To introduce this project at the lecture in London, Herzog used an image of a promenading public underneath the Eiffel Tower, shortly after its completion. For him, this illustrates the power of a spectacular structure to make unexpected public spaces. This relates to their soon-to-be completed Forum Barcelona building in Spain, which terminates the Diagonal with a huge, triangular blue building, lifted off the floor, and to the spectacular birds nest structure that is the Beijing stadium. Herzog is particularly pleased with this project, perhaps because it is "the most visible icon of contemporary China", and maybe because it is the work that confounds our most deeply held preconceptions about the practice's work. It is emphatically not a clad object, in the manner of their most famous buildings. The criss-crossing members are the primary and secondary structure, engineered by Arup. The stadium is immense, with a 100,000-seat capacity (which will be reduced post-Olympics), and incorporates a comprehensive surrounding landscape, which continues the visual language of the building itself. Herzog says that it was a particular thrill to try to create a lasting public space around a stadium (the failure of Stadium Australia in Sydney uppermost in his mind) in a culture that values public open space as much as the Chinese.

He says: "We wanted to make something that had a permanent role in the public life of China. In China, public space is real, unlike in Tokyo. The Chinese are more extroverted than the Japanese. We wanted the space around the stadium to be something new. We want it to have an iconic role and become a public space."

The roof of the building is organised in a circular pattern, and every element is cladding and structure. The hierarchy of this structure will be hidden, aiding the seemingly random arrangement of members - there is no perpendicular structure in the building. Between the elements of the basket will sit transparent panels, set back from the structure, and almost invisible from outside. Inside, Herzog says that the tiers of seating will have no visible underside, with the balconies not expressed as volumes, but as an absences of structure.

The plinth on which the building sits will be treated in a similar way to the building, with the structure continuing downward as if they were taking root. "So far the building from competition to now has become better and more radical," says Herzog with as close to a glint in his eye as you are likely to see from him. He adds: "I understand more now that an important part of the success of a building is what I call 'attraction' - you attract people, but you are also attractive; it's like a natural stimulus for people to go somewhere."

The staggering profusion of increasingly radical forms coming out of the office right now is due, in part, to an increasing confidence at large scale. He says, though, that it is our fault that we are amazed. "Some people are surprised at this difference, especially in England," he says, "because they put us in this drawer of minimalism and the right angle, but if they didn't put us in the drawer they would see that there is a culture to what we do, and we are very radical in the way we present it. Radical rectangle, radical minimalism, radical something else. We try to push things to their boundaries."

Herzog says that the practice has just been offered something "quite substantial" in England, which should see the London office continuing for the time being. He says that although he may have been closer to every project ten years ago, this was not necessarily a better state of affairs. Is this progress? "I don't believe in progress. The Goetz building in Munich is probably our best building. It's an absolutely magic building, if I may say so. But we can never do Goetz again. There is no recipe."

Major works by Herzog & de Meuron
1980 Blue house, Reservoirstrasse, Oberwil, Switzerland
1988 Stone house, Tavole, Italy
1982 Frei photographic studio, Riedlistrasse, Weil am Rhein, Germany
1987 Ricola storage building, Baselstrasse, Laufen, Switzerland
1988 Apartment building along a party wall, Hebelstrasse, Basel, Switzerland
1992 Goetz Collection, gallery for a private collection of modern art, Munich, Germany
1994 Signal box, Auf dem Wolf, Basel, Switzerland
1996 Studio RŽmy, Zaugg, Mulhouse, France
1997 House in Leymen, Haute Rhin, France
1999 Eberswalde technical school library, Eberswalde, Germany
1998 Dominus winery, Yountville, California, USA
2000 Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
2002 St Jakob Park, Basel, Football Stadium, Commercial Centre and Residence for the Elderly, Basel, Switzerland
2003 FŸnf Hšfe, five courtyards for Munich city centre, Munich, Germany
2003 Laban Creekside, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
2003 Schaulager for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, MŸnchenstein, Basel, Switzerland
2003 Prada, Aoyama, Tokyo

In progress:
New de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, USA. Competition 1999, planned completion: 2004
Forum 2004 building and plaza Barcelona, Spain. Competition 2000, planned completion: 2004
Allianz Arena, football stadium, MŸnchen-Fršttmaning, Germany. Competition 2001-2002, projected completion: 2005
National Stadium, Beijing, China. Competition 2003, planned realisation 2004-2007

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