For a recent book project, Architecture Dialogues: Positions, Concepts, Visions, edited by Marc Angélil and Jørg Himmelreich, interviewers Hubertus Adam and J. Christoph Burkle met with Jacques Herzog, who discussed the recent work and intellectual and aesthetic formation of Herzog & de Meuron, the Basel firm he cofounded with Pierre de Meuron.
J. Christoph Bürkle: How are you? How’s your firm doing?
Jacques Herzog: Business is good, thanks. The firm’s doing really well. We’re still growing — slowly — but we’ve got a better handle on it now. We could take on even more projects, but we want to remain very selective. Switzerland is still a country that has good conditions for architects compared to most other countries we’re involved with — both in quality and quantity. Here, architects are even closer to the client and realization. Content-wise, of course, it’s not getting any easier to keep such a large international company on track and support it as intellectually as we have always done. But we’re pressing ahead with it; it’s a top priority for our work. The world is changing dramatically and architecture, and especially cities, need to move with these changes. What can we do to help as architects? Architecture as a way of thinking — as the title of our first exhibition in 1989 suggested — is more relevant than ever.
JCB: Of the Swiss firms, yours has had the biggest international impact. In retrospect, however, it must be hard work to always want to be avant-garde. You were often the first to focus on new themes. How do you manage that over such a long period?
JH: Architecture can only define and keep reinventing itself from within. In that sense, we’re pupils of Aldo Rossi and continue to pursue this approach — perhaps even in a far more archaic sense. We always proceeded from architecture and didn’t just tackle it out of an onerous sense of duty, as other well-known and innovative architects of our generation did and also proclaimed accordingly. However, we always forayed into related fields, especially the social sciences, psychology and, of course, the fine arts, and used them as sources. An important incentive we set ourselves, as it were, was the foundation of the ETH Studio Basel together with Marcel Meili and Roger Diener. Initiated without a strategic vision really, the place proved to be a lucky break for us in tackling the problems of the urbanization of our planet, which the four of us wouldn’t have been able to do in the same way in our firms. It always challenges us greatly. The work at the studio is very strenuous but worthwhile because we reach places that, in the true sense of the word, we’d never have imagined. Examining other cities and problems all over the world gives us other ideas.
JCB: How do you always manage to make your projects an expression of a theme? In the end, your buildings always seem so logical, as if there was no alternative. Does a theme turn into the project or result from it? This object-like uniqueness, whether it be the Prada Store in Tokyo  or the Dominus Winery near San Francisco : How do you manage to convince the customer on the one hand and always give the projects something iconic on the other?
JH: We weren’t as good at it in the past. Back then, we always worked towards a project that was, as you say, how it was and nothing else; we never worked with alternatives. That was still the case with the Tate Gallery [London, 1995]; but there we got bogged down with this approach, which I think of as very Swiss today, because it has something hermetic and defensive. That’s how we’d learned to work at university: to think in terms of certainties, not variations. Back then, we always worked in one direction with a lot of intuition. We often hit the bull’s eye, too; otherwise the Tate wouldn’t have chosen us in the first place. But later on we also learned to work in such a way as to start by putting forward a lot of potential ideas and examining them in parallel to bring us closer to the best possible solution in an open dialog with the customer. That’s our method. We have to convince ourselves first before we can convince a customer, but then it’s often much easier. Good projects are often interesting because they’re so complex that you can question them from various sides. They raise new questions, which in turn opens up abundance, not a dead end.
Hubertus Adam: Characteristic of your work are recurring themes that appear in new variations, are explored in a new manner or fade into the background. A theme is rarely dealt with in one project. And, to my mind, the individual projects are not to be seen as ultimate statements, after which there’s nothing more to say.
JH: Our projects really are very different and, in a way, unique solutions. However, it’d be wrong to say that architecture can be reinvented with every project, as it were. You can browse through any work of architecture in history and look for different perspectives, and you’ll always find some “pattern” or other. Some historians call that typology. But it isn’t always typologies but rather other, less categorical basic features that you can’t and shouldn’t avoid. There are many architects who aren’t really aware of their own patterns, just like most people don’t know their patterns in private. We find that a really exciting theme because architecture and psychology suddenly become very close.
JCB: Part of this is surely that you never want to arrive at your own explicit design or product language from the outset, like other architects. Many work towards this, like Frank Gehry. In your case, however, it’s a different kettle of fish altogether. We never know what a project will look like but we always know it’s going to be significant. You worked on this very early on.
JH: As young architects, you don’t do it as consciously, but we tended to have an aversion towards corporate design. At the beginning of your career, everyone wants to do things differently to the established players: in our day, architects like Richard Meier or Mario Botta, who were clearly recognizable from their style; a style that was omnipresent and acknowledged all over the place. Of course, a recognizable style makes it easier to establish yourself on a market — as we know from other products. But the way the market works also means that eventually you’ve seen enough of it. For sure, some architects suffered because they were predefined by their style and had to carry it with them, like hunchbacks. Every architect and, indeed, everybody has a hunchback, a pattern. Because we know that and can observe it day in, day out — also with us — we try to work against these patterns to find a fresh balance or open up new horizons. That might be what you mean by “reinvent” or “avant-garde.” For us, it’s a way of working, but above all a way of life. The awareness of and reaction to this pattern and obsessions that worry us all might be unusual for architects. Nonetheless, they exercise an overt design force throughout our urbanized world and find direct, physical expression. That’s what our text on the “Specific City” 1 is about, and we’ll be analyzing these issues further together with Marcel Meili and Roger Diener’s chair in a comprehensive study at the ETH in Basel.
HA: The astonishing thing is that you manage to reinvent yourselves with a big firm. It’d be much easier in a small one, that’s for sure. Then there are the architects we mentioned who became big because you always know what you’re getting with them. And those who don’t have such big design ambitions but have become big through a professionalization in the processing. But rarely does someone manage to combine size and design heterogeneity. But is there a size where you can’t manage it anymore? Does growth set limits? With a staff of 360, do you have to make too many compromises?
JH: The quality of the firm has always depended on the creativity invested in developing the company structure. And in this respect we must be one of the best in the world, at least in our generation. Here too, not just in the architectural design, it was a stroke of luck that Pierre and I governed the destiny of the firm together without one of us being responsible for everything. For sure, Pierre has more merits in this respect, and yet we actively bounce ideas off each other on these topics — even more so in the last few years, where the questions of the size of our firm today, tomorrow and in the future seem so urgent, and we’ve developed the idea of a generation model where the main partners increasingly take more responsibility and can also buy shares in the company. When I say we’re right up there with the best in establishing a successful corporate structure, it’s because we’ve always put the design of the architecture and the design of the working conditions on a par. Right from an early stage, we wanted to support younger architects and make them partners. Today, Christine Binswanger, Ascan Mergenthaler and Stefan Marbach have top responsibilities as senior partners along with Pierre and me. One day, others might join us and Pierre and I won’t be able to inspire and supervise all the projects closely to the same extent we do today. Then we’ll see how good the envisaged generation model can work. Are there conflicts and jealousies about money and concepts of quality or can it all be combined in a relaxed atmosphere? We don’t know, but we’re confident; otherwise, we wouldn’t be working towards it.
JCB: Although there’s a discursive design process, in your case in particular you get the impression that you come out on top quite strongly.
JH: Come out on top … over our partners, the clients or the public? Makes no difference, really. The important thing, as you say, is the discursive process that forces everyone involved into a debate. It’s pointless to cut corners in the discursive process by getting all authoritarian. It might be more laborious, as is the case with the democratic processes in Switzerland that [means that projects] still have to go through a voting process to be accepted by everyone in the end. We’re certainly not that patient at the firm; everything’s always urgent and the discussions and permanent changes force us all to be present all the time to follow this discourse. But in public, the discourse is simplified to make it understandable for everyone. The architect is also needed for communication here, if major building projects have to be conveyed. Public projects that have been confirmed through votes, however, quite literally stand on better footing.
HA: The situation in this country is undoubtedly in jeopardy. What will it be like in ten years? Will Switzerland fall into line with the European environment or remain defiant?
JH: The question is whether Switzerland is politically and economically an island and completely independent, as some people see it and want to achieve, or we can no longer dodge the European development, norms, laws, pay pressure and so on and have to adapt accordingly. At the moment, we’re still living in both “realities.” The internationally and globally active companies have long had to adapt to the corresponding standards of a globalized architecture world. The so-called star architects might benefit from the advantages of their reputation here, which enjoys a particular status as an international brand. But for the majority of the projects and new inquiries, [the processes of] public procurement, competitions and management already take place according to European norms. In Switzerland, however, there is still a special case: There’s more state that advertises correct competitions, organizes fair judging panels for them and spreads the commissions over a wide area so that young people also get a chance time and again. That’s important for the culture of architecture and one reason why Switzerland spawns so many good architects. But it’s also important for young architects to learn how to flaunt their qualities on the European and global stage and not just settle for the Swiss scene because it’s so convenient here and you can easily start your own little firm. That might well sound like a lecture, but sometimes the architecture scene in Switzerland makes me cringe since, even though it produces good people, all in all it comes across as incredibly hermetic and cocky.
JCB: You’ve often mentioned various role-models, like Aldo Rossi and Robert Venturi, but you also stress that as young architects you wanted to do things differently from your predecessors. Traces of modernists like Mies van der Rohe or — in art — minimalism, in other words the precision of these directions, might also be mentioned as reference points. Weren’t there other benchmarks?
JH: Rossi and Venturi had the biggest impact on us as students. Back then, they stood for something new that countered modernism somewhat; something ambivalent and routine; something that wasn’t as abstract and model-like as modernism demanded. Very soon, however, while we were still at university, the fine arts had a much greater appeal. I personally studied art and artists more strongly than architecture. Why? The great appeal that my friends back then in the Basel scene, Helmut Federle, Martin Disler and Rémy Zaugg, held for us. Their personal dedication and their far more radical exposure — compared with the safety of the architects — challenged us. We noticed that there weren’t any recipes, traditions or ideologies anymore that could be used for your own work. Everything had had its day and that has remained the case until now. What has changed compared to then, however, is that architecture scenes have developed in Switzerland and other places that support each other and that there is a kind of unspoken consensus as to what good architecture is that is not explicitly formulated, but lived all the more intensely in practice. If you look at Swiss publications or the weekend supplements, you can see how similar the projects of various Swiss authors have become; how identical the volumes, windows, large formats and materials are. There’s hardly anything that’s really bad and even more rarely anything that at least challenges this uniformity. Swiss architecture has become a lot more Swiss, homogenous, hermetic and folkloristic again today — like at the time of the Landi perhaps? — than its protagonists would like to recognize and believe. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the architects; it doesn’t bother us all that much. What bothers us far more is the mishmash that goes hand in hand with it and which the Swiss building zones are being filled with. The Swiss architecture of today is a kind of “pseudomodernism” that thinks it recognizes a moral legitimization with the abandonment of playfulness, individuality, experimentalism and radicalism, without following the really interesting side of modernism, namely the critical vision of a new society. But we believe it’s high time we strove for precisely this more intensely again.
HA: You say you grew up in a time of departure from the modern. There was a clear concept against it and there were the stimuli we mentioned earlier. The last few years, however, have been marked by a sense of laissez-faire — a tendency throughout society that also leaves an imprint on architecture. Where conflicts were fully discussed in the past, there’s a heterogeneous coexistence that seems to bother no one.
JH: In this uniformity, I see a tendency among architects to respect and maintain the status quo, and a consensus about what architecture is and can do for our society. That’s the expression of a decorative understanding of architecture, even if it expresses itself in a subtle, modernist language. It contrasts with the political understanding we’re aspiring to and which we gave a nudge toward with the Studio Basel publication Switzerland: An Urban Portrait . At the moment, we think that considerations of where, how densely, how much and how distributed over the country we can and should build are more important questions than those concerning the individual object. Yet there have always been different kinds of models for living and exploring architecture. You just have to think of modernism in Switzerland, where there were radical, strongly politicized figures from Basel like Hans Bernoulli, Hannes Meyer or Hans Schmidt on the one hand who combined extreme minimalism with a social utopia and created objects of immaculate beauty, and on the other hand the bourgeois architects from the Zurich or central Swiss scene like Haefeli Moser Steiger or Armin Meili, who tended towards an attractive, decorative architecture.
JCB: So at the end of the day it’s all about attitude. What’s the situation with the young architects? What’s your take on the younger tendencies?
JH: The question is to what extent you use architecture simply to produce or understand something, like society for instance — and how far your own work changes as a result. This question is uppermost in our minds at the moment, but we haven’t found a decent answer to it. Yet it brings us back to the patterns we were talking about earlier. You can’t just change a nation and the way it lives. In Switzerland, there’s now this semi-urbanism; architecture that’s neither good nor bad, neither urban nor rural, and yet well-connected to the public transport network; where there’s always something green, but never lush or a lot; where there’s always a bit of water in the form of a river, stream or a lake. As long as most people can live like that and it doesn’t suddenly become too dense and packed in the districts, and in the trams and suburban trains, it’s impossible to change it. And the author architects, whether they are young or old, add a few buildings to the mix here and there that are mostly somewhat better than the large mass of the more anonymous architects. But how much better does it really get? Can this added value be justified in the long run without the authors becoming authors of a complete overhaul of the urban and ecological conditions in our country?
JCB: Your generation has theorized a lot, conducted dialogs and struck new paths. Does that still exist among today’s generation or does laissez-faire take precedence?
JH: I’m sure you journalists and architecture critics could answer that question a lot better; you’ve got a greater insight into the scene. But there are bound to be a few prominent figures in every generation.
HA: Undoubtedly. But it’s been some time since a book was published that was as significant as Rem Koohlhaas’s S, M, L, XL. Things are also stagnating theoretically at the moment. And in this country some architects can build a lot quickly at a young age because the economic situation enables them to. At the same time, however, this is leading to an ebb in creativity because often the [prevailing] patterns are just copied.
JH: The last seminal publications are a lot older still: L’ Archittetura della città by Rossi and Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, which were both analyses of specific urban conditions: the Italian city, which Rossi invoked with a poetic and nostalgic impetus; and Venturi’s Las Vegas, which introduced pop art into architecture. I regard all key later architecture books like Koolhaas’ publications more as brilliant journalistic articles. They’re not sustainable textbooks or instructions as Rossi, Venturi or, even earlier and more explicitly, Le Corbusier or Adolf Loos, intended. The theoretical works of my generation consist more of individual essays or pamphlets; comprehensive works like the Urban Portrait of Switzerland, mentioned earlier, are rarely published. But the most effective and sustainable communicative architecture tool is still architecture itself; every single work. This means that the necessary political, urban and ecological dimension of architecture we talked about earlier needs to be expressed in the work itself. There’s nothing outside; no justification, no book, no explanation. Nothing has changed in architecture in this respect as long as it has existed.
JCB: In other countries, urban development discourse always proceeds from the mostly lacking or poor infrastructure. In this country, as far as urban development is concerned, we talk about construction zones or their concentration. With the Studio Basel, you raised awareness again of the topic of the urbanization of Switzerland, and meanwhile an increased urban concentration is in the pipeline at the planning offices in the region and cities. Is that a topic you’re still interested in?
JH: Yes, of course. Marcel Meili and I just had a lengthy discussion with the Tages-Anzeiger on these issues, a sort of review ever since Switzerland: An Urban Portrait came out. You can concentrate [urban development], but only in a country that also has an urban consciousness and where, somewhat more crowded together, you still see a certain quality and can live it, too. Really, the country is moving toward a kind of “City of Switzerland,” since the agglomerations are beginning to touch, such as the metropolitan areas of Basel and Zürich with the Aargau interchange. What’s the vision now that the future developments are supposed to gear themselves toward? Today’s zone plans only yield unsatisfactory answers that don’t project the everyday reality. Concentrations within the existing centers confirm the identity and distinction of one city from the others. So what would the alternatives be? Concentration along commuter flows, concentrating what used to be rural or village areas? What do Swiss citizens want? Who’s going to explain to them what’s possible and makes sense? There are overly divergent forces between what’s desirable, reasonable, feasible and necessary, and no one knows how all of these forces can be made fruitful. We already considered whether a regular TV format, in the same vein as Arena on Swiss television, might trigger public discussion and awareness of such issues.
JCB: It probably isn’t possible to resist the urban sprawl in Switzerland; it might be more pragmatic, as you say, to find the [desirable] qualities in this mixture of city and country. There isn’t any real urbanity in this country anyway.
JH: Really, it’s just being filled up somehow. Then sometimes there’s a competition in a community that isn’t quite rural anymore because it already has a population of 25,000; then you build a square, like in Oerlikon, that looks a bit urban and gradually it become a town district. That was already the case with the medieval suburbs and it hasn’t changed much to this day. Apart from those dating back to the Gründerzeit [in the mid 19th century], there are hardly any city quarters that are designed from scratch. The transformation of industrial wasteland is mostly more of an addition and adaptation than a tabula rasa, too. That’s not a bad thing; it’s also a reaction to the partly reckless encroachments of the modern into the old town and village. But it’s also an expression of a lack of vision as to how a city or country of cities like Switzerland can work in the future.
JCB: There’s an ambivalence in regions adjacent to cities, obviously a reluctance to commit themselves to the city. Among the young architects, you don’t find any urban structures in the designs for the outlying suburbs that’ll be slam-bang in the middle of the city in a few years. Why is it so hard to realize urban patterns in Switzerland?
JH: Because people don’t like them — and perhaps the architects don’t either. Architects in Switzerland, and indeed elsewhere, aren’t designing a vision that’s supposed to change anything radically. Architecture seems powerless to me today — more so than ever.
HA: You mentioned the necessity for a radical perspective that didn’t just develop for you based on the insights of the Studio Basel, but is also necessary with regard to the contemporary world situation. You already mentioned a few points — but there must be more of what you might call a new agenda.
JH: The topics of sustainability, resources and energy are on everyone’s lips these days. We’re also dealing with questions of the CO2-free city and asking ourselves what architecture can do to help. Instead of rebuilding cities radically, it’s more likely that we’ll see inventions like solar cells that you can adjust according to the position of the sun to collect more power. But maybe in parallel there’ll be more radical developments, where parts of our city realize new perspectives from the 21st century. If you ask me, that’s only possible through infrastructure. Radical changes only come about through things we have to learn the hard way. We’re seeing that now with the discussion on nuclear power plants: We already knew it wasn’t possible to supply the world using nuclear power — even before the disaster in Japan — because its permanent disposal isn’t guaranteed for thousands of years. But a change in thinking only comes about if the knife’s at your throat and your throat’s already been half slit — then you get a panicky reaction. That’s the way of the world and human nature: more reactive than active. And that’s why cities look the way they do: because the pressure isn’t great enough to change anything. But it’s up to us architects to try and make a difference, because we might recognize a bit earlier what others might not yet see — the ingredients for possible change. Still, we don’t have any recipes that can be realized directly, either. The Studio Basel book about metropolitan regions and the green spaces in-between was adopted by the Swiss federal planning department; yet it [doesn’t contain] about precise, firm wording, which is famously difficult in Switzerland. On the other hand — and here comes the “but” already — that’s also part of Switzerland’s success.
JCB: The topic matters to you, you can see that. But more precisely: Conflicts like the current one between zero-energy and Minergie [the Swiss rating agency for green buildings] — do they concern your firm or do you think it’s up to the technicians to resolve it? Anyhow, you’re well-known for conducting a lot of research.
JH: That’s a very good question. Of course, we don’t develop any new solar collectors or types of insulation. There are strict laws and regulations in Switzerland that we have to respect. In concrete terms, we tried to develop autonomous houses that are self-sufficient. Mostly, these attempts fall flat because they are merely recipes that are accepted by the building owners — or not. They are approaches to possible ideal conditions. We’re more interested in questions of sustainability in the context of urban development or a whole country. Next semester, we want to concentrate on these questions at Studio Basel and devise an overview of the state of affairs, as hardly anyone knows where we really stand at the moment. That goes for both the individual object as well as the regions and cities. We’re particularly interested in the issue of water, food production and waste.
HA: I’d like to come back to the need for radicalization. The sensitivity to social change has also taken mostly a backseat in the architecture profession internationally. Maybe that’s the problem.
JH: That’s right. We grew up and studied in the late Sixties, during the social revolution. The transition from modernism to postmodernism, the criticism of society, was fundamental. That left its mark on us and we left ours on the period. Nowadays, we live in a time in which nothing’s forced upon us that shapes the younger generation, which isn’t politicized to the same extent. And being politicized also means questioning everything. After all, architecture is just an instrument to shape our society and give the people in our time the chance to express themselves in one form or another and live in a particular way, both privately and publicly. That also means that public space corresponds to it: It can be open or hermetic. Here’s an example: Because it’s accessible to everyone, the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern is a contribution to the notion of public space. That’s the most exciting thing of all at the Tate. We learned that lesson during the project and have been able to use it in other locations, including in Switzerland. Architecture is a vessel for the people in a society. That’s fundamental for our understanding of architecture and the city. You can also understand the state of a society historically from how much the architecture productively sought this publicness or not. We always used to say: Architecture is an object of perception for the world, and also society.
JCB: So we’re experiencing a Jacques Herzog who’s just as radical as he was at the beginning of his career. But there’s also a Jacques Herzog who’s looking to devote himself to other themes after all this time, like sculptural architecture, the reference to nature, and is not as interested in everyday problems anymore. Do I sense a certain wisdom with age here?
JH: No, you’ve got me all wrong. A curious person will always be curious — whether that’s an advantage or not. Those of us from the generation of ’68 are rooted in a tradition of reason. But now we live in a time where ideologies are increasingly on the rise — in other words, in an anti-enlightenment era. Is that the future of the world? Will the world enter a new phase of isolation, nationalization, ideologization? As a paradoxical counterplay to the onset of globalization? That would require new architecture or author architecture to degenerate into a kind of “parallel architecture,” which it already is to a certain extent today.
JCB: You could ask whether this process has caught on in some places, for instance, in the more repressive parts of the Arab world.
JH: We shouldn’t assume our form of democracy is the only possible democratic form. A revolution like the one that started in North Africa in 2010, and that might lead to an enlightenment in your own society, is far more interesting. In Christianity, the Reformation destroyed an incredible number of values. I was raised a Protestant and only realized its enormity later as an art and architecture enthusiast. In Basel alone, entire churches, monasteries and cathedrals were knocked down. This was evidently necessary to achieve something new, to reach a truly new starting point for a society that had had its day and couldn’t rebuild itself from the established power structures.
That brings us back to the radical perspective. Perhaps everything has to break down. In the spirit of the age we’re living in today, maybe we won’t manage to overcome this shallow, sluggish, random but successful indifference in Switzerland. Remember: The change of Protestantism opened the door for industrialization; the Huguenots came to Switzerland, bringing silk dyeing and ultimately the pharmaceutical industry to Basel and basing the clock industry in Geneva and Jura. A large part of industrialization, in Germany and England, too, wouldn’t have been possible without Protestantism; you see that in Catholic countries where no such development took place. 500 years on, that’s still a social reality and continues to have an impact as a conflict between the countries in the north and south, which causes friction in the EU. Even though Switzerland is doing well, we must constantly seek new horizons.
JCB: That would be a nice note to finish on.
JH: I’ve often talked to you both and always found it interesting to tackle issues relevant to architecture. Mostly, this works best with reference to a specific object. However, if you don’t ask yourself these overriding questions, the object ultimately becomes boring.
JCB: Just before we finish, however, I’d like to ask an object-related question that is of particular interest to me, coming from Hamburg: What’s the situation with the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie? Why are there now conflicts after the brilliant launch in this city, which doesn’t exactly have an affinity with architecture?
JH: Complex political and contractual constellations have led to [the delays in construction]. We always have to make an effort with various lawyers to ensure that everything is correctly represented and we’re not accused of things we’re not responsible for. I wouldn’t wish that on any architect. Unfortunately it’s a reality in such big public projects nowadays — not just in Hamburg, although it’s particularly pronounced there. We have to battle on, but we’re confident we’re on the right track. The especially important thing for us now is that it ends up as magnificent as we always imagined it. It’ll be a wonderful building; the rooms are fantastic and at the end of the day that’s the only thing that counts. The building will stay up for a long time to come and should give all the citizens of Hamburg and its visitors a lot of pleasure.