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Two decades of Herzog & de Meuron

Seen as unknowns when they were picked to design the Tate Modern in 1995, Herzog and de Meuron have today morphed into a ubiquitous global practice − yet their work continues
to surprise with its subtle singularities

In the industrial zone of Dreispitz, where you still have to dodge reversing trucks and negotiate kerbless asphalt roads, a residential block rises up, as they do in such zones in prosperous Western cities like Basel. This one looks different from your usual luxury lifestyle apartments. It is a concrete tower, with the gridded upper half projecting over a solid stalk, part toadstool part Torre Velasca, also something like a medieval siege engine, its apparently regular geometry turning out to be scalene and dislocated. Its ascent to the sky is brooding as much as aspiring, its domestic dreams cloudy and complex.

More unusually still, the stalk turns out to contain the archive of the local architects Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the building. It has climate-controlled vaults containing drawings and documents. A goods lift scented by its oak lining reaches warehouse-like floors where models and samples going back to the early 1980s are arranged on wooden racks. The objects are multiform, strange and tactile, ranging from blue or pink foam to molten green glass. It resembles a Wunderkammer, an ossuary, a herbarium and a Chinese gift shop. The lighting is fluorescent, reflected off a shiny concrete soffit.

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The brooding apartment-block-cum-archive in Dreispitz, Basel, is a repository of the physical legacy of their career

This is an early example of an emerging type of institution, the archive of the great architect, which, because of the scale of production of such offices, now require substantial amounts of building (in this case 2,000 square metres of the Toadstool Velasca, not counting a workshop space) to house them. The destiny of, say, James Stirling’s archive was an important question but his office was a small fraction of the 460 that Herzog and de Meuron currently employ.

Likewise Zaha Hadid Architects, who are due to take over and fill the current Design Museum building in London withHerzog and de Meuron are, of course, in the same group of Pritzkerised stars as Hadid and others superfluous to name. But exactly 20 years ago they were not: when, early in 1995, it was announced that they had won the competition to design the Tate’s new gallery of modern art, the common reaction in the British media was bafflement. They were portrayed as Swiss unknowns, who had designed some signal boxes and sweet factories. Their appointment compounded the bewilderment caused by the Tate’s decision to retain the grubby old Bankside Power Station, rather than build something spanking new by one of Britain’s exciting modern architects, who had so long been frustrated by the malign alignment of Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles. Of the six short-listed practices, HdM proposed the least change to the existing building, and offered the least dramatic images.

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HdM’s winning entry to the Tate Modern competition proposed the fewest changes to the building and caused no little consternation in the British press

It was an exaggeration even then to call them unknown, but their reputation was of a quiet kind. Most of their buildings until then were simple boxes, mostly rectangular, with occasional inflections. The plainness, going on banality, of form was a sort of non-form, which deflected attention to other properties: their surprising use of materials, unexpected inversions of weight and void, ambiguities of scale, their combinations of welcome and denial. Deadpan was a favoured tool. They cited Alfred Hitchcock, and the ways in which he would locate mystery in the most ordinary situations.

They also practised non-style. The 1970s and ’80s had seen a fever of labels − PoMo, High-Tech, Decon − without which, it had seemed, architecture could not be discussed. HdM made a point of recruiting a new set of materials and details for almost every project − copper, timber, plywood, stone, polycarbonate, Eternit, glass, iron, concrete, mud. You might call them ‘minimalist’, but then they would spread botanical patterns across a building at a time when ornament − Postmodernism having by then been declared as dead as Modernism, Pruitt-Igoe’d by too many Disney commissions − was particularly taboo.

At the same time you could see a consistent hand, or mind, in the work. They were unified by attitude rather than look. ‘The greatest inspiration,’ Jacques Herzog now says, restating a view he has held for decades, ‘is always what is, more outside the architectural: the existing world in all its ugliness and normality.’ Avoiding the blinkless optimism of other architects, they showed interest in decay, darkness, the unheimlich, the uncertain.

‘The plainness, going on banality, of form was a sort of non-form, which deflected attention to other properties: their surprising use of materials, unexpected inversions of weight and void, ambiguities of scale. Deadpan was a favoured tool’

Rather than refer to other architecture, or make statements within the terms of form or style, the buildings sought to make connections beyond the conventions of the discipline, while still mostly using the means offered by construction and built space. In practice this often meant the sensual and perceptual properties of surfaces − hence the search for different materials and treatments unconstrained by stylistic preconceptions.

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In their unrealised project for Basel’s Marktplatz, HdM wanted to make users aware of a buried river beneath

The attitude is captured by the early proposal by Herzog and Pierre de Meuron for the Marktplatz in Basel, where they wanted to make users aware of the sound of a buried river underneath. The aim says Herzog was ‘not to design but to discover something that is there, to create a noise, an acoustic sculpture’. In the more usual cases of most commissions, where something actually has to be built, the ideas of discovery and experience are nonetheless there. In the Ricola storage building of 1987, for example, where layers of Eternit cladding are piled up into an object of enigmatic scale, the facade is ‘not to make an image, but to tell a story’, to communicate the idea of storage − commonplace enough − and make out of it some alteration of experience, a perceptual shift, an adjustment of this particular fragment of reality.

In the case of the Ricola storage building this is done by such things as the blurring of scale by the graded spaces between horizontals, which widen as the elevation ascends, and by corner details that reveal the thinness of the panels with which the building, which at other times appears solid, is made. Some judicious elements of solid concrete, and juxtaposition with an excavated face of natural rock, make the bulk of the building look flimsy again. Windowless and almost doorless, the object is mute but also attractive. Out of this mundane building type is made unresolved instability, ambiguities of material, mass, scale and volume.

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Maximal minimalism in the Ricola storage building

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HdM’s early works included two Basel signal boxes, which monumentalised a neglected type

‘When they are good they are very powerful,’ says Jacques Herzog of these early buildings, ‘they are physical and intellectual at once.’ Others in this series include the two Basel signal boxes, in which copper strips twist to make something solid become more permeable, the Goetz gallery in Munich in which a plywood-clad volume appears to rest on glass, and the library in Eberswalde, where a printed pattern of images runs equally over glass and concrete which then − when internal lights are switched on at night − declare their independence of each other. The culmination was the Dominus winery in the Napa Valley, in which a gabion envelope, which stabilises the temperature in the warm climate, takes on the role more often performed by insulating cladding panels.

Here the density and size of the stones in the gabions is varied, such that, again, what seems at first heavy can become transparent. With its simple shed-like form, this thing of stone might be said to combine the antiquity of wine-making with the generic road-side constructions of American business. The winery also launched a vogue of imitative gabions by other architects, for which it cannot be held responsible, and which never matched the intelligence of the original.

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Goetz Collection: an elegant box

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The patterned facade of their Eberswalde Technical School library gives the lie to their apparent minimalism

‘We are an easy case for a critic’, says Herzog. He’s right. With a little effort you can tap and unwrap their projects’ conceptual content, and observe its material realisation. They are also critic-proof. They declare no grand theory against which the works can be judged. Things are explained in relation to their given situation. Elusiveness and ambiguity are among the architects’ devices, which means that an assault on any particular aspect can look clumsy, a case of not getting it. The critic tends to be left with the options of nibbling at the edges, or denouncing their lack of a large principle, which then demands that the critic produce a credible specimen of such a thing. Which is hard to find, even in a moment when there is a groping feeling that something revolutionary might be called for.

‘With the dumb-ness of their box shapes, they would ask you to look away from the accident of their existence, while drawing you back with their perceptual surprises’

They have been suited to the age in which they have flourished, the time after ideologies, when political -isms had disappeared, and after them their bad imitations, the -isms of architecture. HdM deny utopian aims. They are not futuristic or visionary and, while they insist that their work has sustainable virtues, they do not preach environmental salvation. Their view of architecture is not transformative. They don’t promise to end inequality or change society. They see limits to the power of the discipline, and entertain the possibility that other activities − art, fashion − might be as interesting. Which is not to say that they are cynical or uncritical, but that they see resistance as a matter of subtlety more than heroism.

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Insulating gabions clad the Dominus winery in the Napa Valley

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HdM proposed a skewed polyhedral tower for MoMA

They work for money and power, as most architects do, and proceed by creative negotiation and manoeuvre rather than opposition. As their career progressed, and they worked for more money and more power, they have found themselves engaging with issues which, with the smaller earlier projects, were less pressing. In particular they had to deal with the society of spectacle − it being harder to achieve suggestive muteness with a donor-led museum or an Olympic stadium than with a storage facility − which they did with some gusto. They came to recognise that the hunger for media-friendly imagery is, as much as banality, or railway yards, or Californian roadsides, a contemporary force with which architecture has to contend.

From the mid-’90s on, as the scale of their commissions grew, they started admitting more of the spectacular into their work. A proposal for MoMA included a skewed tower. They designed a shining polyhedron for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, completed in 2005, that was almost Libeskindian. The Allianz Arena in Munich, also of 2005, with its colour-switching translucent exterior, was a dramatic update on the theme of the ambiguous envelope which, if less refined than the earlier work, is at a basic level dazzling. Here the comparison is with Frei Otto’s Olympic Stadium in the same city, with its noble Grecian idea of a tented arena in the landscape. The Allianz Arena is a more worldly object, responding to an age of consumerised sport, which also happens to be a better place for watching football.

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A silvery polyhedron crowns the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis

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A jelly doughnut at monumental scale: the Allianz Arena, Munich

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Patterns cover the facade of HdM’s Ricola Europe building

Decadence and kitsch, which hover in the background of such things as the leaf patterns printed on their Ricola Europe building of 1993, became more overt. HdM produced eroticised light fittings and glittering surfaces. In 2003 they started designing the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg which achieves one degree of extraordinariness − as a concert hall on top of an eight-storey former warehouse − and then adds another, in the extravagant forms that have something of Scharoun in them, though with no desire to follow Scharoun’s philosophy. This project, now a legend of time and cost overruns, has become a financial and reputational millstone for both architect and client, as HdM acknowledged when they made its controversies into an exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012.

The ultimate in these spectacular objects is the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which was hugely effective in the way it occupied the space of global media coverage of the Games. Its external pattern of criss-crossing struts is recognisable even in fragments, and it combines might and grace in a single memorable object. Here ambiguity of scale enables it to be seen as something stadium-sized, and as something you could hold in your hands, like a bowl or indeed a nest, a quality that has made it popular as a subject for makers of souvenirs. Its triumph of image came with costs − the structure is famously greedy for steel, and the lively urban life that was hoped for around the perimeter doesn’t exist − but few in the glow of the Olympics cared about such things.

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The seemingly endless project of their Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, which raises a glass concert hall on a former brick warehouse

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Pattern as recurringly florid strand of their design philosophy which finds its ultimate expression in the Beijing Olympic stadium, designed with artist Ai Weiwei

Simultaneously with these grand global projects, the practice has continued to work in and near Basel, usually on quieter buildings. They still work for their early backer, the herbal sweets company Ricola, most recently designing a herb processing facility in a rural setting, a richly scented interior which, in a classic HdM fusion of contemporary and archaic, is enclosed in an advanced form of rammed earth. There’s a charming new open-air public swimming pool, with support structures mostly in timber, and some older, barely noticed office buildings and laboratories. There is one of their most rewarding works, again underpublicised, the 2002 REHAB centre for rehabilitation of people suddenly disabled by spinal injury and other traumas. In this building perceptual and material alchemy is limited, with energy focused on a clear but difficult aim, which is to make a calm and restorative environment, a place that ‘does not feel like a hospital’, with the help of courtyards, light, abundant timber and subtle informalities.

Apart from their value in themselves the projects in and around Basel, of which 57 have now been built, serve to explore and develop ideas to be expanded elsewhere. They also add up to a long, slow urban project, the adjustment of the whole city through the accumulation of acupunctural moments. It is their Plan Voisin, although opposite to Le Corbusier’s in its gradualness, acceptance of contingency, achieved-ness and lack of rhetoric. This programme of projects realises a statement of Aldo Rossi’s, cited by Herzog, that ‘every building breathes the city’: urbanism is less about large diagrams and visions than a series of realised structures and spaces.

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The physiotherapy pool of the REHAB centre in Basel has a polyhedral concrete roof studded with openings, through which light percolates to engender a sense of therapeutic tranquillity

It is allied to the study of Swiss urban conditions, as a sort of test case of possibly wider importance, which led to the publication in 2006 of Switzerland: An Urban Portrait. Here they attempted to ‘do justice to subtlety and differentiation, to the intimacy and variety’, to achieve something ‘less spectacular than the classical morphological planning work of the architect’. Cities ‘assert physical reality’, said Herzog in an interview with Marcel Meili in the Urban Portrait, which he sees as something mortal and human: ‘the specific difference of cities is … as unavoidable as sickness and death’, he said, perhaps over-morbidly.

The studies combined an appreciation of some Swiss qualities − the avoidance of the grandiose, allowing the coexistence of multiplicities − with frustration that HdM’s countrymen don’t then embrace the creative tensions that might come from the overlapping of differences. They are too compartmentalised, in this view. ‘A free choice of partners sounds incredibly stimulating,’ said Herzog when Meili suggested that such a thing might be typical of the nation’s politics, ‘too stimulating to be an accurate characterisation of the autonomy of Swiss communes! It might lead one to believe that something like infidelity and nonchalance typifies Switzerland.’

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Connections between indoor and outdoor spaces as well as seamless transitions between the two were a primary architectural concern to make the REHAB centre an open, permeable and breathing building

The wider argument is that, contrary to the widespread proclamation of the triumph of the generic, cities are becoming more specific and different, a tendency desirable and to be assisted. This, and the Swiss study in general, was a riposte to Rem Koolhaas’s tales of globalised urban convergence in S,M,L,XL, which in turn is part of a rivalrous relationship with the architect from the small flat country at the other end of the Rhine from the small pointy country where HdM are based. There are affinities between OMA and HdM − their abilities to conceptualise, their interest in the world as it is now found, their allergy to certain types of architectural self-reference, their scepticism − and there has long been a free trade in compositional devices between them, but also irritation on the part of Herzog at least when his practice’s patient urbanism is overshadowed by Koolhaas’s more journalistic statements.

‘The 1970s,’ says Jacques Herzog, of the time when he and Pierre de Meuron were starting out, ‘were a dead end.’ Such inspiration as there was came partly from books, such as Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City. ‘These were the last two who wrote books from where as a student you could develop your own ideas’, says Herzog. ‘And Delirious New York?’ I venture. ‘No, that was not an influence at all.’

‘HdM expanded on Rossi’s interest in atmosphere and mood, in the relation between intangibles and the solid stuff of construction, in the multiple meanings of the Italian word tempo − time, weather, musical beat’

It has long been possible to see how Herzog and de Meuron developed Venturi’s ideas − that a building can be more than one thing at once, that the ways in which it might say, do and appear might be imperfectly aligned − more richly than perhaps he did. There is a lot of complexity and contradiction in their work. They also expanded on Rossi’s interest in atmosphere and mood, in the relation between intangibles and the solid stuff of construction, in the multiple meanings of the Italian word tempo − time, weather, musical beat. Again, they achieved a richer and fuller architectural realisation than Rossi, perhaps too in thrall to his own words, managed. (And, if Venturi and Rossi helped them get going, HdM now have little use for theory, and regard those two’s books as being ‘historic texts’ with no current relevance.)

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Serpentine cork landscape and pavilion roof by HdM and Ai Weiwei

Another route out of the architectural desert they describe was through their collaborations with artists, with Joseph Beuys when students, and later with Rémy Zaugg, Thomas Ruff and Ai Weiwei. With them they developed their interests in discovering the world as found, in the interaction of perception and matter, in leading with concept rather than style. At the same time they had a seriousness about the business of realising buildings − if this was to be their medium, they would pay attention to it. ‘Traditions were broken’, says Herzog of his early years; ‘we wanted to bring back what a window or a door is.’

The outcome of these influences were designs which presented themselves somewhat like art pieces, while also dwelling on the architectural properties of their walls, materials or openings. To the viewer they were confrontational and seductive at once. They often offered little by way of entrance, and critics used to complain of the lack of joy in the stairs or other elements of circulation. They were there, you looked at them, and might be intrigued. Then you might pass into an interior and repeat. Their sensuousness was synaesthetic − you could see the weight, or see the touch of rough or smooth surfaces, more than directly experience them. They encouraged you ‘to see something’, as Herzog puts it, ‘but something that comes through your own perception’.

‘The argument is that, contrary to the widespread proclamation of the triumph of the generic, cities are becoming more specific and different, a tendency desirable and to be assisted. This was a riposte to Koolhaas’s tales of urban convergence’

They were singular objects, while also questioning their status as such. With the dumb-ness of their box shapes, for example, they would ask you to look away from the accident of their existence, while drawing you back with their perceptual surprises. They sometimes like to talk about insubstantial architecture − the sound of water in the marketplace, creating a perfume, doing things with moss − while ending up designing individual buildings that are very much there. But they would be different kinds of objects − more self-satisfied − if there were not this desire for the intangible.
There was also a question of authorship. Unlike other Pritzkertects, Herzog and de Meuron are two not one, which is the basis of a cellular expansion that has matched the growth of the office − first to four partners and then to many. This has helped them achieve a fertility of ideas denied to victims of the lone genius myth, condemned to repeat to their signature. In HdM’s collaborations with artists you can’t see where one stops and the other starts. But these works are still very much creations of a recognised name, promoted through the usual channels of publicity.

As with their object-ness, there is ambivalence about their role as images. The early works are usually photogenic, and visually alluring, but avoid spectacle or drama, and also require − with the changing effects of the signal boxes for example − the viewer to walk around them to gain the full experience. In the context of a stultified architectural discourse, over-invested in certain looks and forms, this was a breath of fresh air. It was also liberating that they would give equal value to a wide range of materials in a context where other architects would create hierarchies based on the supposed modernity of, say, metal and glass.

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The hybrid type of the 1111 Lincoln Road building in Miami combines parking garage with events centre and boutiques: a deft inversion of the usual hierarchy of mixed-use, in which podium parking is subordinate to retail above

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HdM’s proposed triangular tower for Paris has caused enormous controversy

Tate Modern, being the editing of an unusual existing building, allowed them to pursue the idea of discovery at a large scale, although the combination of size, budget restrictions and contractual procedures denied it the material density of their other projects. But then came the large new-build commissions. They seemed happy for a degree of vulgarity, occasionally trashiness, to enter their repertoire, and to accept the trappings of architectural celebrity, but always with a consciousness that appearance was not the whole story, one which you do not find in other purveyors of spectacle. This consciousness, this attempt to be part of something and channel its energy, while also aiming for a critical transformation of it, is − fragile as it may sometimes seem − an essential part of their practice. The results are best seen in something like the generous concrete crate of 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami, a parking-garage-cum-events-space which, while an attention-attracting object that serves the purposes of its developer client, gives a new dimension to its locale.

‘They seemed happy for a degree of vulgarity, occasionally trashiness, to enter their repertoire, and to accept the trappings of architectural celebrity, but always with a consciousness that appearance was not the whole story’

Not everything has worked. The blue triangle of the Barcelona Forum falls flat. The huge white triangle they have proposed for southern Paris (currently halted by political opposition) is of doubtful public value. If the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern is a triumph of active shared space, some others, including the Forum, are not. HdM’s exceptional facility can sometimes make their projects glib-slick. They can be unconvincing in their use of vegetation. But they are always dedicated to enlarging experience where others would flatten it, and heightening the specifics of a place when there are pressures to erase them. They are champions of nuance. Which, in a world where such qualities are eroded and dissolved, the better to make things and people marketable and consumable, the insistence on complexity is essential, not decorative.

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In 2013 HdM added a shimmering oculus to Basel’s exhibition centre

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their current practice is the way in which their extensive international explorations have ultimately joined up with their Basel investigations in the form of projects that are local manifestations of global business. In 2013 they completed a new building for the city’s big exhibition centre − a long silvery building perforated by a giant oculus, that is one of their more impressive trashy-poetic pieces − and they have achieved the rare feat of working for both the Montagues and the Capulets of Basel’s pharmaceutical industry, Roche and Novartis. Towers for both are nearing completion, and the success of each will depend on the way in which they handle the encounter of international commerce and a settled and scenic European city.

In Dreispitz they have produced an urban ‘vision’ as well as designing the archive/apartment block (their Schaulager art storage building of 2003 is also in the area). With this they aim to maintain the industrial nature of the place simultaneously with the artistic and residential uses that go with gentrification. They also see an opportunity, as the zone crosses the boundary between two cantons, to puncture the Swiss compartmentalisation, the aversion to infidelity, that Herzog described to Meili.

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The practice has developed an ‘urban vision’ for the development of the privately owned former industrial zone of Dreispitz in Basel. They have completed 57 projects in the city, coalescing into a gradually transformative process of ‘urban acupuncture’

Dreispitz, with the ‘vision’ and the archive, displays both HdM’s ambition as urbanists, and their career as maker of individual buildings. It is hard to imagine any other architect’s collection of working materials being as diverting as this one, thanks to their fascination with manipulating and exploring physical stuff. They seem, apart from anything else, to be enjoying themselves. You can also witness the development of architectural production, from the pre-digital to the present, and see how the introduction of new techniques − as with the freeform shapes that followed the coming of foam models − changed the direction of the work. Such an archive could be a dangerous thing, a premature mausoleum, a self-celebration, but this one remains grounded and largely practical. Its main aim, apart from simple storage, is to show office staff and students the ways in which the practice has designed buildings in the past.

‘They are always dedicated to enlarging experience where others would flatten it, and heightening the specifics of a place when there are pressures to erase them. They are champions of nuance’

It confirms the impression that HdM are, rather than ideologues, polemicists or revolutionaries, producers of successions of singularities, governed both by consistent attitudes and the ability to evolve and reinvent. They mostly don’t get stale or repetitive. A guiding belief is that the way a space is made is humanly important which − given that some leading architects act as if they don’t really think so − is radical.

Two decades of Herzog & de Meuron

Photography: Herzog & de Meuron, Ryan French, Iwan Baan, Goh Chai Hin, Hufton+Crow, Thies Rätzke, Margherita Spillutini, Andy Stagg

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