PRINT March 2018



Joseph Beuys, Feuerstätte II (Hearth II), 1978–79, copper, iron, felt, brass. Installation view, Kunstmuseum, Basel. © Architekturzentrum Wien, Collection.

JACQUES HERZOG AND PIERRE DE MEURON are known not only for their pioneering museum designs—from the Sammlung Goetz in Munich to London’s Tate Modern and the Pérez Art Museum Miami—but also for their intense and productive collaborations with a wide range of artists, which reach back to the very beginning of their career. Here, as part of Artforum’s ongoing series of conversations on the space of the museum, senior editor Julian Rose speaks with Herzog about art, architecture, and the alchemical transformations between them.

JULIAN ROSE: Today, we expect that architects of a certain standing will collaborate with artists. It’s a way for them to demonstrate their success or affirm their cultural cachet. You and Pierre [de Meuron] are probably more responsible for this development than anyone else. Your own collaborations are legendary: One of the first projects you did after architecture school was a 1978 performance with Joseph Beuys for Basel’s Carnival.

But I would like to speak more historically—and theoretically—about how the relationship between the two fields pushed you toward collaboration in the first place. What did art offer at that time that architecture seemed to be missing?

JACQUES HERZOG: Pierre and I grew up in Basel, where institutions like the Kunsthalle and the Kunstmuseum showed important postwar artists before many other museums in Europe. We saw Donald Judd’s sculptures at the Kunstmuseum in the early 1970s, when it was sometimes still difficult to see his work in America. In 1977 the museum purchased and exhibited Beuys’s installation Hearth I [1968–74]. It was very controversial, because he was not yet recognized as the great artist that he was, especially because he used materials that were not accepted in art, like copper wiring, grease, and felt. All of these things were captivating.

Herzog & de Meuron, Dominus Winery, 1998, Yountville, CA. Photo: Steven Rothfeld.

JR: Captivating because you hadn’t seen anything like them before? Or because they suggested a fresh set of possibilities that you already saw yourself exploring in architecture?

JH: When I was young, I didn’t think I would become an architect. Chemistry and biology and art interested me—and also Pierre—much more. When we eventually decided that we wanted to go into architecture, it was a naive decision. We thought it was a field that would allow us to combine these different interests.

JR: You were attracted to what you saw as architecture’s interdisciplinary potential . . .

JH: Initially, yes. But we quickly became aware that architecture was filled with ideas that didn’t really interest us. This was in the mid-’70s, when modernism was declining. We couldn’t see ourselves continuing in the footsteps of masters like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. We felt that modernism as an ideology was discredited. Architecture didn’t have a tradition anymore. At the same time, we were surrounded by the beginnings of postmodernism—deconstruction and historicism and all that stuff—and it felt limited, a narrow response to what had come before. So we turned to artists as models for new ways of thinking about architecture. This turn grew out of our fascination with art’s freedom and openness.

JR: It’s ironic that you found architecture to be so closed and art to be so open, because the major developments in both fields at that time were referred to in the same terms—as postmodernism. But in architecture this meant something very specific, a largely aesthetic rejection of modernism, either through the reintroduction of historical references or through the complex geometry of deconstruction. In art, there was never a monolithic postmodernism—it was the expanded field.

JH: Yes. And early on we recognized that open-ended approach as something that didn’t exist in architecture at that time. The way artists work, especially those artists who work on concepts rather than refining a personal “style,” was the way I thought—and still think—that architecture should be produced.

JR: Beyond this general sense of freedom, you have mentioned the influence of specific artists like Judd and Beuys. What drew you to their work, and how did you relate it to architecture?

JH: We were fascinated by how Beuys connected his work to natural history as well as to social and anthropological issues. We saw great potential in that approach, which was neglected by architecture at the end of the ’70s.

JR: I can see how a Beuysian conception of the natural world would offer an alternative to the stylistic debates between modernism and postmodernism, but how did it actually inform your approach to design?

JH: Architecture was primarily taught and practiced as either a technical or an aesthetic discipline, and, post-1968, as a social art, in which participation increasingly became a new topic. Beuys’s work was a model for combining and integrating all these relevant forces into one complex reality. We did not like his sectarian side, but we were interested in the ways in which scientific and “spiritual” forces could materialize and become “architecture.” It was the moment of our early projects such as the Blue House and the Stone House [1980; 1988], when we were full of doubts about how to do even the most basic things, such as design a wall or a window, or how to use color. Every project was radically different from the others. No traces of style or authorship were recognizable.

JR: At least with Beuys, then, artistic practice offered you less an aesthetic model than an attitude about authorship. But could the same be said of Judd? Minimalism is a term hotly contested between art and architecture, largely because many artists feel that architects reduced it to something purely aesthetic. If for Judd and other artists of his generation Minimalism was about shifting the emphasis from object to experience, rethinking the way seeing is framed by the spatial envelope of the gallery and inflected by our movement through it, for architects in the ’80s and ’90s it became just a look, or even a lifestyle—a branding slogan.

The way artists work, especially those artists who work on concepts rather than refining a personal “style,” was the way I thought—and still think—that architecture should be produced.

JH: Oh yes, I agree. Minimalism became an aesthetic school, especially in Switzerland and England, and then also in America and elsewhere. A number of architects became famous for their “Minimalist” boxes. We felt responsible for that evolution, since we did radically Minimalist work early on. Perhaps the Ricola Storage Building [1987] in Laufen is the first example in architecture and the most Judd-like, in a sense. Also, we introduced the term Minimalism to describe an approach to structure and materiality, which was different from what architects were doing at that time, and was closer, in fact, to the concepts of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and of course Judd.

Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr. 4 II (Ricola Laufen), 1991, C-print, 60 1/4 x 116 1/8".

We proposed a new approach to materials: They should not just be functional but invisible elements of a wall or a floor. We wanted to give every architectural element a kind of individuality, a recognizable role within the whole. Bricks are great for that: A brick is still a brick, even when it becomes part of a wall; only mortar binds them together. In the exterior walls of the Stone House in Tavole, we even tried to get rid of mortar—each stone is piled up without mortar, holding its position through its own weight. When working on the Ricola Storage Building, we tried to give every element of the building its independence. The building itself is conceived and put together like a storage facility for architectural elements.

JR: You’re referring not just to the fact that the building’s program was the storage of goods but also to the construction of the facade, in which a shelving system is used to support the individual panels that make up the exterior wall of the building.

JH: We started from scratch, literally, like architectural analphabets who didn’t know what a wall or a floor or a window was. We wanted to give materials more weight, to emphasize their specific and individual character. Look at the grayish-black basalt stones that are piled up in steel gabions to form the facade of the Dominus Winery [1998]. Depending on where you look or how close you stand, the wall seems either hermetic, like concrete, or transparent, like lace. The gap between the stones is as relevant as the stones themselves. When the sun shines, the gaps become lively actors, suggestive of thousands of photographic apertures.

JR: What about the projects in which you were dealing with images in addition to materials? In the factory building you built in Mulhouse-Brunstatt for Ricola in 1993, a photograph of a plant was screen-printed onto the facade’s polycarbonate panels.

JH: That was related to our rejection of the way Minimalism had been reduced to a style. Paradoxically, Minimalism led us to ornament, which seems to be its opposite. Since the time of Adolf Loos, architects have rejected ornament as superfluous. We tried to reveal its potential for contemporary architecture. In fact, we discovered that ornament in past cultures was not just decorative, but an integrative element, one that could actually be used to produce an understanding of architecture itself. We started to push ornament as a method to test our own projects. Even if just applied on the surface—like in early projects such as the Eberswalde Technical School Library [1999] or the Ricola building in Mulhouse-Brunstatt—the prints and motifs would challenge the structural and spatial concepts of those projects.

JR: It’s an ingenious, if counterintuitive, move to apply the serial, nonhierarchical strategies of Minimalism to images on a building’s surface: You invented a Minimalist approach to ornament. This also suggests that translating ideas from art to architecture can transform them in surprising ways.

I wonder if direct collaborations between artists and architects are equally productive, or if they encourage more normative approaches. I’m thinking of the Laban Dance Centre that you completed in 2003, for example, where you worked with Michael Craig-Martin on the facade’s colors. On the one hand, this is admirably pragmatic. Architects are notoriously troubled by color, and Craig-Martin is a brilliant colorist. But is this simply offering the artist the building as canvas, and so reinforcing old disciplinary divisions between art and architecture, surface and space?

View of Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s Hansel & Gretel, 2017, Park Avenue Armory, New York. Photo: James Ewing.

JH: We have tried out so many different forms of collaborations with artists. Why? Because the result should be interesting, new, and unexpected for both sides. The Laban is a spatially complex building with an ephemeral, translucent skin around it. We worked with Michael on the materiality and the colors both inside and outside that building. The color clouds that sometimes appear on the outside reflect the lively atmosphere inside. We could have done that ourselves, but it would have been worse! The use of color is not the business of an architect, even if quite a few have pretended to be experts in it. The exchange with Michael led to more provocative, more authentic, and more complex solutions. The result is the work of three indistinguishable authors.

At various times, we have also done these types of collaborations with Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Helmut Federle, Adrian Schiess, and a few others. The most radical collaborations were with Rémy Zaugg, with whom we collaborated from the ’80s until his early death in 2005, and Ai Weiwei, with whom we have been working since 2002.

Rémy was more than just an artist friend. We traveled around Europe, talking and smoking and eating and drinking and designing many architectural projects and art projects in public spaces. It was always a very intense process. When we did the master plan for Université de Bourgogne [1990], we got together around a table at the very beginning of the project, in a very innocent way, almost as if we were children, and the work progressed through incredibly open-ended discussions.

Our collaborations with Weiwei have a similar character and intensity to those we had with Rémy. We met him when he was still relatively unknown, and when we all had more free time as well. We took trips together across China, and we began an ongoing conversation. Weiwei is critical of China but, at the same time, profoundly loves his country and knows an incredible amount about its history and cultural heritage. We’ve done and continue to do many projects together, large and small, some that materialized and some that didn’t, but always intense and fun at the same time.

JR: This takes us back to your initial understanding of architecture as an inherently interdisciplinary field. It’s true that in a sense architects are the last generalists, and that an architect ideally should be able to interface with any number of specialists, whether an artist or a contractor or an engineer. But at the same time, the production of buildings is now more technically complex than ever, and architects have an enormous amount of specialized expertise. Presumably, then, the collaboration can’t continue indefinitely as a conversation among equals.

Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern, 2000, London. Photo: Hufton + Crow.

JH: We cannot do art and the artist cannot do architecture? That is a prejudice and it is wrong. We have always tried to blur the boundaries between our roles in order to produce new ideas. Take, for example, the project we did with Weiwei last summer at the Park Avenue Armory [Hansel & Gretel, 2017]. This was an art installation, a hybrid between a public sculpture and an opera. We were all involved, the three of us, Weiwei, Pierre, and I, and our teams, of course. It would be absurd to separate the contribution each one of us made to the final product. The truth is that nobody could have done it alone. It would have been different and less of a shared experience. I think it is also more complex than a work by one single person. The same is true for the Bird’s Nest [2008]. Without Weiwei that stadium would be different, and maybe it would not even exist.

But yes, you are also right when you say that the amount of specialized expertise has grown tremendously in the field of architecture. When Pierre and I work on a project, we also could not do it alone. We need the support of so many others inside and outside of our own company.

Collaboration is the word for that. We have practiced this way for many years. The art of collaboration is to find a denominator that is not a compromise—but the most powerful and daring concentrate.

JR: Besides technical expertise, politics is another potential point of difference between art and architecture. You described your initial turn to art as a way of escaping architectural ideologies. But at the same time, much of the art you were looking at was profoundly ideological. The work of Beuys especially was driven by his political convictions, by a sense that he was operating outside of existing establishments and hierarchies. As an architect, is it possible to translate this critical position into your own practice, particularly as you become more successful and work for increasingly powerful clients?

Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern addition, 2016, London. Photo: Hufton + Crow.

JH: Architecture is like a quarry in which many strata of political and psychological conflicts have been deposited over centuries. But architects are rarely aware of that depth when working on a given project. Most are relatively apolitical and focus on the formal issues of their discipline. This has to do with the fact that they spend someone else’s money: the client’s. In that sense, an architect is a trustee for his client. This relationship is based on trust and respect. If you have a moral or political problem when working on a specific project, say one in a nondemocratic country or one that forces you to design according to unacceptable guidelines, you should not accept the job or you should give it back. That is probably the most honest and credible critical position that you can have as an architect.

JR: Questions about power and criticality play out in very real terms in the architecture of art institutions, where artists and architects often seem to have competing desires. How do you create the kind of architecture you want while still granting artists the freedom to produce different kinds of work within the space, and visitors the flexibility to have different viewing experiences?

We started from scratch, literally, like architectural analphabets who didn’t know what a wall or a floor or a window was.

JH: We have never had a problem giving a building the specific quality that we want while also leaving enough flexibility and freedom for others to use it and play with it as they wish. It is a cliché to believe that a strong architectural position excludes or limits the freedom of artists in a museum. Wright’s Guggenheim was a nasty place for the artists of his time, but today it works very well, since artists have widened and expanded their repertoire. Ideally, a museum can offer a spatial topography of real difference: It should offer spaces that challenge contemporary artists to create new and unexpected work; at the same time, it should have galleries that work as a background for classical hanging.

JR: Difference is also important in the program of a museum, in terms of providing multiple kinds of space. But I wonder if there is a way in which difference itself becomes generic. Especially in museums for contemporary art, there’s a checklist: “We need a big gallery for installations, and a small gallery for works on paper, and an auditorium for dance, and a black box for performance,” and so on. How do you inject specificity into your design when there’s such a standardized menu for museums?

JH: There is not just one ideal condition for a particular piece. It is interesting to install and experience the same work of art under different circumstances: You can hang a painting on a rough concrete wall, or a stone wall, or on wallpaper, under daylight or artificial light. You can put it in a large gallery or even in a stairwell. It’s important to understand the hanging of art within the context of a whole building—how the proportions, materials, and surfaces of the galleries change as people move through space. Hanging is a very complex job, and I always admire those who can do it well. Curators, but also artists. I was especially impressed by Rémy’s installation of Giacometti sculptures—tiny little figures—in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1991. The installation was an artwork in itself without being overwhelming or pretentious.

Architecture is like a quarry in which many strata of political and psychological conflicts have been deposited over centuries.

JR: How do you go about finding the right fit between a work and a space?

JH: It’s not an answer that I can give abstractly . . . give me two or three objects, a sculpture, a painting, and a drawing or a photograph; we could walk through a building—it doesn’t even need to be a museum, nor do they even need to be art objects—and find ideal locations within a given space for each. It is an interesting experiment. We all do that all the time, often unconsciously, when we put a glass on the table, move a chair from one side to the other, rearrange a curtain, etc.

JR: And you approach museum design in a similar way, with the collection in mind and in conversation with the curators?

JH: Yes, we try to be simple, forgetting what we believe is right or wrong. Of course we know how a white cube works, how a rough industrial space can be useful, how playful views of the landscape can be, and how visitors should be encouraged to enter the museum and stay for a while even if they are not immediately attracted by contemporary art. But every place is different, every collection is different; curators change and have new ideas.

JR: But what about institutions that don’t have an established collection?

JH: The Pérez Art Museum Miami did not have an established collection when we started the project. But it had a plan, a curatorial plan that informed an architectural plan and vice versa. Based on intense conversations with Terence Riley, and subsequently with other curators, we developed a concept based on anchor rooms, almost like centers of gravity, around which a narrative could be laid out, using text, drawings, prints, photography, and all kinds of other materials. This concept—still active today—can be more easily completed with loans and newly purchased works than a conventional layout of rooms can. In other words: That institution’s difficult beginnings at its new site led to a very specific architectural and curatorial solution that no other museum has. The concept is also attractive because the anchor rooms offer an opportunity to invite artists to create work in situ. We believe that the building, with its verdant topography inside and out, is equally inviting to visitors, who spend time in these spaces, and to artists, who transform them.

JR: Art and architecture are increasingly evolving in tandem. Your design for Tate Modern has been a primary site of this shift. Was it your intention, when creating spaces like the Turbine Hall or, more recently, the Tanks, to invite artists to explore new forms of production?

JH: We are happy that these spaces have been so successful, because no architect can really predict if a space will work when finished. Getting back to your earlier question, it’s not simply a matter of designing a large or raw or informal or flexible space. You can have all these things that sound interesting, and the museum can still be lousy. Nick Serota was a great director—he invented the program and collaborated almost as an architect with our team. Artists were very happy to be involved, and later they brought life into that space in such varied and almost contradictory ways—like Doris Salcedo’s piece for the Turbine Hall, the crack in the floor, which I loved; or the Rachel Whiteread piece, which almost filled the space entirely. Bruce Nauman, Olafur Eliasson . . . each intervention was totally different from the rest. That is what makes the Turbine Hall a space that people want to go back to, and makes artists willing contributors its history.

JR: Is there is a darker side to the popularity of spaces like the Turbine Hall, though? Tate Modern has completely transformed London’s South Bank. Cultural projects in general, and museums in particular, seem to be playing an ever-larger role in urban development, to the point that they have been almost entirely co-opted by developers. Your office is obviously involved in this: You’re working on your first major project in Los Angeles, which is in the so-called arts district and includes both art galleries and luxury housing. And here in New York, your studio is transforming the Batcave, an old warehouse in Gowanus that was a famous artists’ squat, into fabrication workshops. The latter project in particular has been bemoaned as the latest stage in the gentrification of Brooklyn. How do you retain a genuine or organic sense of culture, and produce viable public space, in the face of the forces driving this kind of development?

This question seems particularly difficult today, because I don’t think art practice still offers an alternative model. We began this conversation talking about art offering an appealing sense of freedom, a way of thinking outside of the systems in which architecture is entangled. But now art is, if anything, even more tied up with the market. I don’t think architects can still look to art as a critical or conceptual model.

 Herzog & de Meuron, Berggruen Institute, anticipated completion to be determined, Los Angeles. Renderings.

JH: A work of art can still be inspiring for anybody willing to look at it and spend time with it. But yes, art has become more of a business model than a critical one. In a sense, the situation in art and architecture mirrors the rest of our society. Just like the middle class of citizens is shrinking, what you could call the middle class of artists and of galleries is shrinking and will eventually disappear. A few wealthy galleries control the market in America, Europe, and Asia. In architecture, developers control the real-estate market; they are increasingly building our cities, and their logic strictly follows the profitability of the market. As an architect you can hate that. But you can also rethink your role as someone who not only designs but also influences a project on a programmatic level. More and more developers understand that iconic architecture is not enough—buildings need to be rooted in a city, they need to attract different social groups and offer different programs. Not every tower will have a public space like the Turbine Hall, but commercial buildings will need to have some kind of free and informal space. The alternative is empty, spooky towers, like those glass vitrines surrounding Tate Modern.

JR: It’s impossible to imagine the Turbine Hall empty. In a sense, the stakes are higher for these so-called participatory spaces than for any other kind of museum architecture, because if you don’t have public engagement, the space can’t survive. Maybe in this brave new world the most important thing architects can do is refuse to design past a certain point, to avoid overdetermining their spaces and to allow for the unexpected, for adaptation and interpretation.

JH: Architecture is very archaic; you can see it, smell it, touch it, hear it—like nature. It has a sensual side, and it also encourages you to think. We see art, but also architecture, as tools of perception and reflection. Both disciplines can trigger a kind of creative, perhaps even erotic energy in the viewer or user. That is an incredibly powerful energy, beyond any moralistic attitude or stylistic preference. I doubt that this will ever change, not even in a moment of transition toward greater commercialism.