Inside the archive

Herzog & de Meuron is one of the world’s most influential architecture firms. Deyan Sudjic applauds their wide-ranging and meticulously catalogued body of work

Tankaut 15_39Model Archive of Herzog & de Meuron, Münchenstein/Basel. © Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron Kabinett (Foundation), 2015. Photo: Iwan Baan, 2015

Basel is Switzerland’s third-largest city, but its airport is in France. The Swiss city of 500,000 people shares its gateway to the world with Germany and France, while its suburbs spill across all three countries. It is also perhaps an appropriate home for Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, two architects, both born in 1950, who first met in high school and who have worked together ever since to build what is perhaps the most intriguing and most consistently inventive architectural practice in the world.

They are at the same time, rooted in the specifics of a small, even provincial, Swiss city – albeit one that is at the heart of both the pharmaceutical and the art markets – but have a global impact on architecture. In their 400-strong studio in a complex of buildings overlooking the Rhine, some new, others recycled, work is underway on a museum in Hong Kong, a library in Israel and high rises in New York. They have designed Australian railway stations, academic buildings in Oxford and sports stadia in Brazil and Germany. They build concert halls and art galleries, social housing and fashion stores. Each one is different; none pursues a signature or a brand. They flourish because they are able to attract gifted young architects to come to work for them, because they offer them the chance to be at the centre of the architectural debate.

Every building designed by Herzog & de Meuron is different, each one based upon an idea. Sometimes that comes from the artists who fascinate them – Joseph Beuys, who they met as students; Ai Wei Wei, who helped them shape the Beijing Olympic stadium; Michael Craig Martin, who worked with them on the Laban Dance School in London. Sometimes the idea comes from materials: the brick that they are using on their second project for the Tate; the copper that they used to wrap their breakthrough project, a signal box at Basel’s railway station. They are also unusually reflective about the significance of their work and its relationship with a wider cultural landscape.

In conversation with the artist Rémy Zaugg, curator of the influential exhibition of their work at the Centre Pompidou in 1995 – known in their archive as Project 130 – they suggested, “Architecture cannot be exhibited as such, but only in a mediated form.” It’s a far from unfamiliar thought, one that has overshadowed a certain strand of architectural culture for the last 30 years. Herzog himself echoed the idea in his introduction to Archaeology of the Mind, a 2002 exhibition in Montreal – Project 183 – at the Canadian Centre for Architecture: “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited, we are forever compelled to find substitutes.”

This might seem a slightly paradoxical conclusion, given that exhibitions have been an intrinsic part of their work since they first established their studio. Architectural exhibitions may not contain actual architecture, but each of Herzog and de Meuron’s shows gets a job number in their archive, all the way back to Project 028, a Lego house they made for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, and Project 047, the show that they curated at the Basel Architecture Museum in 1988. But if these projects are not architecture, then what are they?

A good starting point in trying to answer the question is to look at the writings and practice of Rémy Zaugg. Until his death in 2005 Zaugg was an important influence on Herzog and de Meuron, working with them to develop the intellectual underpinning of their museum projects. He curated exhibitions of their work. He made works of art within the context of their architectural projects. And Herzog and de Meuron designed buildings for him. Zaugg’s Pompidou exhibition of their work set a pattern for a certain way of exhibiting architecture. It set out to demolish what Zaugg, in his dialogue with Herzog and de Meuron, described as “naive thinking”.   Tankaut 15_40Clockwise from left: Central Signal Box, Basel, Switzerland © Margherita Spiluttini; VitraHaus, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 2009 © Vitra; New Bordeaux Stadium, Bordeaux, France © apc Viaud; De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, USA © Herzog & de Meuron; Dominus Winery, Yountville, Napa Valley, USA courtesy of Dominus Winery; Lego House, contribution to the exhibition: L’architecture est un jeu… magnifique, 1985, Centre George Pompidou, Paris, France © Herzog & de Meuron

Zaugg’s forensic assault begins with an acid focus on two aspects of conventional attempts used to make architecture exhibitions communicate, huge photographs and realistic models: “Everything is brought into play, from the repertoire of the window dresser to the know-how of the interior decorator, from the optimism of the kindergarten teacher to the science of the graphist.” Zaugg’s words are salutary. He mocks architectural exhibitions that contain “watercolours from the artists’ youth […] chrome display cabinets […] sophisticated nickel-plated windows […] plans superimposed to decorate an ochre wall [...] models set up against pink, canary yellow or blue […] darkened cabinets with halos of light […] a table for browsing through books, a video game”. In the interests of full disclosure I confess that over the years I have worked my way through the full repertoire that Zaugg listed.

Perhaps the clearest outcome of Herzog and de Meuron’s exploration of the territory of the exhibition is the focus that it has put on their archive. The pair’s newly completed project in the district of Dreispitz, on the edge of Basel, combines 40 apartments with five floors of archive space and is a fascinating creation of a new typology in the context of an equally interesting new kind of urbanism. Dreispitz, built mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, is a mix of warehouses, transport depots, railway sidings and roads. It is now being transformed by a development strategy that began in 2003 with the Schaulager, a museum-warehouse-research centre, and has since seen the construction of an art school and a number of new apartment buildings.

The latest structure rises out of the midst of an area that was once a no man’s land, but which is now taking on a definite and distinctive character. The apartments have their own entrance, and are contrasted with the mostly windowless archive zone by board-marked raw concrete that over time will darken and stain. There are three floors above ground for the archive, and two below ground for the artworks the partnership has acquired over the years.

Inside the archive, spaces are marked by a beautifully made storage system: wood shelves contained within transparent, timber-framed cabinets. Esther Zumsteg, the Herzog & de Meuron partner who has overseen the firm’s exhibitions, archive and communications for decades, has spent months with her team laying out the three-dimensional contents of the archive. The shelves are as carefully curated as the tables that Zaugg set out at the Pompidou, or that were on display in Montreal. Each job is represented here with certain key objects, samples or models.

The practice has always been careful and organised about recording the making of its buildings. But it does not keep everything; decisions are made while work is underway about what to show and how to encapsulate each project, not to make items the subject of a public display, but as working tools for the practice, for researchers and for exhibition makers.

Walking through the measured rows of the shelves holding almost 500 projects, what is most striking is the sense of how much time has been invested not just in placing each object, but in the tens and thousands of man years that hundreds of different individuals have put into thinking about and creating it. The rows and rows of objects sometimes seem to blur into a single object, as if you are negotiating the inside of some massive mainframe computer. And then you stop and recognise individual projects: a detailed model of the Dominus Winery in the Napa Valley, needed to convince a planning board, or dimpled panels used as samples for the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Moving back and forth through the rows, some patterns start to show up. At some moments, the foam form models move from blue to green, or occasionally pink. But there is no sense of periodical developments. Herzog and de Meuron are not Le Corbusier, with his movement from the arts and crafts, to Purism to his late work. The sample boards and the fragments show a fascination with materiality. It is there as a database, indexed to be read in conjunction with the admirably lucid online catalogue of the practice’s complete works. This project is a model. There is nothing else quite like it, a reminder of what the consistent application of intelligence can achieve. And it is an assertion of the continuing relevance of architecture.

It has been a dozen years since Herzog & de Meuron completed its first project in Japan: a store for Prada on Miyuki-dori, an offshoot of Omotesando, Tokyo’s version of the via Montenapoleone or Bond Street. An impressive collection of fashion brands, from Yohji Yamamoto at one end to Dior at the other, forms a competitive parade. Omotesando is crossed by Aoyama-dori, one of Tokyo’s major traffic arteries. One side is a tree-lined divided highway with big statement buildings by celebrated architects: Tod’s (Toyo Ito), Dior (Kazuyo Sejima) and Hanae Mori (Kenzo Tango) face each other across the traffic and the trees. Not far away are other flagships by Ricardo Bofill, MVRDV and Fumihiko Maki. On the other side of Aoyama-dori is the more intimately scaled Miyuki-dori, where Herzog & de Meuron completed its second building for Prada, this time a Miu Miu shop. In the midst of Omotesando’s architectural fireworks display, it is telling that Herzog & de Meuron is the only architect that has been invited to return and create a second building.  

Tankaut 15_41Miu Miu Aoyama, Tokyo, Japan © Nacása & Partners

The first building, Prada’s sculpted glass iceberg, set back from the street to create a small plaza, has become a definitive landmark, attracting architectural pilgrims as well as customers. The store has always been a statement of Prada’s commitment to fashion rooted in the wider culture. In commissioning Herzog & de Meuron, Prada was doing more than merely using the architectural credibility of the architects of Tate Modern and the Olympic stadium in Beijing as a flattering signifier of its own credentials. It was, rather, engaging in a dialogue with architecture, just as the Fondazione Prada in Milan is shaping a dialogue with contemporary art.

Herzog & de Meuron is an architectural practice committed to never repeating itself and, even more, to avoiding the obvious. There is certainly a dialogue between the two buildings on either side of the Aoyoma-dori, but they could not be more conceptually different. The Prada store has a skin-like membrane that seems to pulsate, sucking visitors into its carpeted interior as if it were a Venus flytrap. Diagonally across the street, the Miu Miu building is smaller, but in some ways more imposing. It has nothing so predictable as a conventional window display. It is a well-guarded box, which demands a conscious decision to cross its threshold. It is not so much that the shop is hostile, but that it is reluctant to reveal itself.

Herzog uses gendered metaphors to explain his approach to the design. On the outside it is a steel box, its front and back walls tilted to reveal a copper-lined entrance. The steel is angular, harsh and masculine, while the copper that gradually reveals itself as you enter is flowing, soft and feminine, like the silk lining of a suit jacket. The architect carries the metaphor further. The potential chemical reaction between copper and steel means that the two metals have to be kept entirely separate from each other to avoid corrosion, otherwise, “the male will eat the female”.

It is a small but rich building; on two floors it is on more of a domestic scale than that of a department store. The architects have been able to play out to the fullest extent their fascination with materials. There is timber on the floor, black-stained end-grain oak blocks, installed by Swiss craftsmen and cut into patterns with rubber inserts to reflect the Miu Miu wallpaper. The wallpaper’s patterns are also punched into the lacquered copper lining of the entrance’s tilted steel blade. This flirtatious, seductive building offers ambiguous, teasing hints of what is inside, so what is apparently an immaculately detailed strip window, set flush into the steel, turns out on close inspection to be not glass, but a strip of steel polished to a mirror finish.

On the upper floor, two of the copper-lined changing rooms actually face the street, with multiple layers of veils to screen their occupants from view. There is a brocade curtain that can be pushed open to reveal the full-height glass wall that is itself shaded by the steel façade, and pushed back to offer a glimpse of the street beyond and a sliver of the Prada building outside.

The store is a Gesamtkunstwerk: every piece of furniture and every display case has been designed by the architects and made especially for the shop. Lacquered copper is used in tubular form for the display racks, and also for the hangers. One wall is formed by an undulating sequence of niches lined with velour wallpaper that suggests a boudoir or a baroque opera house.

Fashion, it is sometimes implied, especially by a certain kind of architect, is frivolous, trivial and transient. Le Corbusier once suggested that architectural styles were no more than the feathers on a woman’s hat; sometimes pretty but nothing more. Adolf Loos was more insightful in his writings, and something of the spirit of his own work for Goldman & Salatsch (where Mies van der Rohe bought his suits) seems to hover over Herzog & de Meuron’s work for Miu Miu. Fashion is, of course, anything but superficial, and Herzog and de Meuron see their task in the context as providing a certain resistance, as offering a setting that reflects some of those deeper meanings of fashion, without being consumed by them.

Their two buildings facing each other across a street in Tokyo demonstrate in the most effective way possible how that paradoxical combination of permanence and transience, or austerity and sensuality, can be achieved. These are not buildings that are fashionable: they are buildings that are all about the essential qualities of fashion. §Tankaut 15_42Miu Miu Aoyama, Tokyo, Japan © Nacása & Partners