Lunch with the FT: Jacques Herzog
By Edwin Heathcote
Published: March 12 2010 19:39 | Last updated: March 12 2010 19:39
Chez Donati, a comfortably bourgeois blend of dark wood panelling, bordeaux-coloured curtains, silver trolleys and modern art, is a couple of hundred yards from Herzog’s office, along the same bank of the Rhine. The opposite bank is dominated by Basel’s less picturesque face, big pharma. The massive plants of both Roche and Novartis are visible and Herzog is planning buildings for both. I meet him in his office and we stroll to the restaurant together. He looks every inch the global architect: dark suit, dark T-shirt, sleekly shaven head. He is at home at Chez Donati ? greeted in German, but as “Monsieur ’erzog”. The waiter thanks us for our order in Italian and we conduct the interview in Herzog’s precise English.
Once seated, we go straight into ordering. “Do you drink wine?” asks Herzog, before adding: “I don’t drink at lunchtime as it makes me sleepy. But it might make us look too protestant, no?” I agree, and suggest something local. “I’m not a fan of local wine,” he says with acerbic bite, so we order two glasses of a Tuscan white.
We spend a while looking at the menu although Herzog, who knows it by heart, is presumably doing this to make me feel comfortable. I order Parma ham and Parmesan to start and Herzog chooses grilled scallops with salad. He considers ordering off-menu for the main course but in the end goes for spaghetti aglio e olio con bottarga (spaghetti with garlic, oil and salted tuna roe). I choose scallopine ‘Purgatorio del Padrone’ (veal with a crispy cheese topping).
I had been told that Herzog is guarded about personal details. And when I probe, he becomes reluctant, politely but firmly taking the conversation back to architecture and to big ideas. He is married (his wife is an art historian) with two children, and that’s as much as I’ll get. He is happier to talk about his business partner, Pierre de Meuron, who like him is a local. “Pierre and I grew up here [in Basel] and have always been friends,” Herzog says. They were born within a month of each other in the spring of 1950.
“Our interests were a bit different ... but we always went to school together from six years old and we just kept doing the same things.” Neither had a burning desire to be an architect. “I studied biology and chemistry at university but gave up after a year and thought I might be an artist or a researcher. Pierre wanted to do engineering.” But by the early 1970s they both ended up at ETH, Zurich’s formidable institute of technology and architecture. “Architecture just sounded as if it was a lot of things we liked. It was a totally naive decision.”
Unusually, the pair went almost straight into private practice together in 1978, skipping the usual apprenticeship with a succession of bigger firms. Herzog says they started off “doing roofs and lofts: we were ambitious but we were also lost. We were more attracted by art. I was disturbed by the lack of theory at the time. I see myself as an architect who tries to describe in words, which is why it’s me who’s sitting with you here now [rather than the quieter de Meuron].” Engaging company,charming, fluent but serious, Herzog cares about culture and is careful with his words.
“Our thinking was a little sharp and aggressive at the beginning but in other ways it was very traditional and normal ? we always liked ordinary things,” he explains. Since this was the era of postmodernism when malls might look like Roman ruins, museums like Egyptian temples, and everything was seemingly imbued with history and memory, Herzog & de Meuron’s early work appeared strikingly minimal.
“We worked with artists a lot ? and Basel is a very ‘art’ city ? [but] the artists didn’t want ‘special’, they hated these overdesigned spaces. The meaning needs to be in the art. In architecture, things are what they are, they don’t represent anything. Our work was always deeply rooted in physicality. What architecture can express is gravity, keeping your feet on the ground.”
Their success stems in part from an ability to assimilate the tropes of the art world, making buildings that have as visceral an impact as a piece of pop art or an installation. Tate Modern, for example, is a disused power station and, as such, can be both a comment on de-industrialisation and the link between art and “power”.
But if their preoccupations were once with the ordinary, surely international institutions now approach Herzog & de Meuron because they want something special? “It’s true, and our public projects are often extraordinary,” he says, as I picture the mad complexity of the dried-egg-noodle tangle of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, which resolves itself into a beautiful, coherent object.
“I almost feel as if I need permission to think, to say what I want. Can I do something normal here? But sometimes that comes through the client. We’re doing a tower for Roche,” he says, pointing across the Rhine outside. “It’s a tower, a vertical city. It started as something explicitly sculptural but Roche wanted something else, so in a sense we gave in. They freed us from the need to be extraordinary and we think it will be very good.” The Roche tower, on Basel’s low-rise skyline, has been controversial. In such a conservative city,perhaps only this practice, with its impeccable local credentials and its international reputation, could get away with it. Basel is a strange kind of city for a global, avant-garde firm such as Herzog & de Meuron to hail from. Though small, medieval and conservative, it has become a real centre for Swiss architecture.
The first local building to bring the architects to international attention was a structure clad in twisting bands of red metal, which produce a striking effect. And what’s inside? A railway signal box. Only in Switzerland.
My prosciutto starter is deliciously salty-sweet; Herzog mops up the last of his scallops with bread. The entrees follow quickly. As mine arrives, I realise I have ordered meat with cheese followed by meat with cheese. Heavy but, on a biting March day, lovely. As we eat, we get back to the business of meaning in architecture. “Architecture is like nature ? it tells you something about yourself. Nature is very empty ? it confronts you with yourself and your experience of it and what you know about yourself in the context of a landscape, river, a rock, a forest, a shadow, the rain.” I ask whether good architecture can really be that impersonal? “You can’t deny who you are,” Herzog responds somewhat enigmatically “but being aware of it is the first step to achieving that emptiness I was talking about. I don’t see any connection between our biographies and our architecture.
“Cultivating a brand as an architect can be a useful strategy, especially at the beginning of a career, but one reason we prefer our approach [constant reinvention and formal innovation] is because it helps to avoid the trap of repeating yourself. But I think there is a tendency to overestimate the power of the architect. A CEO of an international company, a government official, even someone in local government, we don’t even come close in terms of power.”
If not power, I say, surely Herzog & de Meuron has influence? “We should be using architecture as a tool to understand how countries and cities work, by becoming credible, [someone] whose advice is asked for ... At least architecture has become more popular ? 20 years ago I don’t think you would have interviewed [someone like] me for this column.”
What about the fame he and de Meuron have found through their work? He is one of the very few global architectural superstars. “Fame can be useful but it can also lock you in ... it can be very limiting. But of course it is flattering when people listen to what you say, especially about planning and life in cities.”
Herzog is working on a massive art museum in Kolkata (see box below), due to open in 2013. I suggest his global profile means he is afforded an extraordinary glimpse into the workings of power and must have an understanding of the way it is shifting round the world? “Absolutely. If you grow up in Switzerland, with its hard-core democracy, then you travel, you realise we have reached our limitations ? the popular vote is not an e-pression of freedom any more but of the manipulation of an agenda by the political class and politics is just a game played among politicians.” I ask about November’s Swiss referendum in which the public voted in favour of banning minarets for mosques. “Basel didn’t vote for that,” he shoots back. “It should never have been an issue to vote on in the first place. The vote was presented [by government] as a freedom but it is a freedom which limits the freedom of other people.”
How did he find working in China? “The way the Chinese system is described here is simplistic, it’s not an either/or, either the way we live here or the way they live there. The Chinese are very pragmatic and level-headed. They have had extraordinary economic success and that has also produced a burgeoning elite of intellectuals and artists. The pressure that comes from that quarter and also the need for a broader middle class will inevitably force the government to accept an even greater transformation of society, which includes more rights than freedom.
“As [China] grows it will become different. Many societies are trapped in cultural patterns. Even the US with Obama. I think we may be able to learn from China, Brazil and India, to see how society is able to transform.” The waiter pushes a dauntingly large sweet trolley towards us and asks if we’d like dessert. We both shake our heads vigorously and order espressos. Herzog asks if he can pay. I reply that lunch is on the FT. “Otherwise it would be corruption?” he asks, with a grin.
As I get the bill, I remind Herzog that the last time I talked to him he was limping slightly, having injured his ankle playing football. He looks incredibly trim, still running and cycling. He is a huge football fan and for FC Basel designed the local St Jakob stadium, as well as the striking Allianz Arena used by Bayern Munich and 1860 Munich.
I ask if football, with its increasing globalisation and spectacle, offers parallels with contemporary culture or architecture? “Not with architecture, no. But with life. Soccer is both wonderful and terrible, you keep in mind those games you lose rather than those you win. It’s that gravity, again.” Does he still play? “The real talent is my daughter,” he says. “She plays in the Swiss national under-19 team. It’s her birthday today. I’m off to see her after lunch.” How are you going to celebrate? “Oh, I think we’ll go shopping,” he says. We put on our coats and hats, turn up our collars and head in different directions, Herzog towards the shops while I peel off to a nearby gallery where the art is slightly less impressive than it was at the restaurant.
Sankt Johanns-Vorstadt 48 Basel, Switzerland
St Jacques grillees SFr32.00
Prosciutto di Parma con Parmigiano SFr26.00
Spaghetti aglio e olio con bottarga SFr28.00
Scallopino Purgatorio del Padrone SFr48.00
Tuscan wine, Villa Antinori Bianco x 2 SFr16.00
San Pellegrino SFr13.00
Espresso x 2 SFr12.00
Total SFr175.00 (￡110)
Partners in their prime: Current projects by Herzog & de Meuron
A computer-aided simulation of the Tate Modern extension: With more than 5m visitors a year, Tate Modern is the world’s most visited modern art museum. Its Turbine Hall has become one of London’s most awe-inspiring spaces. The firm is working on an extension that will be contained within a twisting brick ziggurat, its cliff-like walls echoing the sheer industrial scale of the former power station. The first scheme was contained within the shell of the original building. This new building can thus be seen as representing the explosion of culture that has happened within, cementing London’s position as a global art capital.
Miami Art Museum: A totally tropical adventure, the designs for the museum feature huge hanging plants interspersed with spindly columns reminiscent of the city’s exuberant 1950s MiMO (Miami Modern) architecture. A slender roof section creates a parasol for a broad civic space while the museum itself retreats into the shade. The architects have just shown what they can do in the city with an extraordinary, avant-garde parking garage on Lincoln Road.
Projet Triangle: Nicolas Sarkozy’s riposte to Francois Mitterrand’s Grands Projets is Paris’s first skyscraper since the unloved 1972 Tour Montparnasse. A massive mixed-use building with an inclined lift taking citoyens to a public floor conceived as a plaza on the Peripherique, this glass pyramid echoes the fantasies of the early modernists, a 40-storey crystal castle.
Hamburg Philharmonic Hall: A building that aims to do for Hamburg what Tate Modern did for London, this revitalisation of a massive industrial structure through the insertion of a vast new concert hall and civic centre is a hugely ambitious scheme that has generated controversy (over its reported €323m price tag) and admiration (for its towering ambition). The prow-shaped peninsula site in the city’s docks is topped by a glazed crown evoking the billowing tarpaulins over boats.
KMoMA, Kolkata: A concrete celebration of India’s arrival into the world of contemporary art, this huge new $50m museum is situated in the city’s Rajarhat suburb. A rare excursion into iconic architecture for the next cultural powerhouse.
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