Designing Buildings That Speak to the World

By Rebecca Schmid
May 24, 2018
BERLIN — From the converted industrial space of the Tate Modern in London to the polygonal, copper-clad de Young in San Francisco, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have broken new ground in museum design. They come to the trade naturally: Encounters with visual artists were crucial to the development of an aesthetic that is as inventive and stylish as it is sleek and restrained.
But museums by no means make up the bulk of the partnership’s work; Herzog & de Meuron has established itself as one of today’s most highly sought-out firms for the way it reimagines private residences, hospitals, schools and other public spaces around the world.
Recent work has included high-profile urban projects like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, and the luxury residential tower at 56 Leonard Street in Manhattan, which features a sculpture by Anish Kapoor at the building’s base. The firm is also at work on the modern and contemporary art center M+ in Hong Kong, scheduled to open next year; the 20th-century art museum Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; and a new site for the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada.
The architects have distinguished themselves by finding specific solutions for every project. For the Schaulager, a contemporary art warehouse that opened on the outskirts of Basel in 2003, Herzog & de Meuron faced the challenge of designing a building that both exhibits and stores artwork for research purposes. Through Aug. 26, the site is home to “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” a large-scale retrospective that arrives at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York in October.
Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron look back on decades of collaboration not only as designers but also as curators. Before opening their office, they joined forces with the German artist Joseph Beuys to provide felt suits to members of a carnival parade in Basel, their hometown. They went on to work with such artists as Rémy Zaugg, Michael Craig-Martin and, perhaps most famously, Ai Weiwei, on both the Beijing National Stadium and a series of installations.
At the Venice Biennale in 2008, the architects and Mr. Ai presented “Mock Up, Beijing,” a hybrid form of art and architecture for which Chinese craftsmen mounted chairs on bamboo poles. Last year, they created the interactive installation “Hansel & Gretel” in which visitors, whose movements were recorded by cameras, could observe the results, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, a building they had restored.
“Whenever Weiwei is involved, he offers more than just a formal solution,” Mr. Herzog said by phone from Basel. “I think that’s why we get along well. We can develop concepts together without being bound by personal taste.”
The following conversation with Mr. Herzog has been edited and condensed.
How did visual art provide a model for new ways of thinking about architecture?
At the end of the 1970s, we were not at all keen to continue in the tradition of modernism, and we didn’t find postmodernism interesting enough. We needed to put together our own language that we could use like a palette.
When an artist starts in the morning, no one tells him or her what to do. The slate is blank. We were fascinated by this openness and tried out everything at our disposal as architects — whether color, space, structure or ornamentation.
We wouldn’t have had the same approach to material without our experience with Joseph Beuys, or to the notion of doubt and ambiguity without our proximity to Gerhard Richter, just to name a couple of artists we have admired and worked with.
Have your designs in turn challenged artists or curators?
A museum today should have generous classical galleries but also spaces inspired by industrial rawness. There has been an almost explosive change over the past 20 years. Artists today are working with all kinds of materials: performance, sculpture, video. That’s why you cannot just offer white cubes.
A place like the Schaulager, which has a combination of traditional but also unexpected, geometrically impure spaces, is more challenging but also more interesting for an artist like Matthew Barney, who climbed the gallery walls. We are very happy to see that it works well for different artists and their needs.
That paradox is, more generally speaking, a very important quality for architecture. The Schaulager is lofty but also has very intimate corners.
What variety will you bring to the M+ in Hong Kong?
This is the most radical version of that mixture. It continues the discussion about this need.
We discovered a train tunnel running under the building and, instead of seeing it as an obstacle, dug it out like an archaeological site which will be used for installation and performance.
We tested basically everything with the Tate [Modern]. But unlike that museum, built on a historic site where tanks were transformed into galleries, here we have to create raw or industrial production spaces.
How do you tailor each project to its specific cultural setting?
In every city, we analyze and observe and try to offer something that responds to those observations. We never interpret or try to assign meaning. Even art doesn’t do that.
We often make the comparison to nature. On some days, you may see how green the trees are and how wonderful they smell. Other times you might not even notice. The same is when you go to a museum. You might just walk right through, or a painting will speak directly to you.
That is something we didn’t know at the beginning of our career and have learned through larger-scale projects like the Tate or Beijing [National Stadium]. If buildings just follow the program of the client, then architecture doesn’t fully exploit its potential.
At its best, a building can activate all the senses. That’s what we try to achieve.