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Hertzberger: ‘Architects try to make the special ordinary. We should do the opposite’

Herman Hertzberger ended his Royal Gold Medal lecture with a sideswipe at icon-culture and a plea for architecture which concentrates more on the social than the individual

The 79-year-old Dutch architect, who picked up the prestigious accolade in honour of his lifetime’s achievement, contrasted the pyramids of Giza – ‘a tomb for one man’ – with the large gathering place of the Roman amphitheatre at Epidiours, Greece. He claimed that modern architecture, like the ancient pharoahs, was too obsessed with beauty, to the detriment of collectivity.

Before the lecture Hertzberger told the AJ that he would not just be showing his own work but dedicating half the slideshow to schemes by others. In many of these slides he highlighted the lack of social spaces - something he has tried to make integral to his architecture.

‘Architecture can create a feeling of belonging. People claim it was first about shelter but I don’t agree. That’s very individualistic. I think it’s when people come to work together,’ he said at the RIBA’s London headquarters at Portland Place.

‘Let’s stop thinking about individuals and let’s talk about what people share - that should be what architecture is about in my opinion.’

And the octogenarian had a few jibes at his fellow architects, singling out the ‘amazing’ stepped building by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) which he said only had decent social space in the car park.

While praising Norman Foster’s Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, he quipped that the scheme ‘proved you only have to make one great building to be considered a great architect!’

Despite this comment he was fulsome in praise for Foster’s bank. ‘It was the first bank in history to have a walkway through it. That was a stroke of genius!’

Hertzberger also spoke about the need to design and build generic, adaptable space which would be suitable for an ‘unstable world’, while avoiding the ever-present danger of making ‘neutral, dull buildings’.

His famous Centraal Beheer building is currently being assessed for possible change of use to a school. ‘I would be delighted if that was the case. I would love it if my Centraal Beheer building was turned into a school in my lifetime. That would be the proof that it is possible to make a building that is generic but not dull.’

When it comes to schools, out-of-phase scissor staircases had an obvious benefit to the students who used them.

‘You can check that your girlfriend is still walking alone. This is important! You think students go to secondary school to learn mathematics? You must be joking!’

Architects, Hertzberger said, must ‘become experts in daily life’. Observation of life was crucial and must underpin all architects’ systems, he said.

In the question and answer session Hertzberger told RIBA president Angela Brady that his father had a knack for speaking to people which made him less self-conscious about observing them, and that his wife would stop complete strangers in the street to chat.

‘Too many architects have no idea of what people are – they see them as dangerous animals that they have to deal with’.

Before ending with his pyramid-amphitheatre comparison, Hertzberger paused on a tableau of a young couple embracing, propping themselves between a tree and a wall. Designers must be attuned to these ways people use space.

Commenting on this penultimate slide he said: ‘You should realise that when you make a column like this – there’ll always be something happening there’.

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