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Ahead of the pack

Stirling Prize 2003

Herzog & de Meuron has confounded expectations with its idiosyncratic mix of playfulness and austerity. With a rapidly expanding workload and an increasing international presence, can it keep delivering the goods?

JACQUES HERZOG Jacques Herzog was born in 1950. He studied architecture at the ETH, Zurich, and went into partnership with Pierre de Meuron in 1978. He has held various teaching posts including visiting professor at Cornell and Harvard Universities and professor at ETH-Studios in Basel.

PIERRE DE MEURON Pierre de Meuron was born in 1950 and was a contemporary of Jacques Herzog at the ETH, Zurich. Since forming Herzog & de Meuron in 1978 he has held various teaching posts including visiting professor at Harvard University and professor at ETH-Studios in Basel.

HARRY GUGGER Harry Gugger, the partner in charge of Tate Modern and Laban, was born in 1956. After studying at the ETH, Zurich, and Columbia University, New York, he started working with Herzog & de Meuron in 1990 and became a partner in 1991. He is visiting professor at EPFLausanne.

CHRISTINE BINSWANGER Christine Binswanger was born in 1964. Like the other partners, she studied at ETH, Zurich, graduating in 1990. She started working with Herzog & de Meuron the following year and became a partner in 1994. She is a visiting professor at EPF-Lausanne.

When Piers Gough described Herzog & de Meuron as 'a little bit ahead of us' at this year's Stirling Prize, he was referring not only to the practice's undoubted talent but to its ability to keep coming up with surprises.Here in Britain, where architectural heavyweights fall obligingly into clearly defined camps, it is difficult to know what to make of a practice that refuses to be pigeonholed.

If the practice's architecture is labelled at all it is generally as being 'Swiss', but this is a tautology. It is, indeed, recognisably Swiss, but only because our understanding of contemporary Swiss architecture is limited to a vague knowledge of Herzog & de Meuron's work. Certainly, it is hard to see how, say, the eye-catching facade of its apartment building in Basel (1993) with its intricate steel grille, often held up as typical of the practice's experiments with layered facades, is more Swiss than, say, Islamic - or even French. It is strongly reminiscent of Jean Nouvel's Arab Institute in Paris, and indeed a precursor to Herzog & de Meuron's own apartment block on Paris' Rue des Suisses (2000).

In its playfulness, and promiscuous plundering of historic and cultural references, the practice's early work could be loosely described as Post-Modern. But the playschool faux naiveté of the Blue House in Oberwil, near Basel (1980), quickly evolved into the a more restrained idiom, exemplified by buildings such as the Ricola storage building in Laufen (1987) and the Stone House in Tavole (1988) - starkly controlled compositions far removed from the whimsy and vulgarity associated with so much PostModernism.

In the telling, at least, these buildings are open to charges of flippancy, literalism and 'architectural wit'. The strongly horizontal elevations of the Ricola building, for example, are explained as a literal representation of the building's purpose - a built tribute to the prosaic art of stacking shelves. In reality, it reads simply as a rather beautiful abstraction, more Brutal than Post-Modernist, but strongly rooted in its landscape. The juxtaposition between the stripy elevations and the layers of limestone in the adjacent quarry wall suggest a work that is as clearly contextual as the Stone House in Tavole, where the mortar-less facades echo the drystone walls of the surrounding olive groves.

Jacques Herzog spelt out the explicit influence of natural phenomena on the practice's work in his acceptance speech for the 2001 Pritzker Prize, saying: 'We look for materials that are as breathtakingly beautiful as the cherry blossoms in Japan, or as condensed and compact as the rock formations of the Alps, or as enigmatic and unfathomable as the surfaces of the oceans.'

Over time, the fascination with natural materials has evolved into a concern with the possibilities of creating hybrid artificial/ natural structures, exemplified by the Ricola Headquarters building (1998), its second building for the company, where living plants were woven into the roof, and the Rue de Suisses apartment building where fairfaced concrete walls were covered with a grid of synthetic ropes as a framework for climbing plants. Such investigations created an architecture that was arresting, often eerie and, to a certain extent, out of control. But the spirit of experimentation tended to be restricted to the building envelope; many of the practice's more weird and wonderful offerings are firmly, and prosaically, anchored in rectilinear plans.

The distinction between inside and out is becoming increasingly blurred. At the office and retail development for Prada in Tokyo (2003), for example, the crystalline structure of the facade is reflected both in the irregular plan and in three-dimensional pods. And with the shift towards mega-projects jump-started by a series of high-profile competition winners in the mid-1990s, the practice has drawn inspiration from natural and geological phenomena as a means of organising - as opposed to simply decorating and styling - buildings that are programmatically complex. The design for Tate Modern, for example, where the need to accommodate vast numbers of people in a constant state of flux was informed by thinking of the building 'almost like a mountain where people may walk'.

Laban was an opportunity to create an 'artificial landscape', where, paradoxically, the rolling contours of the main public space feel more conventionally 'architectural' than the strongly geometric landscaping that complements, and even penetrates, the building's permeable form. (The effect is only marginally undermined by the fact that the mossy ravines that ought to punctuate the interior are currently steeply sloping paved lightwells due to lack of funds. ) If there is a continuous thread that runs through Herzog & de Meuron's extraordinarily diverse and prolific output, it is this constant willingness to explore and reinterpret the tension between the manufactured and the organic. Even at Prada, arguably its most glamorous and polished venture to date, the palette of highly-processed materials such as silicon, resin and fibreglass is offset against natural materials such as leather and wood.

It has proved a winning formula, capable of inspiring varied and unpredictable solutions and of alleviating the monotony of conventional High-Tech architecture while keeping the more whimsical excesses of organic architecture firmly in check. But, of course, there is no magic formula. Its success to date is down to its sophisticated execution and to the instinctive genius of the partners - Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who have been working together since graduating from ETH Zurich in 1975, were joined by Harry Gugger in 1991 and Christine Binswanger in 1994. But with 150 employees, branch offices in London, Munich and San Francisco, and an increasing portfolio of mega-projects worldwide, there is a danger that they will find it increasingly difficult to control the quality of the practice's burgeoning body of work.

Early illustrations of its designs for the 100,000-capacity Olympic stadium in Beijing - the practice's third stadium commission and its first project in China - suggest an architecture bordering on the kitsch. Conceived as a 67m 'bird's nest', the external structure represents the twigs while inflated cushions play the role of moss and earth. While the practice's signature moves are all there, the balance is all wrong. The elegance, rigour and restraint of High-Tech has been forfeited for a crude parody of nature, devoid of the effortless sensitivity that is more easily applied to organic structures at a small scale.

In fairness, this may reflect a cynical understanding that international competitions favour crude one-liners, and it could be that the design is considerably improved after a stint out of the limelight and back on the drawing board. Or it may highlight the difficulty of maintaining control of such an idiosyncratic oeuvre while operating at a geographical distance and at such a large scale. If the practice is to stay 'a little bit ahead of the rest of us', it cannot afford to have projects that break free from its elusive - but highly distinctive - poetic touch.

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