Thinking inside the box
Herzog & de Meuron: No 250 - An Exhibition At Schaulager, Ruchfeldstrasse 19, M³nchenstein, Basel, until 12 September 'No 250 - An Exhibition' offers two opportunities in one, serving as an excuse to visit one of the most recently completed buildings, and giving a rare insight into the working processes, of Stirling Prize-winning architect Herzog & de Meuron. In its home city of Basel - less than two hours from Stansted Airport - almost 100 projects are presented by thousands of samples, materials, prototypes, mock-ups, drawings, sketches, models and photographs.
Distributed on the lower-ground exhibition space of Herzog & de Meuron's Schaulager building - a bold new form of art depository where work is stored in permanently curated and controlled-access galleries - the material is organised in seven sections:
Waste and Sweet Dreams, comprising an archive of remnants from the practice's design process; Drawings, a modest collection (predominantly) of Jacques Herzog's early sketches; Beijing - Tree Village and Jinhua: Two Urban-Planning Projects, presenting urban reflections in China; Sourcebook, E. g.
Schaulager, a room wallpapered with thousands of digital scrapbook images charting the design and realisation of Schaulager; Collaboration, an installation by artist RÚmy Zaugg relating to Herzog & de Meuron's Project No 143, Five Courtyards in Munich; Teaching, which presents the work of the ETH Studio Basel; and Projections and Other Views, a selection of artists' portraits of the architect's buildings, including photographs by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, and video installations by Armin Linke, Ai Weiwei and Zilla Leutenegger - who dynamically brings the Creekside dance centre to life in Laban, 2004.
The first, and largest of these sections, Waste and Sweet Dreams, occupies the expansive open-plan atrium floor that lies beneath Schaulager's breathtaking array of concrete balconies and fluorescent tubes (a space that recalls the visual trickery of Gursky's photographs, Times Square, 1997 and Atlanta, 1996). With simple blockboard tables scattered across the space, by-products from Herzog & de Meuron's design process are displayed in a manner consistent with the underlying concept of the Schaulager, where artefacts are not confined to storage crates, but are instead given just enough space to breath in a dense yet carefully arranged collection. So, just as art scholars can visit Schaulager's Bruce Nauman or Jeff Wall rooms on level five, they can also visit the Beijing National Stadium table - or, in fact, all six of them.
Despite the astonishing diversity of projects and objects that are displayed - from full-scale mock-ups to tiny fragments, all embodying the architect's hand at work, with pen marks, cuts, tears, and retrieved and repaired screwed-up objects displayed alongside more precisely made pieces - there is a consistency and authenticity to the collection that admirers of Herzog & de Meuron would expect. Models made from appropriate materials, to an appropriate scale, allow tactility, texture, tone and technique to be expressed, giving prototypes and mock-ups their own distinctive character.
Even with completed buildings, such as Project No 119, Central Signal Box, the model transcends mere representation, with brass strips giving it a different lustre to the realised building just a few miles away.
While materials are critical to their work, what is profoundly evident is Herzog & de Meuron's commitment to the form of space, as well as the form of matter. Almost every project has been explored as solid and void, with blue polystyrene massing models being sliced, melted, and carved to form numerous spatial permutations within the composition of their well-established Swiss boxes. Circulation trajectories are also given form, with corridors, stairs and landings modelled in isolation, like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, bringing tangible mass to residual spaces.
Amid all this variety, what is refreshingly absent from the collection is the ubiquitous computer-rendered visualisation - a fact that in part reflects Herzog & de Meuron's ambiguous relationship with digital media.
In accompanying notes it rejects glossy depictions of architecture - images that 'are wonderfully seductive? in which everything seems possible'. Instead it uses modelling techniques that are 'honest, archaic and ancient' to test fields of opportunity.
'We don't trust computers, ' concludes Herzog. 'If we start with virtual images, we don't know how to relate to real, experienced physical reality.' Instead of rushing to anticipate the building's final form, rapidly eliminating options in hot pursuit of a concrete solution, Herzog & de Meuron has developed a strategy that slows the process down, so that broad and contextually based observations play their part in the process right to the end.
To an extent, the exhibition and the work holds true to a hands-on, first-principles approach, rejecting the wholesale reliance on digital techniques. However, Herzog & de Meuron is not a Luddite. It likes order, and it likes process. Every project - including work on this exhibition, Project No 250 - is chronologically numbered, with each object on display given a unique code. Sourcebook, E. g.
Schaulager resonates with this rigour, demonstrating the practice's use of digital recording, editing and archiving, with illustrations and data catalogued as a valuable resource.
Gathering images primarily from the internet, Herzog & de Meuron seeks to use the computer as a multifaceted, productive tool to search out and stretch the limits of architecture. In a more subtle way, it also addresses the dilemma of the drawing, quietly acknowledging that beyond the casual scribble that can only suggest the direction in which things could move, little of what it now does can be captured in a drawing.
The exhibition can be read on many levels, as both a collection of beautiful objects and as an inventory of Herzog & de Meuron's collective thoughts. It's also a good opportunity to discover what buildings will soon emerge, with a number of on-site projects represented. These include the gargantuan bird's-nest models made during the evolution of Project No 226, the Beijing National Stadium, a delightful series of roof capping options for the Project No 201, the CaixaForum-Madrid, and fragile paper and plastic cladding models of the Walker Art Center, Minnesota, US, all of which will be completed within the next three years.
'Project No 250 - An Exhibition', is a 'must see' for anyone who admires the work of Herzog & de Meuron. A perfect idea for this year's away day, perhaps?
Rob Gregory is an architect and the assistant editor of The Architectural Review