Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History Edited by Philip Ursprung. Lars Muller Publishers, 2002. 458pp. £38
Natural History is a hybrid book - part catalogue, part theoretical, part tease - and an expanded guide to the latest exhibition of Herzog & de Meuron's work, Archaeology of the Mind, currently on show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. It is a curious title, perhaps, for a subject that is so blatantly man-made, but the editorial approach, and the shift away from art (the usual filter for Herzog & de Meuron critiques), makes it highly appropriate.
Just as natural history museums do not show the world as it really is - they present, through found objects, cataloguing systems and interpretative material, the scientific establishment's understanding of the world - neither do architectural exhibitions show architecture. Herzog & de Meuron is more than aware of this, and has, through the many exhibitions it has been involved in, been searching for 'suitable substitutes'.
Philip Ursprung, the editor, has tapped into this way of thinking completely; Natural History neither tries to replicate architecture or the exhibition. It has a life and independence of its own.
This is not a book to read from cover to cover, nor is it a 'coffee-table' book, but something in between. It is subdivided into six themes, and for each there is a visual portfolio (objects from the exhibition, such as study models, samples, source material, and independent art works), an interview with Herzog & de Meuron, and a selection of short essays.
Natural history museums are rigorously governed by their classification system. They give order, but they are also relatively inflexible and do not adapt easily to new discoveries and research. The themes used here, however - transformation and alienation, stacking and compression, beauty and atmosphere etc - which are loosely based on the accepted chronological design process (procedure, making, experience), are much less restrictive.
The resulting book is rich, thoughtful and beautifully put together. Disparate topics (vortices, Giacometti, viticulture) are covered by disparate authors - clients, scientists, artists, as well as the traditional critics and historians. A fantastic juxtaposition of ideas set off intellectual and visual triggers in the mind, providing a real substitute for that complex 'architectural experience'. Even though few buildings are covered, you are left with a strong essence of Herzog & de Meuron's work. This is much more effective than insular practice monographs and other all-too-familiar vanity publishing.
An approach like this promotes extremes.
Some essays you relate to more than others, some seem indulgent or irrelevant, but in most cases they lead to something new. 'The drapery of sidewalks' is primarily about those bits of rag that lie in Parisian gutters placed to direct the flow of water from the daily flush of the streets, but through this observation of the stuff of the everyday, come reflections on the urban condition.
'Models of a hidden geometry of nature' introduces us to the sculptures of Karl Blossfeldt. His photographs are well known, mainly due to Herzog & de Meuron's use of an enlarged leaf image on the facade of Ricola-Europe, but less so these intriguing bronze study models.
'Houses of the Engadine Valley' is more obviously 'architectural'. It compares the Engadine vernacular, with its complex plans within a compact form, to Herzog & de Meuron's domestic work; showing how its typology has evolved through form rather than style. The Stone House in Tavole (left) is a good example, an innovative but absolutely contextual work (UK conservation agencies, take note).
Apart from the obvious (or in some cases, not so obvious) Herzog & de Meuron connection, the one continuity between the essays, and indeed the exhibition itself, is the idea of traces or remains.With the help of the editor/curators, we put the fragments together to experience our whole, whatever that might be. Herzog & de Meuron tell us that the objects in the exhibition 'are not works of art: they are an accumulation of waste it would be lifeless waste were it not for the special gaze, the creative, attentive, sometimes even loving gaze of the interested beholder'.
Most of us throw our waste away. We should be thankful, or at least allow ourselves a wry smile, that Herzog & de Meuron has kept its waste safe.
Sarah Jackson is an architect and writer in London