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Collaborative spirit

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Architecture by Herzog & de Meuron: Wall Painting by Rémy Zaugg:A Work for Roche Basel Birkhäuser, 2001. 126pp. £17.50

'Collaboration has always been an opportunity for us to learn something new which has helped us progress in our work, ' say Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. 'We are aware that the contribution that we ask of an artist will necessarily influence, and in a major way, our architectural vision.' So, while Herzog & de Meuron's public persona at times seems intransigent, the practice nonetheless has a long history of collaborating with artists, with fellow-Swiss Rémy Zaugg a regular. For his part, Zaugg adds: 'Our ideas, contributions and efforts have always, to a greater or lesser extent, become mixed up, merged, confused. . . so that the two concepts, architect and artist, become blurred.'

That sounds like the collaborative ideal that the RSA has tried to foster with its Art for Architecture award scheme. So it is interesting that the Roche Basel project described in this book returns to an earlier model, where respective contributions are intentionally distinct: 'The architects would do the architecture and I would do the artistic work. The architects would sign the architecture, the painter would sign the painting, ' says Zaugg.

In the end it did not quite turn out like that, and Zaugg's influence became more pervasive ('the architects encouraged me to come out of my ghetto'); but what he did himself is still clear to see. Though it contains a brief factual account by Herzog & de Meuron of the building - a long, nine-storey, research block slotted into the existing Roche complex, with one end directly facing the street - this book is not the analysis of a collaborative process. Essentially, it is Zaugg's: a diary of the genesis of his 'painting', with diagram-like drawings to explain its evolution, and photographs of it in situ when complete.

Zaugg's focus was the 30m-high wall that separates the semi-public area of the building, adjacent to the street, from the laboratories behind. This wall was finally 'actualised' (as he puts it) by being painted in its entirety in the same colour blue, with brief texts in 25cm-high upper-case letters dispersed at different levels, to add, he hoped, the right 'poetic and philosophical' note.

What most makes the book worthwhile is the clarity with which Zaugg explains the search for a convincing solution: why certain options were explored and then discounted, for instance, and how the colour, texture and reflectivity of the preferred choice were precisely determined.

Above all, Zaugg did not want to undermine the architectural role of the wall, its 'monolithic presence', by making it simply a support for paintings: one drawing shows very neatly how unsuitable that conventional response would have been. As for the colour that was eventually chosen, you can understand why the word 'actualise' recurs in Zaugg's account: too light a blue, say, and the wall tends to dematerialise, while he definitely wants it to stay real.

Perhaps the use of texts raises doubts which Zaugg does not dispel. Though this is some way from filling a gallery with crass slogans in the manner of Barbara Kruger, even texts that are selected for 'the proliferation and profusion of meanings they encourage' can become vacuous irritants, seen day-in, day-out. But Zaugg is demonstrably an artist attuned to architecture, and far from a prima donna. No wonder Herzog & de Meuron has worked with him so often.

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