As the RIBA honours Herman Hertzberger, 79, with a Gold Medal, the Dutch architect tells James Pallister why he advocates a return to tool-based education, re-using empty office buildings and why the profession should stop thinking about beauty and start making buildings that work
Congratulations on receiving the RIBA Gold Medal. How did it feel to join fellow countrymen like Berlage, Dudok, van Eyck and Koolhaas?
The nice thing about a medal is that all of a sudden the others think you are someone. All of a sudden they sit up and look at you!
What did you mean when you said in December that architects aren’t held in such high esteem anymore?
A specialism is degrading in the mind of the people. It’s very easy to say in the papers that ‘scientists were wrong’ or an ‘architect did this’. There’s an anti-intellectualism common among people.
Post-Modernism was a way out for the not-so-good architects
So architects are easy scapegoats?
Yes. Architects did actually misbehave. From the moment that Charles Jencks wrote his book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, the idea that you could do what you want began. With Modernism, there was a stable idea of what should be done; better housing, more light, more air. With Postmodernism, it actually became a game; you could do what you want. That was a way out for the not-so-good architects, because they could just invent something and it would be accepted.
How can the profession counter the situation where it’s acceptable for the education secretary to brag that ‘We won’t get any award-winning architects to design your schools’ because they waste money?
This is a good question, and I can’t just say that we should do this or this. The answer is in the direction of what I was saying – think before you begin. You should only make things that work, not just things that are attractive, or funny, or impressive.
They should work, and to make something work you have to understand something about society. You should listen to society and see what society is doing.
Do you still have ideals?
Ideals, yes, but not in the sense that you can make a better world through architecture. You can make a truer world. You can respond to things in society and that’s what architecture doesn’t do anymore.
What advice would you give to students graduating this year who have grown up in a recession?
Do more with less. This is sort of what Mies van der Rohe was saying; ‘less is more’. At the same time, he made very rich, special buildings, so his slogans and his work were only as far as the image. I would say concentrate on old buildings and make the best of it.
In Holland today, there are over six million square metres of empty office buildings – the papers are full of this phenomenon. The only thing you can do is tear them down, which is going to be a financial catastrophe because all these buildings on paper are worth a lot of money. And they are still building new buildings. The reason for that is that the city needs to earn its money by selling blocks. The money they get from the plots is stimulating the building, but at the same time we need less.
I would say that the best assignment for a young architect is to design a proposal for what to do with these vacant buildings.
Some people in France had a good idea [Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, Paris by Frederic Drot and Lacaton & Vassal]. Take all the apartment buildings and make a sort of layer and a skin of new building around it and at the same time you enlarge the apartments and keep the water out and have the old degraded building within a coat. That’s just a good idea! We need more of those. I think students should no longer put the emphasis on making new monsters!
Patrik Schumacher, the man who works for Zaha Hadid? He’s a monster-maker!
There was a recent article in the Architectural Review by Patrik Schumacher criticising some British architecture schools for placing too much emphasis on dystopian architecture. Would you agree with that?
Patrik Schumacher, the man who works for Zaha Hadid Architects? He’s a monster-maker! In Rome, they made the MAXXI museum. There was a very big industrial plant, which they could have transformed into a nice museum, but they have torn it down to make a new monster!
He was criticising the number of imaginary, dystopian projects…
Yes, but that’s what they are doing all the time! Zaha Hadid buildings are very beautiful artworks – you don’t need any art in your museum when it’s designed by Zaha Hadid. The building is the art itself.
Is there any single challenge you think the profession should address?
Stop, just stop. Architecture became a varnish for society and I think we should go back in the direction of tools, not just making things attractive. This is my saying: don’t just make it attractive, make it work. When something works, it’s attractive in itself. Architectural education should become more serious in that sense, I don’t want to say more scientific. Architecture was always floating between art and science, but it should go more in the direction of science. It needs to be more practical and find a different form of beauty. I am not advocating that we shouldn’t talk about beauty, but I am advocating that we should see a different kind of beauty. But in asking what’s wrong with architecture, people want one-liners; that’s the problem. We should at least make two-liners instead, and if possible, three-liners!
Hertzberger in his own words
‘I hate corridors. For me, this whole profession is a fight against corridors.’
‘I would love it if Centraal Beheer was turned into a school in my lifetime. That would be proof that it’s possible to make a building that is generic, but not dull. That is the danger hanging over us – to make neutral, dull buildings.’
On Bjarke Ingels Group: ‘I would never call my practice “BIG”. I would call it “small” or “average”!’
‘There’s no such thing as one human scale; it’s nonsense. There are different scales: a sandpit, a skating rink, a town square.’
On being told he was being given the Gold Medal: ‘My first thought was how can you give a Gold Medal for rainy architecture?’
‘Many architects have no idea what people are. They see them as dangerous animals that they have to deal with.’
On attending the Gold Medal lecture and dinner: ‘I was a little bit scared, but in the end, it’s just [making] more friends.’