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An interview with Jacques Herzog

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Jacques Herzog talks to the AJ’s Rory Olcayto about war, pop-up buildings, fun park offices and why the focus on London is not good for the rest of the UK

On Memory and found conditions
It was not a deliberate intention to use memory or history, it was just the obvious potential the site offered to us. I think it is very important to use that history but not just as a style I hope, because otherwise its will just exploited commercially. It’s more interesting than that.

We didn’t really learn anything from what we found other than that the foundations were surprisingly massive, intrusive and heavy. We learned those temporary and lightweight pavilions had heavy foundations!

We teased out the different priorities of the architect and engineer - by looking underneath. The engineering is disregarded, put underground, but now it speaks. The engineer will be blamed if its falls down. The architect will be blamed if they don’t do something which is different. You can see that so clearly here.

But we didn’t really learn anything from looking at what we found: it’s not like looking at existing buildings and learning how advanced craftsmanship was at a certain time, or why they preferred this colour or that colour, or why baroque appears muscular or why gothic expressed the vertical. These are all interesting things you can learn by studying architectural history, but this [pavilion dig] is recent history. So we found the overlapping structures to be very interesting and also funny, to see all these traces, with none really interested in the others. Each architect just put it where they liked it to go - and that’s perfectly OK. We found the potential this condition offered to be of the most interest.

On collabration with Ai Wei Wei
We know eachother a very long time otherwise we couldn’t have done it so easily. We did a lot of travelling together, he really made us discover China. And because we know eachother well and have done many things together we don’t need a lot of time and explanation to make eachother understand. Even if he doesn’t speak so much he always makes interesting comments and contributions but we had to do it over Skype. A good collaboration should be invisible. And the pavilion is what it is - and has been done by the three of us. It would be ridiculous to say who did what. I hope we’ll see Ai Wei Wei at the Pavilion in July.

Pop-ups and temporary buildings
Architecture is a slow process architecture: as a young practitioner, you take what you get. You have to develop your approach, I hate to stay your style - but the way you want to work, and you can learn a lot from pop-up culture. It’s a great way to enter the business - and then to go on to do more permanent buildings.

Sometimes however, things that have been developed to be temporary and ephemeral sometime turn out to long-lasting permanent structures. And vice versa. Things built to last forever, bunkers, palaces, expressions of power, of regimes, have been taken down one generation later .So the question is almost, what is permanence, and what is temporary?As an architect, you should not think to much about what it is, but whether you are doing it in an interesting way, whether you can make a contribution to society.

Planning is slow, building is fast
Building is always retaliative quick. Planning is not. Planning involves collecting money, getting permission, defining technical challenges, resolving technical challenges, finding agreements from all sides, and preparing logisitically. It’s almost like contemporary war. We were all amazed at how many weeks it took for the Americans to invade Kuwait and then with a few days, it was over. Building fast means not spending money without getting a payback without cashing back the investment. So to shorten the build you make the planning long.

Building and thinking at the same time
We like working on the pavilion because its small scale and things can be adapted according to what you see. That’s more like building in the past when the architect was still permitted on site. Today the client or the project manger tries -and I exaggerate a little bit - to keep the architect away from once things have been decided and bought. When architects see what they have planned for the first time, they can’t like a painter or sculptor say, “take this away, add this, or move this a lit bit over…”. Not anymore. But architects have found new methods to deal with this. We have computer models and full scale mock-ups now

On office design
Sometimes it goes too far. I don’t like so much the Google world which transforms the office into a fun park, where everything is possible. This hybridisation of disciplines is very trendy and fashionable, but it is also somehow limited, you get bored after a while. Every company should develop its own approach: the relationship between inside and outside, the way elements are used, stairs, lobbies, terraces, this is what’s important.

In the case of Roche, for which we are designing a tower, in Basel, there are the 3-4 storey lobbies throughout the building that have terraces in which you can look across the city and breathe real air.

These lobbies can foster communities inside towers, unlike the Miesan tower which chops off one platform from the next. We’re still not much further on than that. Most towers are the same: elevator shafts, stairs that are mainly just fire stairs for example. It should have more of a role: it is an interesting element, it creates a public form, a public sculpture. (See akterion buildin0 Office buildings and towers have an an interesting potential but you need the client to realise this.

Construction cultures
There is very good contemporary architecture in Britain but England is closer to America in how things are constructed. Switzerland and Japan offer the best quality in construction. But you can get good quality in England too. The Tate will be an example of how things can be well done (but there are other examples too.) It’s not so easy to get things done with crafstman-based products. In America, which is a glass and steel culture, the glass is good if its sealed glass but as soon as it comes with hinges or operable mechanics, it gets very difficult- because it’s never been asked for. Most of the spaces are sealed off, climate controlled spaces.

Organising cities
We see Switerland as a heterotopic country and we want to further stress that. Basel is great for art and life sciences, it’s a world hub, a small but serious city. Zurich is a financial centre, and Geneva has other advantages while Berne is just a nice place to be. Switzerland altogether is maybe the size of London in terms of population, but its like a modern version of what a city could be.

The hyper-concentration in London is not good for the rest of the country. All the British cities are great - Glasgow and Manchester for example - don’t suck out everything from these places. It would be very interesting to give other cities more attention.

But its difficult in the UK and in France, countries based on monarchies where everything was centralised - its deeply rooted in history. It’s not globalisation’s fault. It’s history.

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