Herzog & de Meuron – Global Acclaim

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With projects stretching from London to Beijing, Swiss architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron has established itself as one of the world’s most admired studios


WITH PROJECTS RANGING from the Royal College of Art’s striking new campus in Battersea, to the stunning Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, Herzog & de Meuron is one of the world’s most admired architectural practices. Founded in the Swiss city of Basel in 1978 by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Pritzker Prize-winning firm has helped shape cities across the globe, reimagining the nature of architecture through an innovative approach to materials and form. From high-rise apartments and hospitals to grand museums and concert halls, every one of its projects is underpinned by a belief that people deserve to experience a better way of life. This summer, the architects are showcasing a selection of their acclaimed projects at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (14 July – 15 October 2023), giving a behind the scenes look at the firm’s working methods, materials and technologies.

The Royal College of Arts Battersea campus, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe Royal College of Arts Battersea campus, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Born within a month of each other in the spring of 1950, Herzog and de Meuron have known each other since childhood. Drawn to architecture from an early age, they both left Basel to study under Aldo Rossi at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and Zürich, from which they graduated in 1975. Early on in their practice they worked on private homes, including the eccentric 1979 Blue House in Oberwil, Switzerland, with its porthole windows and ultramarine brickwork, and the 1982 Stone House in Tavole, Italy, a spare, three-storey building clad with rubble. The firm also designed Herzog’s own wooden house in the medieval centre of Basel, a modest structure reflecting the architect’s simple lifestyle. From these humble beginnings, Herzog & de Meuron has grown to become a world-famous architectural powerhouse with an international team of 600 and satellite offices in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Berlin and Munich.

Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Image Credit: Sihasakprachum / www.Shutterstock.ComBeijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Image Credit: Sihasakprachum / www.Shutterstock.Com

Working from their Basel studio overlooking the Rhine, the firm’s founders have always leaned towards the creative side of architecture, experimenting with different materials and structures to create buildings saturated with atmosphere and personality. Distinctive cladding with a marked materiality is a signature of their designs, which are famed for turning the mundane into the adventurous. ‘We look for materials which are as breathtakingly beautiful as the cherry blossom in Japan, as dense and compact as the rock formations of the Alps, or as mysterious and unfathomable as the surface of the oceans,’ the architects explain. For example, their monolithic Ricola Kräuterzentrum, a herb processing plant near Basel, is built largely from locally-sourced earth, used for both the building’s interior and exterior walls; in Hamburg, on top of a redbrick warehouse, the crystalline facade of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall employs an ingenious array of shaped glass elements to reflect the shifting moods of the city’s weather, while the simple, box-like form of the Dominus Winery in Napa Valley, California, is wrapped with basalt-filled gabions described by the architects as ‘a kind of stone wickerwork with varying degrees of transparency, more like skin than like traditional masonry.’

The striking crystalline facade of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe striking crystalline facade of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

London is the city that shot Herzog & de Meuron to international fame, following their conversion of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s disused Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. The iconic cathedral to art opened in 2000 and today is one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions. The project was a unique collaboration with the pre-existing architecture. Rather than demolishing Scott’s 1952 building, the Swiss architects’ design worked with and celebrated the building’s industrial vernacular. ‘You cannot always start from scratch’, they noted. ‘It is exciting for us to deal with existing structures because the attendant constraints demand a very different kind of creative energy.’ Bridges, balconies and a new system of floors and walls were added to the post-industrial structure, while the six-storey high Turbine Hall, once home to huge electricity generators, established the link between outside and inside. This vast space provided a setting for memorable installations such as Olafur Eliasson’s immersive The Weather Project (2003), in which a giant artificial sun, composed of mono-frequency lamps, bathed viewers in a hazy yellow light.

The gallery spaces, which have hosted some of the world’s most famous artists, feature a range of ceiling heights, floor surfaces and light sources, including some with huge floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Thames and St Paul’s cathedral. The architects were invited back a few years later to design the museum’s Switch House extension, which opened in 2016.

M+ is a monumental museum in West Kowloon, with a tall vertical tower that doubles up as a 12-storey LCD screen for the projection of artworks. Image Credit: Kevin Mak

Its 64.5m-high tower, featuring an exterior of latticed brickwork and folded surfaces designed to cohere with Scott’s original structure, created 60 percent more exhibition space with an assortment of overground and underground galleries as well as a new roof terrace offering panoramic views of the city. For Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern is ‘a building of the 21st century’, one that represents a ‘hybrid of tradition, Art Deco and super modernism’. The architects were relatively unknown when they won the original commission in 1994, though today the firm is as well known as the Tate brand itself.

Twenty years after Tate Modern opened, the architects were nearing completion of another ambitious gallery, this time in Hong Kong. The M+ is a monumental museum built on reclaimed land in the district of West Kowloon. Located on Victoria Harbour’s waterfront, the commanding building consists of two volumes – an expansive horizontal podium and a tall vertical tower that doubles up as an extraordinary 12-storey LCD screen for the projection of artworks. Its striking design, which incorporates exposed mega- trusses more common to large infrastructural projects, is in part dictated by the fact that a subway line runs directly underneath it. Indeed, the underground tunnel, or ‘Found Space’ as Herzog & de Meuron call it, became integral to the building’s design, protruding into the museum itself. As the architects explain: ‘Initially an obstacle that complicated planning, this distinctive feature has become the raison d’être for our project…by uncovering the tunnel, a spectacular space is created for art and design, installation and performance.’

1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida reinvents the idea of what a car park should be. Image credit: Fotomak / www.Shutterstock.Com1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida reinvents the idea of what a car park should be. Image credit: Fotomak / www.Shutterstock.Com

Outside, a modular terracotta cladding system referencing traditional Chinese roofs covers the building’s facade. The glazed tiles, made in Chianti, Italy, form an undulating dark green curtain, which shifts in hue depending on the time of day and weather conditions. Inside are 17,000 m sq of exhibition space across 33 galleries, which, the architects say, ‘embraces the entire spectrum of spaces…from conventional white cube, reconfigurable spaces, screening rooms and multipurpose facilities, to so-called third spaces.’ The interior spaces are largely characterised by a mixture of textured wood, bamboo and concrete finishes while the galleries boast polished wood floors and large windows with views across the harbour. Delayed because of the pandemic, M+ finally opened its doors in November 2021 with six thematic exhibitions curated from the museum’s contemporary collection (much of it donated by Uli Sigg, a prominent Swiss collector of Chinese contemporary art). In its first full year, M+ reported 2,034,331 visitors, placing it 18th in The Art Newspaper’s recently published table of the world’s most-visited art museums.

Herzog & de Meuron’s presentation at the Royal Academy is their first exhibition in London for 20 years. Curated by Vicky Richardson in close collaboration with the architects, the show allows visitors to experience a diverse yet specific range of fully realised and in-progress projects through films, plans, models, prototypes, photographs, material samples and even augmented reality, which will bring the architects’ work to life through digital animations. The opening room features a selection of around 400 objects from the firm’s archive and research space in Basel known as Kabinett. Containing archival materials associated with the firm’s projects since 1978, Kabinett is housed in Herzog & de Meuron’s Helsinki Dreispitz building. The architects consider the space as a publicly accessible showroom, and it also exhibits works from their own art collection as well as from the extraordinary photographic archive of Ruth and Peter Herzog – one of the world’s largest groupings of photographs amassed by private individuals. Basel has been a lifelong inspiration to Herzog and de Meuron and their hope for Kabinett is that it might ‘contribute to the cultural substance’ of their native city.

The curvaceous extension of the Stadtcasino in Basel, Switzerland. Image Credit: Ruedi WaltiThe curvaceous extension of the Stadtcasino in Basel, Switzerland. Image Credit: Ruedi Walti

Alongside the Kabinett displays are six large photographic works by acclaimed German photographer Thomas Ruff, who has been photographing Herzog & de Meuron’s buildings since 1990 when he was invited to photograph their newly designed Ricola Storage Building in Laufen, Switzerland for the fifth Venice Architecture Biennale in 1991. The architects were keen to see how an artist might respond to their radically minimalist work. As Jacques Herzog stated in 1994: ‘Our approach defined the building and now we want an outsider’s specific and a personal view of it… [Ruff] builds up an architecture of his own that is juxtaposed with ours. That interests us.’ Certainly, the clarity and linearity of Herzog & de Meuron’s designs are well-suited to Ruff’s rigorous photographic language, which was influenced by the stark, impersonal objectivity of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whom he studied under at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Ruff is one of several artists with whom Herzog & de Meuron have collaborated, including Joseph Beuys, Andreas Gursky, Michael Craig-Martin and Ai Weiwei (with whom they designed the National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games).

The second room at the Royal Academy is a film space, which features a moving image installation based on observations of people occupying and exploring a range of Herzog & de Meuron’s innovative buildings. A large central screen shows a new documentary by renowned architectural filmmakers Bêka & Lemoine, whose entire body of work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2016 for its permanent collection. The film takes viewers on a tour of daily life at the ground-breaking REHAB Basel, a highly specialised clinic supporting the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord and brain injuries. Because most patients stay at the clinic for long periods of time, it was important that the facility did not look or feel like a hospital and that it allowed for as much autonomy as possible. To that end, the connection between the indoor and outdoor spaces was the primary architectural concern, with a series of courtyards filled with trees and plants serving as orientation and allowing daylight to penetrate the interior spaces. Herzog & de Meuron describe REHAB as ‘a multifunctional, diversified building, almost like a small town with streets, plazas, gardens, public facilities, and more secluded residential quarters.’ The two-storey clinic was first completed in 2002, with a roof extension added in 2019 to provide new facilities, expanding its capacity for helping people adjust to life after illness or severe trauma. The wood-clad building is, the architects say, ‘a prototype for how spatial and sensory experiences can serve the healing process. Daylight, vegetation, easy orientation, and natural materials reinforce a calming environment for all patients and relatives in the exceptional physical and mental situation they find themselves in.’

Drawings for the Kinderspital in Zurich, planned for completion in 2024. Image Credit: Herzog & De Meuron

The notion of restorative architecture continues in the exhibition’s final room, which is dedicated to the Kinderspital Zürich, a children’s hospital still under construction on the outskirts of the Swiss city. Located amid a leafy residential district, the three-storey building is a distinctly horizontal structure set opposite the historic Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital, a 1869 listed building designed by Johann Caspar Wolff and now associated with the University of Zürich. In contrast with its intimidating nineteenth-century neighbour, the new hospital’s unconventional form is characterised from inside out by a delicacy of material detail, creating a warm and welcoming environment. As with REHAB, nature penetrates deep into the light and airy building, which is arranged around numerous internal courtyards of varying shapes and sizes. Each floor follows an urban-style grid with spaces resembling streets, intersections and squares, while outside, the facade is a weave of various materials: concrete, timber, glass, textiles and plants. The third floor patient accommodation is set back from the main concrete structure, with each room appearing more like a holiday chalet than a hospital bedroom – a reflection of the architects’ desire to acknowledge the individuality of each patient.

London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the UK’s only conservatoire of music and contemporary dance. Image Credit: Katalin Deér

What is clear from surveying 45 years of Herzog & de Meuron’s work is that the architects refuse to be pinned down. Theirs is not an architecture driven by ideology or ‘isms’; they purposefully eschew a house style in favour of constant reinvention and each project springs from curiosity, creativity and a respect for the local conditions. ‘We prefer our approach,’ says Herzog, ‘because it helps to avoid the trap of repeating yourself.’ Whether realised in wood, steel, brick, concrete, or even mud, their designs all share the same uncompromising attitude: a commitment to freedom and openness within the confines of architectural possibility. This ability to constantly reimagine architecture has been key to their longevity. The Royal Academy have, quite rightly, avoided calling this exhibition a retrospective; Herzog & de Meuron’s project is very much a work in progress.



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