Herzog & de Meuron: ‘Architecture is the art of facts. We shouldn’t have a moralistic standpoint’ | Herzog & de Meuron

Next month, a mighty new art museum opens in Hong Kong, billed as the most significant in the continent of Asia, whose waterside facade features a vertical digital screen the size of a football pitch. It does this in the middle of the political storm caused by the Chinese government’s national security law, which threatens to crush the museum’s promises of freedom of expression.

On the outskirts of Cambridge, England, the finishing touches are being applied to the crystalline new headquarters of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company whose Covid vaccine has made it a global household name. In Jerusalem, just across the road from the Israeli parliament building, a new national library is under construction, with the stated aim of serving all the communities and faiths of a violently divided country.

These buildings are designed by the same architects, Herzog and de Meuron, a practice who, from their serene Rhine-side studios in the Swiss city of Basel, send forth their designs to places of power and sometimes conflict around the world. Their current clutch of projects recently completed or near completion also includes a skyscraper in Canary Wharf and a complex of studios and workshops for the Royal College of Art, both in London, and major art museums in Seoul and Duisburg, Germany. A large hospital in Denmark is under construction, and their renovation of a Basel concert hall opened last year.

This knack for building in highly charged locations raises a question: what, if anything, can architecture contribute to freedom and justice and the struggles of human existence? Or is its job just to stand back and look ornamental while the dramas and traumas of the planet go on around it?

“Architects feel very important about their role in the world,” says Jacques Herzog, the most vocal and visible of the practice’s partners. “They say, hey, we have to do this and this and then they do congresses and symposia and they speak about this and that. I have to say that I have huge doubts. Architecture is the art of facts. You do a building or you don’t, and if you do a building, do it right. We shouldn’t have a moralistic standpoint. But make things so that they work, they are sustainable and they are beautiful.”

Herzog & de Meuron rose to fame in the 1990s with the help of the commission to convert Bankside power station in London into Tate Modern, and then to further fame with the stadium they designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in partnership with the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. The Bird’s Nest (to use a nickname that the architects disliked) achieved a level of global recognition approaching that of the Taj Mahal or the Sydney Opera House.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Herzog & de Meuron was that they had no house style. Their buildings might be made of mud or steel or wood or concrete, and they could be square or round or multiform, or extravagant or austere, even though they somehow shared the same underlying attitudes. They were the perfect architects for a time without ideologies, the period after the fall of Soviet communism when it seemed that the magic of international finance could dissolve all divisions. In previous generations, architects sometimes claimed that one way of designing buildings was morally and politically superior to others, that only the machine-inspired shapes of modernist architecture, for example, could be truly socialist. Herzog & de Meuron were less dogmatic, more fluid. Not that their fluidity made them compromising – they have always been hard-headed about achieving the qualities that are important to them.

They were part of the phenomenon known as “starchitects”, whereby a few celebrated practices were invited to furnish ambitious cities with museums and concert halls and skyscrapers and stadiums, all competing to look more striking and innovative than one another. “Our generation made that whole market explode,” says Herzog. “We certainly profited from being able to work across the oceans.” It’s “great”, he adds, “to contribute to different societies”. He was never satisfied, though, with creating spectacular icons, an activity he describes as “boring” and “stupid”. “I always ask what contribution can you make? Making something iconic is easy but to make it in a more subtle way, in a more sustainable way, is more important.”

The M+ museum of visual culture, under construction in West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Another distinguishing characteristic has always been that the duo’s best work is dazzlingly good, fertile in imagination, daring in its ideas, precise in conception and execution. They have a genius for making the materials and spaces of buildings perform the unexpected, which once done turns out to be apt for the lives their architecture serves. They are both intellectual and sensual; they know how to make a concept physical. Their understanding of human life is not, as it is for many architects, blandly optimistic. Their gamut of sensations includes the dark and the uncanny. They know that the truth of something might be found through its opposite. In an early classic, the 1997 Dominus winery in the Napa Valley in California, they wrapped the building in gabions – the wire cages of loose stones more often used to build road embankments – in such a way that light filtered through the apparently massive walls. In their recent extension to the Museum Küppersmühle in Duisburg, a conversion of an old grain mill, they contrast the bright new galleries with the brooding shadows of old silos and new concrete stair towers.

M+, as the Hong Kong museum is called, a decade in the making and officially described as “a cultural centre for 20th- and 21st-century art, design, architecture and the moving image”, culminates that epoch of export. At ground level, Herzog & de Meuron’s design offers a huge concourse, open on all sides, with a void (or “abyss”) plunging downwards to reveal the concrete case of an underground railway tunnel that was on the site before the museum came along. Above the concourse is a long, hovering horizontal slab, containing the exhibition spaces; above that, a slender vertical slab that contains offices, a research centre and the like. LEDs fixed to this slab make that gigantic digital display, on which artists can present images from the district of West Kowloon where M+ is located, across the waters of Victoria harbour towards the centre of Hong Kong.

The architecture is deadpan – the building is gridded and rectangular like an office block and the concourse is predominantly concrete grey – but also dramatic, with views up and down, with its sheer scale, with that giant screen. The hope is that it will be animated with art and life, that the urban dynamism of Hong Kong will energise its vast spaces.Herzog calls M+ “an Asian version of Tate Modern” – the latter’s Turbine Hall is a people mixer of the kind that the M+ concourse is meant to be – only “more radical”.

M+ was supposed to be open and free, “flexible and forward-looking”, as the official blurb puts it, and aiming “to explore diversity and foster creativity”. The museum has always promised that it would exhibit controversial works, unfettered by censorship. “No problem,” said M+ director Suhanya Raffel last March, “we will show those.” Then, in September, it emerged that works by Ai Weiwei, which pro-Beijing politicians had accused of “spreading hatred against China”, were removed from the museum’s website, pending a review of their conformity to government policy.

Museum Küppersmühle extension, Duisburg.
Museum Küppersmühle extension, Duisburg. Photograph: © Simon Menges/Herzog & de Meuron

Ai also reported that some of his works would be excluded from an opening exhibition. He wrote a furious response, in which he said that the museum – in common with other institutions around the world – had let freedom of speech fall by the wayside. It appears, in other words, that the design’s ideals could be undermined by censorship of the architects’ friend and former collaborator.

A spokesperson for M+ said “Given the large number of works in the M+ Collections, only part of them will be exhibited at any one time.” Herzog won’t comment directly on the controversy, but instead says this: “the question, of course, is if people can use it. As an architect, you can only do the platforms where people can come together. But nothing is more political than places that are inviting for people to congregate – they cannot be erased, they can only be restricted.” In this view, architecture can give physical form to aspirations and possibilities that will outlive political oppression. This hope is echoed by Uli Sigg, the Swiss collector of Chinese art whose collection will form a significant part of M+’s exhibits. “Even if conditions are worse for a limited time,” he said last year, “better days will come.”

Herzog makes similar arguments about his practice’s designs for the National Library of Israel. His practice has not joined those artists and academics who refuse to appear in the country, in protest at its ruling regime. He says he’s drawn by the “clearly interesting” mission statement of the library, which officially is independent of government: “It’s not just a Jewish institution, it wants to be open to all people.” The design, a dished stone slab floating above a glassy ground floor, seeks like M+ to encourage accessibility.

Many Herzog & de Meuron projects grapple with issues of openness and secrecy, and inclusion and exclusion. If you go to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, a sprawling estate of research buildings around the city’s Addenbrooke’s hospital, you will see the strategic research and development centre and global corporate headquarters for AstraZeneca. Like M+, it’s due to be completed next month after many years in the making. It is in some ways a particularly cool and proficient version of such corporate labs the world over, including some of its neighbours on the campus. It is glassy and pristine, a curved-sided triangle in plan, logo-like, albeit with a saw-toothed roofline that is at once industrial and gothic.

The design’s biggest move is an interior court, inspired by those of Oxbridge colleges, where it is hoped that scientists will meet and exchange ideas, and into which (it was promised) the public will be welcome to enter. A restaurant, cafe, auditorium and conference centre lead off it. Landscape and timber surfaces at ground level soften the hard-edged construction. It will be, say Herzog & de Meuron, a “porous building that is accessible from three different sides”.

Basel being a centre of the pharmaceutical industry, Herzog & de Meuron have become experts at designing for giant companies such as Roche and Novartis. Something these businesses have in common is a sense that their wealth, power and closely guarded intellectual property should be combined with some kind of contribution to public life. A version of this can be found in their design for the British-Swedish multinational AstraZeneca, where there is a laudable attempt to open up a building whose activities are often secret.

National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.
National Library of Israel, Jerusalem. Photograph: © Herzog & de Meuron

But this idea can only go so far – if you take photographs of the exterior, as I did, a tag team of security staff will ask you what you’re doing. The glass walls, in theory bringers of transparency, don’t and can’t truly tell you what will be going on in the laboratories. Instead, you get reflections of the shifting fenland skies and a ghostly sense of the mysterious and world-changing work inside. The building can only be ambiguous, a fact that is consecrated by the design.

The AstraZeneca building is one of three Herzog & de Meuron projects at or near completion in Britain. In Battersea, south London, a rugged complex of studios and workshops for the Royal College of Art, costing £122m, opens early next year. Residents have started moving into the 483 apartments of One Park Drive, a 58-storey skyscraper in Canary Wharf. Less immediate is a proposed £1bn new stadium for Chelsea football club, on hold since the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich, had problems with his UK visa. “We still hope he can do a deal with the British government,” says Herzog. “That’s an unbelievable project.”

Herzog likes to talk about “people”, in specific as well as general terms: what it is that makes a scientist different from a banker from an artist, a young person from an old, the life of one city compared with another. “Architecture continues to be a great business because it’s all about life,” he says. He also likes to talk about the sensual and tactile qualities of materials, the weight and roughness of concrete, the shine of ceramics, the softness of fabric, the warmth of timber. Herzog & de Meuron’s buildings often perform a kind of alchemy, in which normal expectations of these materials are confounded and inverted. Stone floats, glass becomes massive. What you see is not exactly what you get.

The Canary Wharf project explores these themes within the limitations of a speculative luxury housing tower, where the architect’s main job is to design the external shape. Here, stepping and spiralling patterns of balconies and bays, contained with an overall cylindrical form, aim at “establishing individuality within a unified whole”, to communicate something of the inner life of the building to the outside. Terracotta, more refined and approachable than concrete or aluminium, is the chosen cladding.

Stadtcasino, Basel.
Stadtcasino, Basel. Photograph: © Ruedi Walti/Herzog & de Meuron

A more exuberant display of Herzog & de Meuron’s sensuality can be seen in their renovation and extension of the Stadtcasino, a renowned concert hall in Basel that reopened last year. Its interiors are lush and louche, with patterned crimson wall coverings, silvery reflective ceilings and openings and balconies curved into suggestive shapes. This is partly a renewal of a bourgeois European venue of a kind you might find in a 19th-century novel, but also, says Herzog, “ideal scenery for pop concerts”. It is, he says, with the lack of false modesty that is one of his characteristics, “really a genius project… literally everybody loves it. It is not just a repetition of the past but it seduces those who have very contemporary aspirations.”

When I talk to Herzog, via Teams, he is in ruminative mood. Now aged 71, he spent much of the pandemic in a lakeside house, pondering “actually what I can do. I’m not so young any more. What do I want to do and how helpful can my business be in that endeavour? I’m pretty happy, but I’m also somehow scared of how vulnerable the world has become.” He notes that architecture has changed: “I think for good reason, the shift has gone to social issues, ecological issues, political issues.”

He hasn’t entirely worked out what this new version of Herzog & de Meuron will be like, though one or two projects give clues as to what this new version of Herzog & de Meuron could be like. The practice is currently working on Hortus, an office building in Basel built with timber and rammed earth that aims eventually to be CO2-neutral and energy-positive, which means that it will generate more energy than it consumes. Herzog also talks about their work on hospitals, such as a rehabilitation centre in Basel for people disabled by accident or disease, completed in 2002, that is one of their most undersung but also successful projects. They are working on a large hospital in Hillerød in Denmark, where the aim is to connect the interior as much as possible with nature. “Hospitals can be the most ugly buildings in the world,” he says “It’s unbelievable that it’s such a neglected area.”

These are serious endeavours, which Herzog &de Meuron pursue more convincingly than most architects. In the end, though, you don’t feel that it is social conscience that drives Herzog most, but rather the magic of materials and structures and their ability to seduce and move their users. These effects are not, for Herzog, just decorative – it’s also political to expand the physical experiences available to people. But when it comes to a choice between exploring that magic and confronting tough political issues, the former will, for him, come first.