Rodolfo Reis . Natural History of Herzog & De Meuron

Natural History is a product of the exhibition Herzog & De MeuronArchaeology of Mind, organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), and which took place in Montréal between October 2002 and April 2003.

The fact that it was organized by the CCA, a reference museum and research centre in the field of art and the history of architecture, evidences the importance of Herzog & De Meuron in contemporary architecture. The publication reflects a critical perspective in the use of an interpreting (and retrospective) process of a mind system. Natural History is the result of a long-term research project by a group of architects, artists and researchers who use a “backwards-forwards” [1] method. The project was co-created by Philip Ursprung (the exhibition’s curator), Lars Müller and Herzog & De Meuron


Considering their vast production, due to constant experimentation, six major themes were identified: (i) ”Transformation and Alienation”, (ii) “Appropriation and Transformation”, (iii) “Stacking and Compression”, (iv) “Imprints and Moulds” (v) “Interlocking Spaces”, (vi) “Beauty and Atmosphere”. This division allowed for the understanding of the authors’ execution process and creation method, based on (human and time) mediating perception, ownership and transformation processes. The projects, 250, designed between 1978 and 2005, are numbered sequentially, and, thus, able to be linked to texts or graphic elements - this was also carried out in coding all the pieces in the exhibition, most of which had not yet been catalogued.


These objects are not works of art; they are an accumulation of waste.”[2]


In the chapter entitled “Transformation and Alienation”, the context, Basel, takes on a predominant role in terms of intellectual boost in the work Herzog & De Meuron. Basel is considered an important synergist in view of its specific sociocultural context, its “in between city” condition, a crossroads of German and French cultures, its high level of industrialization and, most of all, its relevance in the international art scenario. An important group of artists were at the origin of the architectural firm in the 1970s: Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, or Andy Warhol. An analysis is carried out of how these synergies actively contributed to the development of a creation process in terms of perception and acting mechanisms. The debate focuses on the relation between figuration and abstraction by means of art stimuli. This is made visible in several projects, such as the Signal Box, in Basel (1989-94) the Eberswalde Library (1994-99), the De Young Museum, in San Francisco (1999-2005), or Prada Tokyo, in Aoyama (2000-03).


The theme “Appropriation and Transformation” is linked to the Tate Modern (1994-2000), and focuses on issues related to processes of identification and exploration of pre-existing potentials. Emphasis is given to the conceptual coherence of each project and to how the existing elements interact with new action assumptions. Tate Modern, in London, and the Küppersmühle Museum, in Duisburg (1997-99), are two of the referred projects; the Caixa-Forum, in Madrid (2001-06), or the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, in Hamburg, a project which began in 2003 and is still under construction, could also have also been included.


Stacking and Compression” introduces density and repetition as themes. This mimetic approach uses and explores matter so as to frame it in context with a specific reality or social environment. Projects such as the Stone House, in Tavole, (1982-88), or the Dominus Winery, in Yountville (1995-98) reflect these principles through the use of rocks, which are overlaid, stacked or piled up in gabions, also overlaid and stacked, in order to establish a relationship between architecture and the underlying cultural meaning. Density and repetition emphasize the effects of scale through closeness - a recurring theme in the work of Herzog & De Meuron, examples of this being the Olympic Stadium, in Peking (2002-2008), and 1111 Lincoln Road, in Miami (2005-10).

In parallel with issues related to matter, the projects, such as those of museums, warehouses or libraries (the Ricola Storage, in Laufen (1986-87)), evidence a typology in terms of use that is related to the effects of storing and compression. In these cases, the use of the building defines the conceptual approach to its implementation.


In “Imprints and Moulds”, the theme of perception is resumed, together with the concepts of serialization and abstraction, thus linked to Andy Warhol’s silk-screening. Similarly, the idea of image is transferred to architecture in the guise of decoration through abstraction processes: based on repetition, densification or styling; examples of this are the Eberswalde Library (1994-99), with the collaboration of German photographer Thomas Ruff; the Ricola Factory, in Mulhause (1992-93), whose façade is the result of research regarding the photos of Karl Blossfelt (1920s).

Technical architecture is analysed as image reproduction matrix (as discussed in Eberswalde) using a photo engraving process in concrete (a process similar to that of silkscreen printing); and as matter configuration process, examples being the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, in Münchenstein (1998-2003), the Küppersmühle Museum, in Duisburg (1997-99), and the Architecture Park, in Jinhua (2004-2006),


The theme “Interlocking Spaces” focuses on the relevance of interaction between spaces and how they become catalysts. By means of exploring moments of ambiguity, through processes of division, addition, subtraction or alteration of configurators. This theme is linked to the pursuit to explore visual relations (interior and interior/exterior) and the interaction of living moments. These principles are reflected both in terms of houses, as is the case of the Rudin House, in Leymen (1996-97), and in terms of public spaces, as is the case of the Goetz Gallery, in Munich (1989-92), the Museum / Cultural Centre, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1999-2006), and the VitraHaus, in Weil am Rhein, Germany (2006-2009).


The final chapter, entitled“Beauty and Atmosphere”, focuses on perceptual experience of balance and harmony between matter, space and the senses. Prada Tokyo (2000-03), the interiors of REHAB, in Basel (1998-2002), and the Goetz Gallery, in Munich (1989-92), are examples of this, through scale and proportion, colour vibration or intensity, and mostly, through how the inner light - natural, filtered or reflected – is used. These are projects characterized by their blurry space transitions and rather ethereal interiors.



Considering these themes – introduced and developed by Philip Ursprung and Herzog & De Meuron and papers by authors such as Kurt Forster, Thomas Ruff, Catherine Hürzeler, Robert Kudielka, Peggy Phelan, Boris Groys, among others – Natural History unveils the processes, apparently still unknown, behind the projects designed by Herzog & De Meuron. Based on an analysis considering the changes in matter, the processes derive from the perception of nature mechanisms and of human effects on nature. There is continuity between nature and artifice, ambiguously translated and focused on natural determinism which lead to change and abstraction. Within this scope, the influence of art is rather determining, its link with architecture being tested. Many of their projects derive from a multidisciplinary process with artists such as Helmut Federle, Rémy Zaugg, Thomas Ruff, Gerhard Richter, Ai Weiwei, among others. Collaborating with artists or with specialists from different fields, evidences the need to find a contemporary operating strategy, a more conceptual than styling process. Besides the issue of method, Natural History also evidences the speculating character of the projects by Herzog & De Meuron, in view of their scale and context, on reactivating their existence and reciprocal relation with a new “object”, on their identity context and sociocultural interaction.


Architecture by Herzog & De Meuron is based on exploring human perception mechanisms in a continuous process of research regarding matter and its changing processes, especially in terms of ambiguity and abstraction. 


 HERZOG; DE MEURON. Natural History; Canadian Centre for Architecture; Lars Muller Publishers, 2002/2005


[1] Philip Ursprung, “Exhibiting Herzog & De Meuron “, in: Herzog & De Meuron: Natural History, Canadian Centre for Achitecture / Lars Müller PublishersBaden, 2002/2005, p. 39.

  [2] Herzog & De Meuron, “Just Waste”, idem, p. 74