Switching place: Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern extension

Interview with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Trained at ETH Zurich, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron founded their practice in 1978 in Basel, Switzerland. They have recently installed their archives in the Helsinki building (2014), which also contains 41 private flats, in Basel’s ex-industrial/railyard Dreispitz neighbourhood. There, they talked with Herbert Wright about both projects and more

Blueprint: Before talking about Tate, what about the Helsinki-Dreispitz project here?

JH: Dreispitz is interesting because it connects back to earlier work. Urbanism, architecture and programming come together. Dreispitz is a similar phase in our work to Tate Modern. It’s very robust, but also playful. We like architecture that when you look at it you like it or you don’t, but if you stay longer you see other things.

Blueprint: You originally surveyed the Dreispitz site in 2001-03, and have recently described it as ‘an experimental melting pot for a variety of urban activities’ comparable to some New York neighbourhoods.

JH: [Dreispitz] created richness and ugliness at the same time. This building should be a model for how things can be developed. The apartments are not low-income, but not super-rich.

Blueprint: Your own archives and a display floor are here, and a foundation called Kabinett with the aim of providing public access to everything.

JH: We were inspired by the Schaulager - a private art collection stored and displayed in an H&dM building (2003) for the Laurenz Foundation. It’s an interesting transition from private to public.

Blueprint: Would you let outside curators come in to work with your material?

JH: No. Art is just art, architecture is something else.

Blueprint: It’s a remarkable achievement, winning the Tate Modern competition in 1995, and now completing its Switch House extension.

JH: As a learning curve it was amazing to get the commission. And what is amazing is how it has transformed Bankside. It says something of our society and the hypercapitalism [of the art market]. The building in its second phase, being a brick tower, is so important. Everything has come together as an organic piece.

PdeM: Tate Modern 1 was more classical, with rectangular galleries. In Tate 2 [the Switch House], you encounter art, but [also] other programs. You have spaces that invite the artist to react, the most famous [being] the Turbine Hall; there are similar spaces in Tate 2.

JH: Tate Modern is a model of how a gallery can change a neighbourhood.

Blueprint: What’s changed in 20 years?

PdeM: It’s a big question. Design tools. In 1995 we had completely different methods. We were closer to the Fifties, the Sixties, how you approach the project. We can do more complex things in a quicker way. The client being involved in all the decisions hasn’t changed.

JH: The first presentation plans were so naive. There were handmade montages. We were more reluctant to offer alternatives. Now we change all the time.

PdeM: The sophisticated client has no need for all the tech.

JH: It’s very important not to cheat, not to make it look good. Hitchcock made architecture look real. Sophisticated clients don’t want to be cheated.

PdeM: The less sophisticated clients want us to tell them what it looks like.

JH: In fact, nothing has changed with the technology. Technology is like a different kind of fork, nothing more, nothing less. Tools just transform the conditions.

Blueprint: How do you react to the general disenchantment with starchitecture and the overinflated art market?

JH: This is nothing to do with architects. In this moment, in the evolution of capitalism, art became the place to invest. Architecture was the place to put it in… It’s not just a playground. How can a program be expressed in architecture? Is a building sustainable? Is it worth the money and time? Is the material, the energy, paid back? That’s how you measure the story.

Architects are fascinated by power. Sometimes a piece of architecture is for a dictator, or corrupt money…

PdeM: I don’t care so much about that [starchitecture]. Do you need individuality or conformity? You have to judge what is more feasible. On the question of Tate, we were not the ones to do something flashy.

Blueprint: Should architecture be political, as it was with utopian modernists?

JH: They were interested in their own monumentality. We are far away from the belief that architecture transforms communities. We have possibilities that are social engagement. It’s not more moral. It’s our attitude. A lot of architecture has an ideological message that’s stupid.

PdeM: The architectural essence is more important.

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