Laboratory and Cabinet of Curiosities

The archive of Herzog & de Meuron in Basel

Deyan Sudjic

The question of what an archive should be has become an increasing concern for a generation of architects. For Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and others, the question of what to do with the sheer quantity of the physical traces of their working processes is a pressing issue. Addressing it is complicated by the needs of any professional practice to maintain access to commercially and technically sensitive data.

There are private foundations, such as the Vitra Design Museum which accommodates both the Barragan and the Eames archives. There are certain public collections: the Technical University in Munich, the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt that can accommodate some archives. The CCA in Montreal has had the benefit of a founder with the resources to acquire the papers of such key individuals as James Stirling and Cedric Price. There is the RIBA’s drawings collection in London. And there are, in Switzerland, the ETH archives in Zürich, and Lausanne. But some archives are too large to be accommodated by these traditional repositories of the by products of architecture. That of Herzog and de Meuron is certainly in this category. The recent completion of a purpose designed building to accommodate the by products of almost 450 projects demonstrates not just an architectural solution, but also a very specific way of thinking about architecture. It serves as an object lesson in how an archive can inform practice. And at the same time in its mix of apartment buildings on its upper floors, and archive space below, the Dreispitz tower represents the creation of an unusual, possibly unique building type.

Sir John Soane in London actually lived in his own museum. In Basel, it is the residential accommodation that makes the archive space – which is not a museum, but a working space, possible.

Dreispitz built mostly in the 1960s and 1970s is a mix of warehouses, transport depots, railway sidings and roads on the edge of Basel. Its now being transformed by an unusual development strategy that began with the building of the Schaulager by Herzog and de Meuron and has seen the construction of an art school, and a number of new apartment buildings in the midst of truck marshalling yards. Herzog and de Meuron’s tower, combining 40 apartments with five floors of archive space, two of them below ground, rises out of the midst of what was once a kind of no man’s land, but which is now taking on a definite and distinctive character that is much less self conscious than the typical reconstruction of a redundant industrial zone.

With their generous windows, and their own entrances, the apartments form a  contrast to the mostly blank walls of the archive zone.The board marked raw concrete structure will darken and stain over time.

Inside the archive spaces are defined by the sheer power of the  beautifully made glass sided timber framed cabinets. Esther Zumsteg, the Herzog and de Meuron partner who has overseen the firms exhibitions and communications activities for decades and her team have spent months laying out the three dimensional contents of the archive.

Each job is represented here by certain key objects, or samples or models. The practice has always been careful and organized about recording the making of its buildings. But it does not keep everything, decisions are made while work is underway about what to discard. Nor have all the pieces in the archive been placed on the open shelves. Decisions have been made about what to show, how to encapsulate each project, not in order to make them the subject of a public display, but as a working tool for the practice, for researchers, and for exhibition makers.

This is a collection that has been laid out with all the lessons that the practice has learned over the years from the exhibitions that it has organized or been involved with. And few architects have thought more about the meaning of displaying architecture. Like the Schaulager it is a hybrid of archive store, and display space.

Herzog suggested “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited, we are forever compelled to find substitutes” in his introduction to Imaginary Archaeology the 2002 exhibition in Montreal – project 183 – at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Architectural exhibitions may not contain actual architecture, but each of Herzog and de Meuron’s exhibitions gets a job number in their archive, all the way back to project 028, a Lego house that they made for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, and  project 047, the  show that they curated at the Basel Architecture Museum in 1988.

But if these projects are not architecture, then what are they, and what are they doing in the Herzog and de Meuron archive, with the same form of designation as project 001, the conversion of an attic started and completed in 1978 in Riehen, project 126, for the transformation of a redundant oil fired power station in London into Tate Modern, that was issued with its number in 1994, but completed in 2000. Or project 438, an art gallery in Vancouver, scheduled for completion in 2020 that is the last entry in the chronological complete works posted on Herzog and de Meuron’s website at the time of writing.

A good starting point in trying to answer the question is to look at the writings and practice of Remy Zaugg.

The Art Museum of my Dreams, published in 1987, was the summation of Zaugg’s thinking on how art should be shown, how it could be understood, and why it should not submit to the preconceptions of curators. Zaugg’s ideas offer a way of understanding the contents of any exhibition. In the same way that sculptors of an earlier generation liberated themselves and their work from the plinth, so Zaugg made a cogent and lucid case for the autonomy of the artwork.

Artworks have liberated themselves from their context, and their environment, they speak for themselves, but to be allowed to speak for themselves, they need a setting which does not manipulate them, or the individual’s experience of them.

Zaugg was sceptical about a certain kind of curator. “Displayed in a chronological order, the works are relegated to the ranks of historical, anthropological, sociological, ethnographic, or logical, ideological, economic, aesthetic or illustrations. Irrespective of what they document, they are still documents, nothing but documents. At best they are perhaps also documents of themselves, documents of what they were yesterday, documents of works, data sheets with dull faded illustrations, the linear chronological presentation of the row. The sequence is the work’s grave. Each work is buried in it under a mantle of history. If the author of the sequence murders the work, so the priest of chronological distribution digs its grave”.

Zaugg’s Pompidou exhibition set a pattern for a certain way of exhibiting architecture. It set out to demolish what Zaugg in his dialogue with Herzog and de Meuron published after the Paris exhibition, described as “naïve thinking”.

Zaugg’s forensic assault begins with an acid focus on two aspects of conventional attempts to make o exhibitions communicate. Huge photographs and realistic models. “Everything is brought into play, from the repertoire of the window dresser to the know how of the interior decorator, from the optimism of the kindergarten teacher to the science of the graphist.

To read Zaugg’s words in the book published to document  the Paris show is salutary. He mocks architectural exhibitions that have ‘Water colours from the artists youth … chrome display cabinets … sophisticated nickel plated windows … plans superimposed to decorate  an ochre wall … models set up against pink, canary yellow or blue, … darkened cabinets with halos of light, … a table for browsing through books, a video game”.

In the interests of full disclosure I confess that over the years as a curator I have worked my way through the full repertoire that Zaugg listed.

In the exhibition originated at Vitra that the Design Museum staged on Louis Kahn in 2014, we did indeed show water colours executed by the not that young architect when he was a Rome scholar. We showed the suitcase he was carrying when he suffered his fatal heart attack in the men’s room at Penn station. And there was a certain amount of blue and ochre paint on the walls.

What is mostly absent from Zaugg ‘s dialogue with Herzog and de Meuron is an exploration of the purpose of an architectural exhibition. And just as Herzog and de Meuron do not believe that their work reflects any other principle than the need to address the task in hand, so their exhibitions have served different ends.

They have used them for professional reasons, to explore ideas, to see their work through other sensibilities. The Pompidou exhibition, with its flat tables, its absence of vertical services, its flat lighting, its chilly neutrality became as formulaic when used by others as the giant photographs, realistic models and scenographic approach. But in its day it sent a signal about Herzog and de Meuron, and where they wanted to situate themselves on the cultural landscape. And it was very different in its objectives from the presentation of Herzog and de Meuron’s proposed high rise structure for Paris last year. This was part of a public debate about the future of the city, rather than a distillation of architectural intentions.

Imaginary Architecture in Montreal represented an entirely different strategy from both Zaugg’s project and the display in 2014. In the setting of a number of major works of art, Warhol, Judd, Giacometti, and Beuys, were laid out in neatly ordered rows, the waste matter of an architectural studio.

Philip Ursprung, the curator – and the professor of Art History at ETH, says he worked “like an archaeologist from the future who has uncovered the architects’ studio and found hundreds of curious models without really knowing what they mean. We label them and display them much like a natural history museum might treat dinosaur bones’. One of the art images on the wall is a framed Andreas Gursky photograph of  the Herzog de Meuron exhibition at the Pompidou.

The shelves in the archive are as carefully and sensitively curated as the tables that Zaugg set out at the Pompidou, or the display in Montreal.

With almost 500 projects in the archive, with material kept until now on multiple sites, the process has been a lengthy one. The care and the intelligence that has gone into place every piece is evident, and yet not insistent. This is a place to work, but it is also a collection, to contemplate and to explore. It can be viewed by the professionals inside the stacks of shelves, or more formally, in the double height display space on the ground floor, with its extensive window looking out to the rapidly transforming neighbourhood. Walking through  the measured rows of the shelves what is most striking is the sense of how much time has been invested not just in placing each object, but in the time that hundreds of different individuals have put into thinking and creating, time that is measured in tens and thousands of man years.

The rows and rows of objects sometimes seem to blur into a single object, as if you are negotiating the inside of some massive, mainframe computer. And then you stop and recognize individual projects, a detailed model of the Dominus Winery, needed to convince a planning board, dimpled panels that were used as samples for the de Young museum.

Moving back and forth through the rows, some patterns start to show up. At some moments, the foam form models change colour, they move from blue to green, or occasionally pink. The sample boards and the fragments show a fascination with materiality.

The archive is a data base, that reflects a fertile mind, indexed to be read in conjunction with the admirably lucid on line catalogue of the practice’s complete works. This projectis a model of its kind, and a reminder of what the consistent application of intelligence can achieve. And it is an assertion of the continuing relevance of architecture.

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