POC MAG – Stacks of Imagination

Herzog &a de Meuron are a Swiss-based architecture practice whose work has imbued city skylines with a unique sense of cultural identity - from the Tate Modern in London and the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing to new projects planned in New York and Paris. Jacques Herzog spoke at Harvard recently, and these are some thoughts that free-flowed from his inventive mind.

Criticism I don't believe in books on architecture. They are bound to fail and disappear even faster than architecture - which can last for a few generations, even centuries. But like everything else it goes, it disappears. [...] We have, since the beginning, always felt the need for an intellectual and conceptual approach that uses and involves the word. [...] But I just want to point out that discipline is just what it is. Poetry is poetry, architecture is architecture, literature is literature. We are not so interested in things about things - illustrative things, narrative things - because they use something else to exist.

Immediacy The great thing about architecture is the sheer experience. The immediate, physical experience is what counts and what makes the piece of architecture survive, whether it's fragile, made out of paper and wood like an old Japanese imperial palace, which lasts for centuries even if it's not very solid, or whether it's a contemporary building or an old medieval church. And this immediate sensation, which involves all the senses, not just the visual senses, 'reading architecture' so to speak, but really 'living' it, is what we try to underscore.

Stacking Stacking is a familiar gesture. It's a very primitive thing to put something on top of something else; something that even a young child does instinctively. That has inspired us a lot and lead to many projects. [...] And by slightly arranging it in a different way, the familiar gesture becomes figurative because it means you open up something, or you close it down, or you create intimacy. So in a very direct way, it is extremely archaic and architectural at the same time.

Innovation We have nothing in the drawer, and we've never done the same thing twice, I think. But even if our projects are very different, they also play with each other. These similarities, and this is the paradox that I love so much, because they are so similar, create such a diverse result. I'm more interested in how you can create diversity in something that seems right for a specific solution, than finding possibilities to establish a norm, or a rule, or a style. We have absolutely no style.

Experimentation I think it's very important that things are out on the table, that you lay them out as if you are cooking. Then you start to play with that, and you do ridiculous, childish things, but it can lead to unexpected qualities and sometimes you have to reject it and start again. There are really no recipes in how you do architecture, but once it's there, the analytical potential is very important. Once it exists, you can say why it's interesting or not. And we want to have that dialogue.

Interpretation Architecture is like nature. Some people just see a tree or a house, and that's fine, but if you like, you can see more. You may discover other beauties and other advantages. Complexity is defined through this, that if you look at something more carefully you discover something that goes beyond what you originally saw. Architecture has no message, art has no message. If you look at red paint on the wall, you see nothing, but if you look more carefully, you see more. And it's not what the artist wants to tell you, it's whatever you see.

Sustainability How can we re-think the cities of the future? We are using food as a central point from where we try to understand how cities are organised and shaped. Where do you produce it? How do you produce it? What are the resources used? How is waste dealt with? We’re involved in the world exhibition [Expo 2015] in Milano, under the label, 'How to feed the planet?' which is a huge topic. And we're in touch with the Slow Food movement people, like Carlo Petrini, which is incredibly interesting. It opens your eyes in a way you would never have thought - food as a starting point to understand everything else.

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