Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    May 5, '11 4:14 PM EST

    Hello Archinect!

    Live-Blogging Herzog and de Meuron's lecture at the GSD this afternoon, after their directed thesis studio had their final reviews. Introduction by Dean Mohsen Mostafavi.


    4:08 pm: JH: I don't believe in books on architecture; they're bound to fail and disappear even sooner than architecture...which can last for hundreds of years [before disappearing]. Not that I don't respect people who write books.

    We are interested in poetry as poetry, painting as painting, literature as literature, and architecture as architecture. We don't believe in objects about other objects.

    We believe in all the senses. Not in reading architecture, as such, but in living it.

    This (presentation) is not a book, it is slides and words.

    ...Because we've always worked as a couple... [Oh, Europeans and their disarming lack of homophobia!]

    [First project: Rudin House.] We lifted it up, tried to make it monolithic and not narrative, even in its small details.

    4:15 pm: [New Parrish Museum.] This project [the first proposal with the village concept] died because of the financial crisis. But they wanted to keep working with us so we [developed a second proposal--he's referring to the two long, low extruded gable shapes], a radical intervention, even more connected to the landscape.


    ...A brutal, naked approach to materiality. Concrete...canopies with exposed unpainted wooden beams, and corrugated steel.

    4:25 pm: [Museum in Guadalajara.] ...Here, too, we tried to create a simple way to bring daylight into the galleries, to not hide the way light comes in.

    We used concrete which acts in some way as a continuation of the rock...

    4:28 pm: [Beijing Film Academy in Qingdao, China] This was one of the first of our collaborations with the artist Ai Weiwei, who has now become world-famous...unfortunately [because of his imprisonment]...but I would just like to say how much of a pleasure it always is to travel and be with him.

    The stack is a familiar gesture; we know what it means to put something on something else. This gesture becomes in a strange way, figurative, because you open, close, create a gap, create an intimacy. So it's extremely archaic and architectural at the same time.

    This project died, but it was an intellectual quarry that we used in other projects.

    4:31 pm: [Actelion Business Center, Basel]


    Sheer mess of beams. We could not imagine a single space; you would always feel part of a whole space. We worked with one of the most creative landscape architects in the world, [...], she's a little nuts but unbelievably talented. She's more an artist than a landscape architect, and the way she uses plants and space is quite interesting--but quite difficult to express in slides.

    4:35 pm: [VitraHaus, Basel] [He's giving a tour of the architecture petting zoo at Vitra.] One of Renzo Piano's better of our buildings...and now VitraHaus in the north. And this is one of the few projects in which an early sketch is almost in a 1:1 way something that remained accepted as it got bombarded [by the design process].


    We stack in order to crash one into the other, to destroy, and in destroying, to create new forms. And that was the result of that as a sculptural approach, to have a lofty form as well as an intersection, so we could choose what kind of intersection we wanted to use. We created variety in an incredible way. ...And you can remain with clean hands here--there's no claim of genius, but you can just step back and see what the different intersections can produce.

    And there are different experiences; the a snail drilling its way through the building.

    And it also has a real diversity of ways into and through the building. Niches, lower and higher spaces...which are useful for the curators of Vitra to install their collection.

    We disliked the idea of concrete as a finished material, because of its...power as a muscular material. We did not show this materiality, because this was not the key idea. We wanted the form to be more innocent of materiality. That's very different from what I said before about Parrish. Here, we decided for this almost black cladding...which adds to the sense of abstraction.

    And here you can see these buildings are like [telescopes] that let you look at the landscape, and they make you aware of the landscape in a different way.

    We wanted to go up a bit taller, because we knew the area and wanted to not only create architecture underground but to connect people with the very beautiful landscape.

    Gehry's museum and this one are like two stones at the opening of the campus, so we moved ours back a bit because it was large and we didn't want to overwhelm any other building [Gehry's].

    4:45 pm: [Stone House in Tavole, Italy] This, started in 1982, was one of our first attempts at minimalism, and was [in response to] post-modernism, which we hated. This was the time of Aldo Rossi, Sterling, and people who have almost disappeared now in collective memory.

    So we collected stones, and created this geometrical grid that organized the facades, but also the section and plan. And we didn't want any distinction between inside and outside, plan, section, and facade; everything is one thing. This is something that has been forgotten and that is difficult to realize in contemporary architecture.

    You can see the plan is very radical in that it's just a cross and there are no corridors. We did not want any space to be less important, to be serving, the other. No different hierarchy, just different weight. So that was as abstract as one could get without being modern. But that's how we started to understand that materials, adapted to be used in a new way, could become something.

    [Wow, he seems to really not be computer literate. A dialog box popped up because perhaps he right-clicked by accident, and there were several moments of figuring out how to get it to disappear.]

    4:51 pm: [Goetz Art Collection, Munich] And this is why we...rejected from the beginning, recipes. But minimalism, which was unknown, or which nobody was interested in, was even more radical in this project. It seems to sit on light, not on structure.

    If you imagine some like Olafur Eliasson...he is someone who is working in some way as an architect but also working with architects. And that was the kind of collaboration that was not yet happening a this time.

    To work in materials in this way was new for us, and it was something that was developed in the world of art, not in architecture.

    4:56 pm: [Prada in Tokyo] Every single piece is as much facade, material space, and structure. Every single piece is everything at one time, almost like a medieval church. It is space-making and structural, wall and surface.

    In this project, and elsewhere we develop furniture, lamps, sometimes carpets, just for a particular building. Here, for Prada, who we continue to work with.

    4:59 pm: [Garage Lincoln Road, Miami] You know this place better than we do. It's a cool place, very nice, but unfortunately they like very ugly buildings because of air-conditioning...

    ...There was a forest where they cut down all the trees to create Lincoln Road. Ironically, this street is the only place where there are trees now. The client wanted to parking to be cool. We had to make a huge effort, we went to court, to change the zoning to be allowed to be as high as the adjacent building. We said that we're not creating a higher FAR but the client just wants to spend more money; to have more empty space to have this plus, not through decoration or any tricks but just to have structure and space in the most simple and direct materialization.

    5:03 pm:

    image [inspiration image: a building that was not for parking being used for parking; their project is ostensibly for parking but will accommodate grander, more social functions too.]


    We wanted the structure to be in a way that it never interfered with the cars moving up, and for the floorplates to move in and out, to create a sense of movement, instability, and open space; we believe Miami [given its climate] is an ideal city for that. There's no glass facade; it's an open structure.

    The structure is not just an expression of our personal mood or fantasy but results from the space left between the cars.

    The parking is just one reason why the building was built, but you can see the space is used for many other activities (parties, etc.)

    5:07 [Sao Paolo, Brazil] In a city that is both ugly and breathtaking, and in which modernism has expressed itself in a way that we have always thought Miami could as well; with its climactic conditions.


    And here in a restaurant, the tree forms a kind of architecture, a roof. If you think about Actelion or Vitra, the forms had to be enclosed spaces. Here we wanted the forms to be platforms, the climate allowing for that, before we defined any facade or volumetric coherence.






    A bit like in Qingdao, we liked these bands as architecture, not just as a diagram. We studied both how they could be separated and how they could meet. And we wanted nature to fill up the paces in between, and the lobbies, so people who are going for music and dance would meet each other--that people who would not ordinarily meet would have an opportunity to do so.

    The building had to be clad but the cladding reflects the beauty of the sky, which is often foggy and grey-ish, so the building could almost disappear.

    [They color coded the program in charts and on the model.] Because we wanted to make sure people would really mix and meet. So we also colored the people [in the model] so we could make sure that you would really have the yellow people and the pink people meeting.

    But I think it's also important to say to students that this very conceptual level has to be pushed to an extreme. But then there's another step when this has to become architecture, when this has to be translated and many other things accommodated in a [sophisticated] way so that the concept can remain.

    5:17 pm. Last project. [Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg]


    They loved the design right from the beginning, based on a few sketches. The newspapers were filled with articles that pushed the government to complete the project. And everything went very fast; and that was the beginning of something that ended up in a very negative spiral, with cost over-runs and a very negative spirit that has lasted for many years. But we're working very hard to help the people to see what kind of a [great] building they will get. [But just to say that] every kind of big public project is very exposed. And the architect is always involved [in the press and politics] even though the architect is not responsible for everything, as we all know.

    There is an existing brick building, that [nobody liked]. And we said, why don't we build the philharmonie on top of it, using the existing building as parking.


    And that led to this rendering that led to all the hype.

    First of all, we have this brick building that we left almost untouched. We drilled through that building--so [instead of a typical lobby off the street, you go up to an intermediate platform within the brick building] and then up into the hall.


    We wanted to do something which was we developed this kind of bent glass, one with a horizontal and one with a vertical opening. So the facade is very lively and would reflect the sky as much as the river.


    The second important element is to access the building. And the terrace allows you to go up to the lobby level [through an escalator in a tunnel], which is the height of the main skyline of Hamburg. It's amazing how traditionally organized Hamburg is, and amazing how much the [new development] allows for a new kind of city so close to the old one.

    The lobby space surrounding the concert a space we have been dealing with endlessly in models, because drawings, you don't always control, and the computer [missed his exact words, but he's saying it's not effective.]

    ...We are also, of course, fascinated by La Scala, because it introduces a notion of urbanity, as if everyone is looking out a window from a facade.

    We started with the idea of an organic form that is not developing in one way but in changing ways.



    We developed this material that is computer-based, a porous gypsum surface that is reminiscent of the (material outside, in the area), and sophisticated in its acoustic function.

    And [construction images] the building is much farther along than this now, but I show these to prove that it is being built.

    [Finished. Applause.]

    Mohsen Mostafavi: ...You have these three categories (House, Stack, Structure), and I'd like to ask about the challenges of practice both in a general way and in a specific way. ...Because now [with your size], you have many of the conditions of a corporate practice. Are these categories useful in your process, because you have 200 people in the office and you and Pierre can't do everything? How do you [balance that with being creative, pushing things as far as possible]?

    JH: Well, we have almost 400 so it's even worse.'s fair to say that...these are not general categories. I use it here and maybe not ever again. I might use these ideas again... but [no project is ever the same.] we have no style. We have absolutely no style.

    JH (in response to a convoluted question about design process): We lay things out on a table, and it's like you're cooking. One option is you play with this, and think about the possibilities. And sometimes it leads to unexpected qualities that you have to reject and start again. But there cannot be a recipe. ...It would lead to some kind of boring un-architectural thing. And we have that dialogue. We want to trigger these discussions. We don't want to show you these projects and tell you 'we would like you to see it this way.' Because that's worthless. We want you to go there and [enjoy the building.] Because nobody cares about what you explain to them. It's like a love affair: nobody cares if you explain it or not. It is.

    [Uproarious laughter.]

    Question from the audience: There may not be a style but there is a value pattern in terms of frugality of material, generosity of space, etc. Could you talk about what your value system is, and does being Swiss or being from Basel figure into that?

    JH: Maybe it would be more interesting to hear from you, if you think we have a value system. I don't think we have a value system... ...But I couldn't put this on the table. Maybe the gentleman in the blue pullover could. [this is GSD professor Mark Mulligan, who laughed most joyously and prominently at the love affair comment.]

    Question from the audience: What are the boundaries and the limits to feelings, sensations, and awareness? What are the limits to this that would allow you to use these things rigorously in your work? [Ooh, someone's been trained at the GSD.]

    JH: Some would say this is a tree, this is a house, and that's fine, there's no problem with this. ...Complexity is defined through this: that if you look at it, you discover something else. Advertising is not complex: it has a clear purpose and that's it. Architecture has no clear message, no message at all. And art has no message. If you look at a piece of red paint on the wall, you see a piece of red paint and maybe you see more, and maybe it's not what the artist wants to tell you but what you see. And it's not about the stupid book wants to tell you, because the book is about power. Whereas poetry is never about power.

    MM [smiling--that is, disagreeing--taking JH's hand in his]: You have this whole thing about books, well, that [discussion] would take a long time. But there is also something about construction. There's the precision of the measure of the house, which is also about limits.

    JH: Architecture is where you can use construction. ...we have to find something using structure to make it more powerful than just the conceptual models.

    Question from the audience: I wonder if you have any green agenda?

    JH: I think that leads us to the next semester. [Ooh!!] We have always said that architecture has to be intelligent in that the doors and windows are in the right spot, and if so you're already doing pretty good. But on a global level, how can our cities be in the future? We have to find new analytical tools to do this. And next semester we will try to use food to understand how cities are organized and shaped through this--what is produced, what are water resources, how things are moved. And we're in contact with slow food people... this is so interesting in that it opens up your eyes in a way that you would never had thought: food as a starting point to understand everything else. [Ooooooh!!!] So we'd like to select some hardworking students to be part of that investigation. We'd like to start this in Basel, maybe parallel research in Basel and Boston. But instead of starting with traditional ways of seeing sustainability, we'd like to try to understand it through something which is so familiar, as an interesting way--also, a sexy way--to enter the topic, instead of the technical approach.

    MM: Just to be clear, the way things worked this semester, the GSD students would do thesis prep in the first semester. There would be a trip to Basel [if it's not in Boston], and the thesis would be in the spring. So you would do the thesis in the spring but the commitment would start in the fall semester, and we'll collect the names of people who are interested.

    And with that, I'd like to thank Jacques... [applause]



    [Post-lecture autograph signing. Yes, Pierre de Meuron was there, even though he didn't say anything.]

    I felt a bit scattered today and if you got that sense from reading the above, that's my fault, not Mr. Herzog's. The lecture itself was really excellent. Jacques Herzog presented the projects in a way that was of course really intelligent, but that also managed to not come across as totally canned. He theorized, he was polemical, he gave advice to students, he added little anecdotes about the challenges of specific projects, and he answered questions thoughtfully. It was so casual and warm that ending by slipping into discussing the details and logistics of next year's directed-thesis studio felt almost normal.

    It was a perfect way to end this semester's lecture series, with inspirational ideas to take into the summer, and something specific (and delicious) to look forward to in the fall.

    Thanks for reading!

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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