In February this year the Tate Gallery announced their choice of architects for the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art. Two weeks later, on 7 March, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Christine Binswanger had the opportunity to present a retrospective exhibition of their practice’s work at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (until 31 May). The exhibition was designed by Remy Zaugg, a painter from the Jura region, with whom they have often worked in the past.
Their competition-winning designs for Bankside–Giles Gilbert Scott’s temple of power–are simultaneously at the Tate, alongside those of the shortlisted architects. The exhibition comes a quarter of a century after the design of the Pompidou was awarded to architects even younger and less well known at the time, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The Tate project, by a pair of young architects little known in Britain, represents not only London’s largest new cultural institution since the Barbican and the British Library, but is poised to reformulate and reinvent the idea of the museum and gallery of Modern and contemporary art.
Herzog and de Meuron’s great advantage is their strategy of “sublime uselessness”, banality understood correctly and acted upon with the intelligence of makers and builders. De Meuron says, “we don’t have preconceptions, we don’t say that we just want to do stone buildings, or that we want to do glass buildings or deconstructed buildings. Not to know what you are going to do with a building before you start can be a frightening feeling, but one we are interested in exploring”.
As the century draws to a close with a phenomenal number of new museums and galleries, it is in the relatively small and out of the way galleries that the art of our time is being registered. This is because few, if any, of the large public galleries commissioned in the last decade fulfilled the expectations of artists, let alone collectors, donors and the public at large.
For Herzog and de Meuron, the postwar restoration of the Munich Pinakothek is an important example. They are interested in the interaction between old and new in the fabric of a building built in the last century and restored after World War II. “They took the existing structure and re-interpreted it. You can hardly see what they have done that is new at first”. Lewis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth is also among the few buildings which the partners of this practice respect without further qualifications.
The turbine hall at Bankside will provide a space as large as it is spectacular: it will provide millions of visitors with a viewing space which will be dealt with in such a way that it will not have the aura of a supermarket.
Compared with the image-loaded architecture of the last decade or so, Herzog and de Meuron’s work is built by slow motion in layers and accretions. Initiated by a relatively simple act, it is repeated ad infinitum to produce the effect of returning; a return to the deep-seated memories and experiences of building our early sandcastles. Their work is characterised by an overt sensitivity to the influence of material upon style, so obvious in half a dozen or so projects accomplished by their practice.
Working at the edge of a conceptual grasp of reality and the limits of perception, Herzog and de Meuron have a sense of geo-metry as visible as it is invisible. The result is to achieve what one might call a Degree Zero of architecture with buildings conceived through rigour and radical choices, which obviates the need for historical rhetoric and modern formulae. This procedure is not to be confused with a Minimalist style but is rather a renewed faith in rational insight and the ability to make things and to build. It does require, however, a certain courage and conceptual trust which Herzog and de Meuron seem to have.
If a building is part of the landscape carved out by man it is no less so when it is part of a city which is large and close by. There could hardly be any greater contrast between Bankside’s brick building built at the height of industrial utopia, and the Portland limestone of St Paul’s diametrically opposite on the other side of the river. And yet if the almost arbitrary symmetry of time and place has to be acknowledged, then this contrast could not be more poignant and demanding.