A Conversation with Herzog and de Meuron on Memory, Textures & Smells

I sat down with Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog (of Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron) just before the dismantling of the Serpentine Gallery’s 2012 Pavilion in Hyde Park, London.  The 2012 Serpentine Pavilion was designed by Herzog, de Meuron and Chinese artist, curator and architect, Ai Weiwei.  Due to the Chinese government’s restrictions on Weiwei’s travel since 2011, he could not be present for this interview.  

Herzog, de Meuron and I discuss the memories, smells and textures of their pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery.

Vigo: There were three of you involved in the pavilion’s creation.  What was your process for creating this project?

Herzog: This was the result of dialogue–

De Meuron:  Together with Weiwei.

226_EV_08_701_M_HdM press pageHerzog, Weiwei and de Meuron 

Herzog:   Our work is of course is based on inspiration.  Someone has an idea and it is an instant flash.  A lot is generated through a fast and dynamic ping pong–between the park, previous years, old structures, that it is impossible to do a new form, what is an English park, the lawn, et cetera.  I think this is how creative processes are. Very rarely do you have one single idea.

Vigo: Did you choose to work together or were you nominated to work together?

Herzog:  We were nominated together with Ai Weiwei too.  God nominated us.  [laughter]

Vigo:  Was there a specific role that you decided upon each individually, or with Weiwei being restricted to China did this automatically decide certain roles?

Herzog: If people are intelligent and not eager to just defend their own arguments you always automatically go for the best possible new proposal or solution. So it is very difficult to trace back what or who did exactly what or when.  Herzog and I have been working together all our lives and we have been working with Weiwei on various projects for ten years.  Otherwise it would have been impossible because over Skype you couldn’t have developed something like this unless you had previous opportunities to work together.

De Meuron:  Everyone wants to know how this came up.  Yet this perspective is a little sentimental.  We really believe that people should look at it for what it is and everyone should have their own experiences with it and not have a guideline which states what came out of what.  It is a roof over your head.  It is architecturally basic.

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Vigo: It protects you from the rain and yet is made of rain–it collects rain in its roof.  Speaking as a spectator who lives at times in countries experiencing great drought, this rain collection roof struck me as interesting.  Also this pavilion is not as bright as the previous structures and so I didn’t know how to react to your structure–it is receded into the ground, a virtual rainwater collection roof protects the underbelly, and it maintains an open format.  So, could this roof be linked to the metaphor of rain–that the roof holds onto the wet past that lingers above, that which must be saved for tomorrow’s harvest and fauna? It seems that rain paradoxically protects and yet it is also part of the structure, maintaining a fine line between past and present.   How did you envisage your piece and the reflection of memory?


Herzog:  Memory is more attached to interpretations of what we have done. It is not that we have thrown this ahead and then attempted to develop something after an idea. We never do this.  I don’t agree that it is dark–it was sunken in the ground It was made to surprise you–because you were used to these flashy things. You couldn’t do a twelfth and a thirteenth in the same row–you had to break the series to innovate what you do.  You cannot endlessly continue; you couldn’t continue to do this défilé de mode.  That is impossible–strictly impossible.

De Meuron: You have your own spatial experience and so if you say it was dark, maybe it is dark from the outside but as soon as you get inside, it is no longer dark.  So you are really in a different space–the spatial experience is really important. Also the acoustic–if you are outside maybe you hear the traffic and when you go inside you no longer hear the traffic.

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Vigo: Certainly it is cozy and warm in your pavilion.  In fact, in one of the events which happened one Friday nights, the pavilion functioned both as shelter but as artifice for a larger performance. There was a fake awards show wherein each attendee had each to participate with a fake identity where some had to play the role of famous persons, actors, designers, and bankers all in this space of constructed sound.  And this space served to underline the noise–we could only hear ourselves more than anything else nothing else.

De Meuron: It is like you have an invisible membrane around it that protects you from the outside without being physically there.

Vigo: Indeed.  And how did you collaborate with Ai Weiwei–did you communicate with him mostly through Skype?

Herzog:  We produced everything in our offices when we collaborate with artists. Weiwei  is a very good artist but he is also a very good architect.  As I mentionned earlier we have done other projects together which is why when we spoke on the screen he could immediately attach what we were saying somehow to something else that was not so abstract.  When he would show us something on the screen it would make sense to us. The three or four Skype contacts was enough to make us understand the project.  He is not a man of many words.

Vigo:  How did you decide upon cork as the major constructive element of the interior?

Cork landscape

Herzog:  It started two years ago so when we were contacted by a cork company to produce something using cork–door handles and what not.  Then when designing this the cork came to our mind–I think Pierre [de Meuron] came up with the idea, I don’t remember. And we decided to use it since it made sense in this context more than in another context–we know that cork can be applied in spaces but to make a landscape…  We were of course thinking of wood but course is of course even more olfactory and it has this tactile sensation.  I think it is a good example of how things are around and all of a sudden they find a place.

De Meuron: There are many factors, but in the end maybe there is just one which is more important–that you can never know.  When you develop something you look at it from all sides–I look from here and here and there.  It had to happen very fast.  You have to know that there were three or four Skype sessions, we had to have a proposal within a few weeks, then we had to bring it all through to the planning construction. The cork had to be milled and we were interested in having a direct translation of our models which were also milled digitally on milling machines with the same information. We could send them to Portugal to the mill. There was a straightforward reason we had everything constructed beforehand.

Vigo: So everything was pre-made and sent here to build on site?

Herzog:  Yes.

Vigo: And the stools were inspired by corks from wine and champagne bottles?

Herzog:  That was eventually the inspiration but we thought it also made sense to use cork for the seats.  That is a very good model.

De Meuron:  There were different factors in our decisions because cork is a natural material, it grows again (although it grows slowly), it is light and warm, it is for a temporary structure–you wouldn’t do this for two or three years however.  All of this composes the important aspects in our choices.

Vigo: You mentioned smell earlier.  I notice in my lifetime that I can link cities to memories by their smells of the streets, the food, perfumes, cleaning techniques of the urban and domestic spaces.  Were you attempting to evoke some specific memories to the site in using cork?

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Herzog:  Not specific memories but cork is a material that has a stark notion of smell. Most people sense it as something that is nice.  It is natural even if it is resultant of burning wood or burning resins that are inherent in this material.   So there is nothing really industrial or artificial in the classic sense so it is well-received by the people. I think smell is really as important  as any other sense–not more important, just as important.  It is unfortunate that in our culture the visual culture has a huge priority over other senses and it is a pity that we lose those senses.  They are being replaced by starker and starker imposing smells from the consumption industry.  They make you feel like you want to eat chicken and this is aggressive and very unfriendly and that is why I say we should fight against that.

Vigo: You can now have your car sprayed with a ‘new car smell’– [laughter]

Herzog:  But we also shouldn’t over estimate–we are not the smell architects.  But what is nice about the cork is that it is more unusual and tactile–you can feel it.  I don’t want to be a moralist but I think we should never forget who we are and what is our potential. We are more and more driven by consumption issues–you can do this, I am not saying this is bad. I personally think that it is less interesting than being freer than in the sense when you walk, Pierre, Amos [Gitai, who was sitting with us] or whomever.  You can perceive yourself in movement, or that you are being more and more driven by other impulses and influences?  If you walk on stone or on cork or on wood or on grass, there is a big difference between each. I am not saying that people don’t feel the difference any more, but they feel it less and less.  In the same way that they don’t hear any more because everything today is being more and more steered to a target. If you as a person are here, there is nothing else.  There is nothing more to say. I don’t believe in any content, any message, anything.  That is ultimately the point. There is nothing.