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Building Blocks 

Published February 12, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron do big boxes. The Swiss design duo won the 2001 Pritzker Prize, making them the architectural equivalent of Nobel laureates. American Pritzker winners include Frank Gehry, whose signature buildings twist and shout, and I.M. Pei, famous for the boldly angular East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington.

Herzog & de Meuron are a more refined and subtle pleasure. Two of their most celebrated projects -- the Eberswalde Technical School Library (1999) in Germany and the Dominus winery building (1998) in California's Napa Valley -- are as rectangular as a K-Mart. Discovering why these buildings are, nevertheless, occasions for architectural celebration is just one good reason to visit the Herzog & de Meuron exhibition currently at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

Another reason is the nature of the exhibition itself. If this had been a typical museum show about a famous architectural firm, it would have included lots of models and photographs showing how the Eberswalde building is enlivened by a concrete-and-glass faCade consisting entirely of oddly juxtaposed photos from old newspapers -- e.g., a boy looking with wonder at a toy train, and East Germans, in the early days of the Berlin Wall, trying to escape to the west.

But curator Philip Ursprung has opted out of the standard show-and-tell. Yes, there's a model of the Dominus winery project -- albeit consigned to a corner of the exhibition -- where one can plainly see how the building has replaced conventional outside walls with loose stones held in place by chicken wire. But this model is here simply because it happened to be among the items Ursprung discovered when he scoured the firm's headquarters for objects that might relate to what Herzog & de Meuron think and do.

Hence the exhibition's subtitle -- "Archaeology of the Mind" -- and hence the show's unapologetic challenge to visitors accustomed to spoon-fed insights about art and culture. Ursprung's purpose was to "act as if we were archaeologists from the future who have uncovered the architects' studio."

"Our models and experiments with materials are not works of art but rather a kind of accumulated waste," explains a written statement attributed to Herzog & de Meuron themselves. "We have opened our archives like a chamber of wonders and transferred them to the museum. Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited, we are compelled to find such substitutes for it."

Much of what is displayed can best be described as experiments -- a particular material, way of working with a material, or building shape assembled for testing and study, juxtaposed against various images and objects that inspired and informed the designers. The exhibit includes copper sheets with holes punched in them, a self-portrait of Andy Warhol, pieces of glass embedded in concrete. There's a house built of railroad ties and paper cutouts that resemble Japanese lanterns, but in fact relate to the architects' design for an addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Archaeology in the studios of lesser architects would not prove as interesting. But Herzog & de Meuron have placed themselves at the junction of art, science, culture and commercialism. Sample panels illustrate the experimental process -- similar to the method for silk-screening T-shirts -- by which they superimposed photographs onto concrete at the Eberswalde library. Nearby, the viewer learns that the intriguing photographs reproduced in this manner were selected by artist Thomas Ruff, a frequent collaborator.

The Warhol image testifies to an earlier use of photography in architecture: mug shots of "most-wanted" fugitives that Warhol initially placed on the outside of a pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. (They were quickly painted over to avoid lawsuits.)

The commercialism evident here is central, if not crucial; many architects of this stature unabashedly refuse to do commercial projects. Some of Herzog & de Meuron's most pleasing projects, by contrast, are in the industrial and retail sectors.

One example is Herzog & de Meuron's Prada store now under construction in Tokyo. Prada's top-of-the-line brand identity is somewhat bound up with Pritzker-level architecture. Its New York store, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, features undulating floors. Herzog & de Meuron's Tokyo version is all diamonds -- on the surface, in the shape of the structural elements, and in the geometry of the building itself. At the Montreal show, a plethora of models in various materials reveals how the architects played with this idea through dozens of iterations.

Even more compelling is the exhibition's video evidence of what Herzog & de Meuron have done at the Auf dem Wolf railyard in their home city of Basel. Architects love to talk about site-specific design, but that usually means creating a building in resonance with a woodland, seashore or grand city boulevard. Video screens at the CCA reveal an equally satisfying, and more difficultly wrought, kind of resonance: Locomotives pound their way into and out of the tough-looking barn the architects built for them; workers tightly wind a copper strip around the signal tower, designed to evoke the bulky metal signaling devices used before everything went digital.

Some skepticism about the Herzog & de Meuron show is probably justified, given the state of the profession at the world-class level. Many celebrity architects, such as Koolhaas, the American Peter Eisenman and Germany's Daniel Libeskind -- one of two finalists for the World Trade Center rebuilding -- have achieved fame and fortune not by winning actual commissions, but by exhibiting their ideas in museums and classrooms. These are usually at an Ivy League school with a graduate architecture program. Wealthy institutional clients then come calling, and the resulting buildings are only sometimes great.

Herzog & de Meuron are not playing this game, however, even if they seem to be using a museum show to advance lofty notions about art and culture. The world will soon forget all the blob-like Gehry models displayed last year at the Guggen-heim in New York. Now in serious financial trouble itself, that museum recently cancelled plans to build just such a blob-like annex on the East River. Far more likely to endure is the compelling image of the Dominus winery, on display at the CCA, that photographer Jeff Wall captured for the museum.

Wall, incidentally, is an artist, not a commercial photographer. He only agreed to visit the Napa Valley if the CCA would pay him and risk his returning with nothing he was willing to show. The gamble paid off: Wall's huge photo shows the low, dark building as a distant element in a landscape of hills and trees. In the foreground is the vineyard itself, dormant, with the individual vines resembling a grid of crucifixes.

Like any such geometrical arrangement, this stark checkerboard of bare flora creates diagonal pathways, one of which leads to a rectangular entrance that slashes all the way through the winery building. Perfectly communicated in Wall's photo is the manner in which the stone-covered structure bridges the spiritual gap between the natural setting of the winery and the extensive human intervention required to turn grapes into wine.

It takes some work on the part of the viewer to receive and process this communication, as well as the others Ursprung intended in this exhibition. Making that sort of demand on visitors seems to be part of the CCA's overall curatorial philosophy. There are reasons this institution calls itself a "centre" rather than a museum. Accordingly, in lieu of the usual gift shop with flashy merchandise, the CCA has a serious bookshop. You might call the institution -- and its current exhibition -- a triumph of substance over marketing. m

The Canadian Centre for Architecture is at 1920 rue Baile, Montreal. Nearest Metro stop: Guy Concordia. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.) Admission: Adults $6, seniors $4, students $3, 12 and under free. Info, 514-939-7026 or

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