Interview With Jacques Herzog, the Star Architect Behind Israel's New National Library

Herzog, who says he is not prepared to design work in every country, expresses awareness of the superstar status of some international architects, but says their influence is limited.

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The 'Bird’s Nest' national stadium in the Chinese capital Beijing.
The 'Bird’s Nest' national stadium in the Chinese capital Beijing. Credit: AP
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

On leaving a lecture by Swiss architect Jacques Herzog early this month timed for the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new National Library that Herzog has designed for a site between the Knesset and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a number of Israeli architects expressed criticism of the library design. They said that the building, which Herzog designed with his partner, Pierre de Meuron, was insufficiently iconic and would not enliven the desolateness of the government buildings grouped in that part of the city.

One might also recall the criticism of the pyramid design by American-Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind for the center of Jerusalem, the transparent design for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design by the Japanese firm SANAA, Jerusalem’s “Chords” bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry’s amorphous design, which was ultimately withdrawn, for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

But the library project is entirely different from the others. One might quibble over the need for the building in the Internet age and the process leading to its construction, but unlike most foreign architects who are working or have worked in Jerusalem, the Swiss duo designed a building that both reflects Jerusalem’s character and is also rather modest.

On a tour this writer recently took of buildings in the Swiss city of Basel designed by Herzog’s firm, it was clear that most go beyond the conservative materiality characterizing the city – but at the same time, they generally maintain the same urban scale and help develop it.

The National Library in Jerusalem (simulation).Credit: Courtesy of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

In an interview with Haaretz at Jerusalem’s King David hotel, Herzog said his office sets no rules when it comes to integration into public space, whether in Basel or elsewhere. “It’s not easier to make experiments in your own city ... but Basel is a very liberal and [culturally and economically] rich city,” he says.

“In the region of Basel you find probably the most buildings by Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, many of them on the Novartis and Vitra campuses,” referring respectively to the offices of the Basel-based pharmaceutical firm and a furniture company. “Sometimes it’s good to make a contrast [with the city], sometimes it’s better to integrate a building into the city.”

He expressed the view that Basel’s location, where the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France meet, has enabled him to learn from his neighbors and try to use as much as possible of what he sees around him in his designs. “Because of our hometown, we always have the opportunity to see new and different things. I like different languages and I like different cultures, and I like to adopt things that I see into the projects.”

As a rule, it appears that Herzog & de Meuron doesn’t seek to create iconic designs. Instead the buildings become icons by virtue of the use to which they are put and the totality that characterizes the firm’s work.

Creating urban substance

Herzog was born in Basel in 1950. Between 1970 and 1975, he and his partner De Meuron both studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. They established their firm in Basel in 1978. The first building that accorded them international recognition was the Tate Modern museum in London, housed in a former power plant, a design that earned the pair a Pritzker Prize in 2001. Now their firm has a staff of about 400.

The winning design for the National Library in Jerusalem.Credit: Herzog & de Meuron (simulation)

Herzog looks more relaxed in person than in the restrained official photographs provided by his office, and despite the uncompromising work of his firm, he says he doesn’t think he’s changing the world. “We shouldn’t overestimate the influence of architects and architecture. Because, as you said, people are not always interested in architecture. Of course it changes from place to place. Architecture depends on the client and on money. It doesn’t depend on the architect alone.

“At the end of the day, the influence of architecture is limited ... Le Corbusier wrote books but only architects read them, not the general public. There is a small group today called ‘starchitects.’ Maybe we belong to this group. If we want to belong to it or not, is another question. The buildings that this group creates are very prominent,” Herzog added cautiously.

“We, the architects, we don’t have more influence than a conductor, or a visual artist or a painter. Sometimes writers have more influence, because they use their pen as a tool and words have a very big effect, especially when it comes to politics. But in the long run, architecture has more influence because architecture shapes cities and creates their essence: Jerusalem is different from Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv different from Nice and from Barcelona, although all are Mediterranean cities.”

Asked whether architects don’t have their own views and if they have an influence on global problems such as the refugee crisis, Herzog replied: “Of course, everyone has his own opinion. I may be considered an intellectual thinker, but I don’t intervene in international political issues. I try to contribute as much as I can ... If I would go to a refugee camp as a famous architect, the people there wouldn’t really care about what I could offer. Architecture isn’t important in these kind of places. The people there need basic things. They need food, they need something to drink, they are looking for a place to sleep.”

The National Library in Jerusalem - Youth Zone (simulation). Credit: Courtesy of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Are there places where you have refused to work?

“We turned down projects in several places because of political and moral issues,” he said, hinting that he would not work for dictators. Nevertheless, one of his firm’s best-known buildings is the “Bird’s Nest” national stadium in the Chinese capital Beijing, one of its most grandiose projects, built at a total cost of more than $400 million. Herzog doesn’t appear afraid of confronting criticism regarding the building.

“We were criticized for planning in China. But I think China is a huge and diverse country and we saw the Olympic Games as a time in history when the country would be open to the world. And we thought that the building can be part of this process. [Artist] Ai Weiwei, who was collaborating on this and other projects, was very enthusiastic about the scheme and only later he became critical because he thought the government would use it as propaganda.”

The Swiss architect said that he prefers to design public buildings: “We have more interest in public than private projects because the former reaches more people.”

Asked what principles from the design of public buildings are applied to privately-commissioned projects, Herzog cited the Roche Pharmaceuticals Building 1 tower in Basel, which came in for considerable opposition from city residents.

“We tried to create a building that would be good for the city and has a public influence on the city,” he said.

Despite the building’s prominence on the city skyline, it is off-limits to members of the public, other than the lobby, in part due to issues involving information security.

“Today the awareness of security is increasing and it starts to be more complicated [to open private buildings to the public] due to high security concepts,” Herzog said, “however, we tried to contribute to the city and create around the tower a large public area. We turned the area [around the tower] into a very pleasant place for pedestrians.”

The National Library in Jerusalem - Auditorium (simulation).Credit: Courtesy of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

One way or another, the 41-story building, which is 178 meters (nearly 600 feet) tall, has become Basel’s most prominent landmark. As Roche’s CEO described it, even if most of the building is inaccessible, people come to have their pictures taken with it.

Your firm’s buildings lack a similarity in style that distinguishes some other prominent architects and demonstrates their “fingerprint” of sorts. What advantage does Herzog & de Meuron have over them?

“You need to ask the client,” he smilingly replied, and glancing at Gidi Beery, the National Library project director for Yad Hanadiv, the foundation that represents a number of Rothschild family trusts.

Yad Hanadiv is funding the construction of the library and chose the Swiss architectural firm.

“I prefer to go to a new place and learn from it [rather] than go back to a place and know exactly what I’m going to plan there according to what I did before,” Herzog acknowledges. “Otherwise I would be bored. I think that to build a new building in a new city is more interesting for an architect. Each project we start with a sketch. That way we learn more and more things. We never know how the building is going to be at the end of the process.”

Herzog also said he thought this approach was more appropriate to a place like Israel and a singular city like Jerusalem. “I think it suits Judaism because it doesn’t have a predefined architectural identity. Typology changes from place to place. For example, I visited a synagogue in Toledo [Spain] and the building was influenced by Arabic culture.”

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