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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lloyd Roberts

Herzog & de Meuron at the Royal Academy

14.07.23 – 15.10.23

Royal Academy, London; £15/11

Curator: Vicky Richardson

Herzog & de Meuron are no strangers to plaudits. In 2001, when the practice had just a handful of completed major projects under their belt (amongst them the epochal Tate Modern), they were awarded the Pritzker prize, effectively the Nobel for architecture. Despite this superstardom, Jacques and Pierre don’t have the sort of swaggering, guru-ish public persona that usually comes with the territory. Compare their contemporary Pritzker winners, the defining starchitectural personalities of the turn of the century: Koolhaas, Hadid, Foster, Rogers, all have dabbled in the theatre of public debate about the built environment. Through policy documents, BBC appearances, blockbuster exhibitions, scandalising polemics, all have inhabited and performed a particular kind of caricature and have intensely advocated for what buildings should be.

That the name Herzog & de Meuron is much less evocative of any particular performative schtick is surely an important part of the brand. They have been conspicuously absent from public debates about the built environment in the UK, despite their prestigious commissions and profound influence on 21st-century taste. From the offset, their most celebrated quality has been a tasteful, deeply thought, comfortingly heavy mastery of materials combined with deft control of historical context. Nowhere is this more true than at Tate Modern, where the polished concrete and retained industrial flourishes of their initial renovation of the Bankside Power Station have given way to the faceted mass and brick lattice of the Blavatnik building. In 21st century Britain (rightly or wrongly), they signify something particularly continental, those qualities often lacking from new British buildings — careful, weighty, expensive detailing, spatial generosity and rich textures.

The Blavatnik Building, Tate Modern, London. Left: exterior. Right: interior. © Herzog & De Meuron

The firm is the subject of an exhibition this summer at the Royal Academy. Such exhibitions, about the work of large architectural practices mid-flow, inevitably walk a difficult tightrope: they rely on a close relationship between the institution and the subject, and all too often they become exercises in the extended universe of PR-chitecture. This exhibition does not fall foul of this trap, but it did also leave me wondering what exactly I was supposed to take away from it. Like the firm’s reputation it was slightly inscrutable, undemonstrative, and undidactic.

The first room is crammed with stacked tall vitrines, a veritable Wunderkammer of 21st century architectural production: balsa wood, blue foam, lego, ceramics, rammed earth and glass jostle for our attention. Alongside these ever so haptic displays tantalisingly out of reach, the exhibition offers a dive into augmented reality, with an app that uses your phone camera to project digital 3D models into the space in front of you. Most striking was the modelling of the services in the Elbphilharmonie, a vast warren of purple and yellow ducts bringing forced air into the belly of the building, betraying the soaring ecstatic purity of the façade. Herzog & de Meuron’s most iconic projects are made charmingly immediate through models both digital and analogue. Once you have seen the tiny handheld models that produced the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, even Andreas Gursky’s 10-foot-high prints in violent washed-out white and red cannot totally restore its monumentality.

Andreas Gursky's photograph of the interior of Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium. Photo: Matt Roberts.

Despite this comprehensive collection, there is no demarcation or explanation of what these objects and digital artefacts actually mean — everything from crude massing sketches to 1:1 scale construction mock-ups are presented in inexpressive continuity. When the digital artefacts stutter and disorientate, or you trip over a fellow gallery-visitor trying to look at the underside of a model, the spell is somewhat broken. At some point the impassivity becomes tiresome. Even if the curators have cast-off their responsibility to explain the cultural significance of these things, surely, they have a duty to describe what we are looking at and how it produces a building?

Augmented Reality: the exhibition makes extensive use of augmented reality through an app that uses your phone camera to project digital 3D models into the space in front of you. Photos: Matt Roberts.

Rarely have I seen such dispassionate and sparse curatorial language. This is not necessarily a problem, and certainly the desperation to connect with audiences — or to polish scholarly bonafides — leaves a surfeit of purple prose on many institutional walls. But the curatorial guidance here is so pared back, comprising no more than a few hundred words total, that you are left grasping for narrative or argument amongst platitudes and mundanities. This is the apogee of the firm’s ethos to show rather than tell, but it comprises a dereliction of duty on the part of the RA.

When the curators write that ‘the architecture is hinted at by the individual fragments’, they seem to realise that this show doesn’t quite cohere but are unwilling or unable to tell a story about the work that might mean anything to a general audience. This perhaps is the unique challenge of the contemporary architectural exhibition. The relationship between the processes of an architectural studio and the building in the world are disjointed and complex, mediated through interlocutors, collaborators and capital in a way that is less true of other art forms. Without interpretation, these ‘fragments’ are simply that, with little direction to understand the culture they reflect or the buildings they produce.

Schematic plan of the Kinderspital Zürich from the exhibition. Photo: Matt Roberts.

The last room focuses on an ongoing project, a vast children’s hospital complex in Zürich. The end wall is printed with an enormous and precise map of the construction and services of the building, exported from a Building Information Management system. It forces one quite suddenly to grapple with the immense complexity of contemporary construction, the endless terabytes of data that go into sustaining a project so huge and fractal. The inverse of this God’s-eye-view is offered with an extremely janky video-game simulation of a child running around the 3D rendered proposal model, and a 1:1 scale mockup of a hospital room façade, which through augmented reality can populate the space with furnishings and fittings. Speakers fitted too low on the wall replayed the reflections of designers and clients too quietly to be clear but too loudly to be undisruptive. I am not convinced I left with a better sense of what the hospital, when finished, will actually be like.

A video-game simulation of a child in the Kinderspital Zürich from the exhibition. Photo: Matt Roberts.

Far and away the best thing in the exhibition is right at its centre, a 37-minute film by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, a deep ethnography of a rehabilitation clinic in Basel built as one of the firm’s first projects and recently adapted. On my first pass through the exhibition, I stayed for a couple of minutes and passed on (as one often does with long-form video in an exhibition space).

The exhibition's middle room, a 37-minute film by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine on REHAB, Clinic for Neurorehabilitation and Paraplegiology, Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Matt Roberts.

I am so glad I returned to the second room to watch it in full. This brilliant film intersperses interviews with patients, the daily work of rehabilitation, and loving, lingering shots of the generously appointed facilities. A nameless narrator, perhaps one of the film-makers, conveys through titles their experience of rehab centres after their father’s car accident. “My childhood faded away in rehab centres, the worst spaces I have ever encountered.” The narrator wonders what a building like this might have done for their father, how it might have changed his experience of disability. Nowhere is this clearer than as the camera glides behind wheelchairs across long level floors of polished pine. The work of the film is to give profound meaning to the studio processes, models and detritus of the studio reified and laid out elsewhere in the exhibition. We feel the calm repose of a building produced through tireless effort to accommodate; not as legislative imposition or afterthought, but built deeply into the fabric itself. There is much to learn and consider in this practice’s work, but I am unconvinced that many will come to understand it better through this exhibition.


Matt Roberts is an architectural historian and a contributor at Curation Space

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