From the Summer 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
The Roche Building 1 is an improbable, elegant, white wedge of a building 41 storeys high, which sails over the pleasant Mittel-European city of Basel. It was the tallest building in Switzerland until last year, when Building 1 lost its elevated position nationally to the 50-storey Building 2, an almost identical white wedge set at a 90-degree angle on the opposite side of the road. From the tops of these towers, the founders of the firm who designed them, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, can look down and make out the homes where they grew up.
Few architects have had such a large impact on their home city as Herzog & de Meuron. It may be known as an internationally successful architecture practice, but its founders have a fierce pride in Basel, having designed around 40 of its buildings. In addition to the towers, they’ve expanded its major concert hall and built its football stadium, they’ve masterplanned its creative districts, they’ve built its futuristic aluminium-clad exhibition hall, which hosts Art Basel, the world’s pre-eminent art fair. It’s a huge horizontal building with a gross floor area of over 83,000 square metres, which floats out above the streetscape, like an elevated railway station; a piece of modern infrastructure.
Indeed, when it comes to their relationship with Basel, one probably has to step not just out of architectural history but into the realms of French Romantic novels to find parallels: Victor Hugo perhaps. Jacques Herzog though is a man not given to flights of sentimentality. ‘We built the most in the part of the city we grew up in, Kleinbasel. It has a totally new topography, like you couldn’t transform it more… That’s psychologically interesting.’ He smiles. ‘It’s almost as if we are reversing our history.’
Yet with their first retrospective exhibition in nearly 20 years about to open at the RA, some self-reflection is inevitable, even if for Jacques Herzog – the composed, driven spokesperson for the partnership – it is unusual. ‘As an architect you work on projects for such a long time, you often kill your memories of them. It’s like when you have a dream and then you speak about that dream to the first person you meet and it’s like a bubble that evaporates.’ Even so, the possibility that a nexus of his personal and professional lives lies somewhere out on Basel’s Grenzacherstrasse plays on him. ‘It is weird,’ he admits.
Herzog & de Meuron certainly arrived at the perfect place at the perfect time. Jacques and Pierre met in 1956, aged six, at primary school, and although they went different ways for a spell – Jacques to university to read biology and chemistry, and Pierre to do his military service and from thence to study engineering – they both disliked their chosen paths. ‘Talking on the phone, we both decided to do architecture because it was a bit of everything,’ says Herzog. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology they studied under the great Italian architect Aldo Rossi. When their final diploma loomed, they opted to do it together and have never really parted since, clocking up almost 50 years of partnership.
Meanwhile the wider region of Basel – which did not experience the post-war boom of, say, Zurich, largely because it was divided between three countries – was ready to expand. With the rapprochements that led to the Schengen Agreement – which Switzerland signed even though it is not an EU member – Basel could resolve the strange inconsistencies of its urban layout. The architects reached maturity just as the city was ready to grow upwards as well as outwards. They have 600 staff members working worldwide today, but it feels as if their first partner from the very beginning was the city of Basel itself.