SPIEGEL Interview with Architect Herzog The Striking New Face of Hamburg

Architect Jacques Herzog has designed dozens of buildings together with his partner Pierre de Meuron. But his most controversial project to date, the Elbphilharmonie, is about to open in Hamburg. SPIEGEL spoke with Herzog about what the building's importance to the city.


Interview Conducted by Ulrike Knöfel

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herzog, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall has already reshaped Hamburg's skyline. Does an architect develop a kind of connection to a building as it is being built?

Herzog: Yes, it's a real relationship, almost a romantic relationship. You could say it's almost like those comets that sometimes come really close to the Earth. When the project is finished, you distance yourself and start orbiting on a different path. The proximity isn't there anymore. And somehow, I think it is really important for an architect to be unfaithful.


Herzog: As an architect I need to give everything and know that such a project will only last for a moment. After that, I need to turn to something else. And not only because, as an architect, I would like to push this building away, but because this building is also pushing me away. Once it is finished, it doesn't need the architect anymore, it doesn't live off him. The architect doesn't play a role any longer. It is its occupants and visitors that keep it alive.

SPIEGEL: Many Hamburg residents were excited by the design for the Elbphilharmonie, but many were also unhappy that its construction turned out to be much more expensive than planned. But now there does seem to be a certain amount of joyful anticipation. It has triggered several different emotions. Is that how architecture ultimately works, through feelings?

Herzog: It does indeed live from them. An architect must be able to design his buildings in such a manner that people accept it, so that it is, in fact, loved, looked after and maintained. Thus far, this project has managed to win people over through its appearance. We hope that it will trigger additional emotions, positive emotions, when the first notes are played during the premiere. That is decisive; that is how we evaluate ourselves. Because only then can we say with a clear conscience: Now the building is finished.

SPIEGEL: The musicians were excited after the first rehearsals.

Herzog: We managed to get the best acoustician in the world, Yasuhisa Tokyota from Japan. A great expert, but as an architect you also need to want to do something with his acoustic specifications.

About Jacques Herzog
  • Kostas Maros/13Photo/DER SPIEGEL
    In 1978, Jacques Herzog, 66, founded an architecture studio in Basel together with his partner Pierre de Meuron. The firm, Herzog and de Meuron, has completed around 140 projects since then. Their most important breakthrough came in 2000 with the completion of the Tate Modern in London, a modified power plant on the Thames. Allianz Arena stadium in Munich followed in 2005 and in 2008 came the National Stadium in Beijing. In Berlin, the architect duo is designing the extension of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie art museum while in Hamburg, the Elbphilharmonie is reaching completion -- at a cost to the city of around 800 million euros. The public plaza will be opened on Nov. 4.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean?

Herzog: It's not about saying: I'll put in a few panels so that the sound is decent. The acoustics need to be central, a strength of the design. The sound, ultimately, is what determines whether a concert hall works; it can be either wonderful or wooden or muffled. We have built stadiums, museums, apartment complexes and office buildings, but the Elbphilharmonie is our first concert hall. It is an especially big challenge and requires great sensitivity.

SPIEGEL: Would you still feel responsible if the public didn't accept the building?

Herzog: Yes, of course. It is our job as architects to keep working on something until it works. There are examples in architectural history where disappointment and disarray were the result, and buildings have even been demolished because of that. The world is merciless in that regard.

SPIEGEL: With reason?

Herzog: Absolutely! On the other hand, if people accept a building and see it as an improvement to their surroundings, if they see it as defining their city -- that is the best protection for these buildings, and it almost doesn't matter whether it's made of paper, wood or stone. This kind of protection ensures that buildings are preserved for generations.

SPIEGEL: Given the many disputes, were you always certain that you would be able to finish the Elbphilharmonie?

Herzog: In this case, the fact that it came together is nearly unbelievable. We have also experienced uncertainties with other projects, but this one shows, more than the others, that architecture is a question of patience. It's pure insanity how long it took! And because it ultimately ended up taking up as much of our lives as it did, there is also something sad about it. My son was born in 2001, when we started. Now he's as old as the project, 15.

SPIEGEL: The idea to build a concert hall came from the private developer Alexander Gérard. He is the one who approached you.

Herzog: Yes, and already in our first meeting in 2001, the idea that you can see today emerged: to use the Kaispeicher (a former warehouse) as a pedestal and place something on top of it that, in contrast to the archaic solidity of the storehouse, had a very different, expressive form.

SPIEGEL: Several of your previous projects have triggered debates, but none as big as the one surrounding the Elbphilharmonie. What was at stake for you?

Herzog: It was a dangerous situation for us, and we had to confront it. But it made us stronger.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Herzog: When the project began, we were not a small office anymore, thank God. We had had to work with lawyers, economists and various other experts before -- even with entire committees. But the Elbphilharmonie was on a different scale, and it became clearer to us than ever that architects must be able to justify and take responsibility for each step -- at any time. Everything needs to be constantly laid out on the table. In that early phase, my partner Pierre de Meuron made an extraordinary contribution to the realization and current success of the project. This approach forces you to adopt a kind of candor that isn't necessarily required of the others who are involved. But that's not all.

SPIEGEL: What else?

Herzog: You must first learn as an architect to ruthlessly question yourself: Is this really the right way? Do we have to do it like that? Can we do it like that? You need to be radically honest, otherwise you've lost. I'm deliberately not saying that for moralistic reasons, but because architecture, as we understand it, forces us into this nakedness.

SPIEGEL: That sounds almost mystical, but the disputes focused on concrete sums of money. A parliamentary investigative committee came to the conclusion that the key mistakes were made by the developers, the City of Hamburg, that the project's tender came too early and was too vague. Do you feel like a victim of these circumstances?

Herzog: We never feel like victims. That would really be misplaced.

SPIEGEL: But you and Pierre de Meuron were often turned into the bogeymen. Many said that even renowned architects like you can't plan or do math.

Herzog: Of course it is unpleasant when you are blamed for things over which you only have minimal influence. Fundamentally, though, I think it's a difficult challenge for a democratic government to take on the role of developer for a project of this size.


Herzog: A city is not made to be a developer. When I build a private house, the client takes responsibility because he wants to be able to climb into the bathtub in his house at the time specified. He is directly affected. In a case like the Elbphilharmonie, much of the responsibility for construction is delegated -- and it then depends on how well everything is structured and managed, how one is connected with the others involved. Developers coming from the political world, we as planners and then the construction company -- we had never before experienced this level of complexity. And it wasn't up to us to establish these structures.

SPIEGEL: The idea was born in 2001 and initial sketches were released in 2003. When construction began in 2007, the city's share of the construction costs for the concert hall was pegged at 114 million euros. In the end, though, it ballooned to almost 800 million euros. If everything had gone according to plan, what would the Elbphilharmonie have cost? Would it really have been just 114 million?

Herzog: I think it was surely absurd to assume the initial low sum when building a concert hall of this size. But if I were to name a concrete number, it would again be too high or too low or would be misinterpreted. Much more important, I think, is the question as to what the city will get from it in the future. It could be that the building will have such a significant influence on the city that suddenly everything will be seen in a different light and be put in perspective. That, of course, is our great hope.

SPIEGEL: You have changed entire cities with your buildings. That happened in London, for example, with your construction of the Tate Modern. It enhanced the status of a city that was already seen as an art metropolis. Will Hamburg change too? And what might such a change look like?

Herzog: That is a key point. Hamburg is a European city, which means it is a city with a scale defined by four-, five- and six-story buildings, by church towers that protrude above, by squares and parks and then you have the wonderful Alster. It is an unbelievably beautiful city that is clearly definable. HafenCity, where the Elbphilharmonie is located, opens a whole new chapter for the city because from an urban spatial perspective, it turns in a completely different direction -- away from the Alster and toward the mouth of the Elbe, essentially toward the sea. A completely new space opens up.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean?

Herzog: At the location where it stands, the Elbphilharmonie doesn't seem monumental even though it is a large building. It is located in this other spatial context. It is the starting point for Hamburg's development into a different city.

SPIEGEL: What kind of city?

Herzog: Germany has several large cities of global importance, such as Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich. All of these cities have their own imprint and their own qualities, an impression that has only strengthened in the last several decades. Surely, this building will allow Hamburg to become a greater player in this competition.

SPIEGEL: How will that manifest itself? Classical music of the kind that will be on offer in the Elbphilharmonie tends to attract fewer people than modern art.

Herzog: Hamburg isn't like London, with its myriad tourists. But it is still clear that Hamburg can expect to receive more visitors than it has thus far and it will receive more attention in the world of music. Of course a concert hall is made for a much more limited group than a museum. In a museum -- particularly in London -- you sometimes don't even have to pay admission, you can just go in and out as you like. That's why we adopted this element from the Tate Modern: Visitors can go into the Elbphilharmonie even without a concert ticket. You can take an escalator up to a public level and can hang out right in the heart of the building. We think it is great when cultural buildings are available to all and not just for those who understand Beethoven or who want to gaze at Picassos.

SPIEGEL: Does it bother you that the surrounding city quarter, the entire HafenCity, is less sophisticated, less intimate than your Elbphilharmonie?

Herzog: Cities are always day-to-day. There are cultural buildings, there are important business campuses, and in between there is the normal city. And there are, of course, better and worse quarters. Unfortunately, I have to say that the older quarters are normally the most beautiful. Quarters that have developed over time have more charm and class.

SPIEGEL: The same holds true for Hamburg?

Herzog: Of course, but it's a global phenomenon. It is important that beacons are continually established in this mush, in these newly developed areas.

SPIEGEL: The completion of the Elbphilharmonie is happening at a moment when many are demanding a more modest style of architecture, one that fills a social purpose. Hostels for refugees, for example. Does your building, with its imposing, radiant aura, still fit into this present?

Herzog: It is clear that the building would not be commissioned today, and for precisely that reason. Political and economic conditions have changed -- the broad societal weather patterns are different.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean for the reception of your concert hall?

Herzog: I think it is totally okay that other, more socially oriented questions are taking center stage today. But this project is still a contribution to the city, because it is an expression of its spirit. Just like churches used to stand for something and just like skyscrapers represent an economic boom, this concert hall also expresses something. This city is about culture, about the urban bourgeoisie. In a city like Hamburg, each quarter represents different societal conditions: there is the late-19th century pompousness or Protestant simplicity. And now there is a new benchmark. But there isn't a right or wrong.


Herzog: No, not even in aesthetic questions. I, for example, have hardly any aesthetic or stylistic preferences. So-called good taste is often nothing more than the result of a limited view of the world. Today, it has become much more difficult for everybody to accept the validity of differing opinions, mentalities and tastes -- diversity, in other words. Instead, we have exclusion, people who stay among themselves. The result of that are exclusionary cities, gated cities.

SPIEGEL: In many cities, your buildings have led to a rapid rise in property prices in their immediate surroundings. The same could happen in Paris, where you are planning to build one of the city's tallest buildings. That could also happen in Berlin, where you are responsible for the master plan for the development of the area around Tacheles (the famous former art center that emerged in eastern Berlin after the fall of the Wall that closed several years ago). And that will happen in Hamburg. You are the engine of rapid gentrification.

Herzog: Are you certain? We are talking here about a socio-economic problem that our architecture merely makes particularly evident. As architects, we cannot solve this problem, but we must be aware of it because we are involved in these urban transformational processes. An investor or a city invests a great deal of effort, lands a big-name architect and he then designs a great building. For a functioning society, however, it is also important that other forces can unfold, those that make space available for communal or alternative living. Only in that way can a city be successful. And even the so-called upscale districts profit. A radical example is the Tate in London. You can't find any residential areas in the neighborhood anymore where normal people live. There are residential towers where wealthy people have their second or third residences and are therefore unoccupied for most of the time. Pure investments.

SPIEGEL: There have allegedly been complaints from neighbors because museum-goers can look into their living rooms. Newspapers around the world have reported on it.

Herzog: The residential towers were built there because the Tate Modern transformed the quarter into a hip district. Now, a few people who moved into a completely transparent glass tower are complaining that people can see inside from the museum. That is completely absurd! In the postwar era, we had an unbelievable phase of balance in many European cities, where the middle classes and those who earned less could take part in society, in culture too and apartments and other services. To sustain that, we need a pragmatic democracy free of ideology. But where can you find such a thing?

SPIEGEL: Many of your fellow architects seem to have adopted an extreme mannerist style. The newly built Louis Vuitton Foundation museum designed by Frank Gehry in Paris looks like a hyper-expressive cartoon cloud. The new station at Ground Zero in New York was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is a cathedral-esque, oversized steel skeleton. What do you think of such disproportionate forms?

Herzog: We don't see architecture as excess. There are places where it doesn't matter if a building is taller than the one next to it. Dubai defined itself that way and other cities are now doing so as well. This rapid proliferation of skyscrapers, though, hasn't had a positive influence on cities like London. It brought growth, but not a new character.

SPIEGEL: You have erected buildings in many places, but have lived almost your whole life in a single city: Basel. Your partner, Pierre de Meuron, is an old friend from school.

Herzog: A nomadic lifestyle wouldn't have worked and we also don't need it for our architecture, which always has a grounded, archaic element to it.

SPIEGEL: Is that why your buildings look different from those designed by other architects?

Herzog: We don't want to make that judgment ourselves. If it makes sense to do so, we also create extravagant forms and spaces, but these structures also still have a significant degree of normality. The Tate Modern is a former power plant and for its extension -- the Switch House -- we opened up the subterranean tanks and integrated them into the museum as exhibition spaces. The heavy beams and the twisting walls were already there, so they seem much more natural than they would have if we had conjured them up with a computer. The same is true of the Elbphilharmonie. The futuristic glass structure is much more powerful, of course, because the old brick pedestal beneath provides a foundation. It's better than if it were just sitting on the street.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herzog, we thank you for this interview.

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Inglenda2 11/03/2016
1. Self made impoverishment
Yet another horrible building, built with the money of many, but useful only to a small minority. Other examples are to be found all across Germany. The museum in Herford, or Kesselbrink in Bielefeld are just two more examples of the enormous misuse of taxes. At the same time, German local councils are complaining of a lack of funds.
afrikaneer 01/02/2017
2. An Expression Of Beauty And Character
From the drawings in caverns to the outstanding Elbe Philharmonic Hall, humanity continues using art to communicate emotions and character. Once, I stop in the Hamburg Airport on my way to Warsaw; the atmosphere was business-like, functional but serious and cold. Fifteen years or so later, Architect Herzog captured the German efficiency and added to the Hamburg skyline the magnificent silhouette of a cultural building that warms the heart just seeing it in photos.
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