Herzog on Building Beijing's Olympic Stadium 'Only an Idiot Would Have Said No'

Star architect Jacques Herzog, the man behind the new Olympic Stadium in Beijing, tells SPIEGEL his arena is a subversive place where people can meet in locations not easily monitored by officials. He also defends his decision to build for a regime criticized for human rights violations.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herzog, in the coming weeks billions of people watching the Olympics will be looking at your architecture. You can claim to have built the world's most famous arena. Where will you be sitting during the opening ceremony in Beijing?

Herzog: I have no idea. Until a few months ago, we didn't even know whether we would be invited to the festivities at all.

SPIEGEL: You can't be serious! Your structure is one of the government's favorite projects. The stadium is already being depicted on currency.

Herzog: It just happens to be the case that in China, you can never be quite sure how anything will turn out. Over the years, we were often completely perplexed, because we couldn't gauge how our design was being received. What was missing was a clear response. But everything fell nicely into place in the end.

SPIEGEL: Your sports arena has been received with great enthusiasm, and with precisely the broad recognition that your clients were seeking. But what happens if a political scandal overshadows the Olympic Games? Couldn't that ruin your reputation just as easily?

Herzog: That's far too speculative. The question you are really asking is why we even accepted a commission in a country, a dictatorship, that doesn't accept human rights. Should we be permitted to do this or not?

SPIEGEL: And, are you permitted?

Herzog: Yes. We are now convinced that building there was the right decision. We too cannot accept the disregard for human rights in any form whatsoever. However, we do believe that some things have opened up in this country. We see progress. And we should continue from that point. We do not wish to overemphasize our role, but the stadium is perhaps a component of this path, or at least a small stone.

SPIEGEL: But it's also an important mosaic piece in the way the Chinese portray themselves.

Herzog: Who else but architects should be familiar with the effects of buildings? But there is also such a thing as an inwardly directed effect. The stadium is a good example of this. In fact, it achieves the maximum of what architecture can achieve.

SPIEGEL: Because it is so popular among the people?

Herzog: We normally don't think in terms of symbols, but the stadium has become one. This building is literally adored. The Chinese themselves describe it as one of their most important cultural monuments, on par with the Great Wall of China. They identify with it and call it the bird's nest. In essence, who built it is no longer relevant.

SPIEGEL: Well, that can't exactly be in your best interest.

Herzog: Yes, it can, because it attests to a high degree of acceptance. For us, this stadium is more than just a building. It's a part of a city. Vision is always such a big word, but our vision was to create a public space, a space for the public, where social life is possible, where something can happen, something that can, quite deliberately, be subversive or -- at least -- not easy to control or keep track of.

SPIEGEL: Your architecture as an act of resistance? Aren't you exaggerating?

Herzog: No. We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse. We fulfilled the spatial program we were given, but interpreted it in such a way that it can be used in different ways along it perimeters. As a result, we made everyday meeting places possible in locations that are not easily monitored, places with all kinds of niches and smaller segments. In other words, no public parade grounds.

SPIEGEL: They exist in front of the arena.

Herzog: But the stadium itself is more like a mountain with all kinds of different routes and paths where people can run into each other in unexpected ways. Although we have done similar things with museums in London and Barcelona, in a country like China these kinds of urban spaces acquire a different, almost political meaning. We think that many people in Beijing will understand it this way and use it for their pleasure, because the Chinese generally value public space -- more, at any rate, than we have observed elsewhere.

SPIEGEL: You engaged the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, known in Germany since the last Documenta art festival, as a cultural advisor. But he does not plan to attend the opening ceremony because, as he says, he cannot abide national self-congratulation.

Herzog: He also demonstratively refused to visit the construction site, even though he could hardly contain his curiosity. Ai Weiwei is deeply enthusiastic about the project. But I understand it when he, as an artist critical of the regime, keeps his distance from anything that could be seen as an endorsement of the regime's policies.

SPIEGEL: These games are unique, precisely because they are taking place in a country with such a controversial regime like China's. It's obvious that the architect who creates the structural frame for this event will be in the global limelight. Did this make the commission so tempting as to override moral reservations?

Herzog: Only an idiot -- and not a person who thinks in moral terms would have turned down this opportunity -- would have said no. I know that there are architects who now claim that they would never have even considered building in China. This is both a naïve and arrogant position, one that reflects a lack of knowledge of and respect for the incredible cultural achievements this country has continuously provided over the last 5,000 years and still provides today.

SPIEGEL: Isn't this an excessively positive standpoint, given the recent political turbulence? Some of your colleagues aren't as charitable.

Herzog: In the last few years, in particular, we have experienced the emergence of a new generation of artists, architects and intellectuals, and they have the ability to change the society in a lasting way. Playing a role in shaping this new era is far more interesting and probably even more moral than taking part in a boycott from one's desk. We aren't just referring to architects in this regard, but also to other creative figures. Steven Spielberg agreed early on to be the artistic advisor for the opening ceremony, and then he withdrew, essentially at the last minute, because the regime was no longer to his liking ...

SPIEGEL: ... in February 2008.

Herzog: It just smells like cheap propaganda, first agreeing to take part in this sort of event and then cancelling for a current political reason that was predictable. China has not become less democratic and does not respect human rights less than it did before. China is still a long way from what we in the West expect, but the establishment of a broad, new intellectual class is a hopeful sign of change.

SPIEGEL: Really? The Tibetan conflict aside, critics are still harassed just as much as they were in the past, under the guise of a supposed liberalization.

Herzog: From our perspective, the society has in fact become freer and more diverse. But many refuse to see this, because they measure everything against our democratic conditions, which are unique and rare and, especially in central Europe, not even all that old. The interesting thing about architecture is that it exists, in a very physical and concrete way, becomes part of the history of a society and can help shape this society. Seen in this light, withdrawals and boycotts are less credible contributions.

'It's not within our Power to Change Conditions for Migrant Workers'

SPIEGEL: Couldn't a solid political contribution have consisted in accepting the commission and saying: Okay, we'll build you the country's most important contemporary structure, but in return we demand that the migrant workers be paid four times as much as the going rate?

Herzog: This project was a huge struggle, with many imponderable elements. What we call dialogue is not common there. We were mainly interested in issues of copyright law, the most elementary questions of mutual respect and, of course, ensuring that everything would be built in the way we designed it.

SPIEGEL: A full roof was dispensed with, for reasons of cost.

Herzog: There are always changes during a planning process. The issue with the roof was very convenient for us. And the fact that the rest of the original concept was executed almost seems like a miracle to us.

SPIEGEL: And the migrant workers?

Herzog: No one can approve of the miserable conditions under which people work there. It isn't just the migrant workers, but the entire factory system in China, which produces jeans, shirts and toys for the world, that works under such conditions. It is not within our power to change the conditions for migrant workers, nor is it our responsibility. We have nothing to do with the organization of the construction site, neither in China nor any place else in the world. The architect is increasingly unwelcome on the construction site, because he is simply in the way there and tries to interfere and change things.

SPIEGEL: Excuse me, but your firm is the most sought-after architecture firm in the world. We find it hard to believe that you are unable to exert any influence whatsoever.

Herzog: We can always exchange a few friendly words with the mayor, but the realities have changed in construction management. We are dealing with a world that, paradoxically enough, is often at odds with the architecture. On the one hand, the architect is highly respected, and architecture also has the capacity to bring about radical social change. On the other hand, the architect's influence on the course of construction is declining rapidly.

SPIEGEL: But wouldn't you have protested if your design had been touched and spoiled aesthetically?

Herzog: Well, that is the area where people still listen to us, if they listen to us at all. Architects, especially the few who create projects of global stature like the stadium, are very prominent. But they are losing influence in day-to-day construction operations. One rarely succeeds at offsetting losses in other areas, except perhaps when it comes to urban development, where we are still given a freer hand.

SPIEGEL: Are there regimes for which you would not build under any circumstances?

Herzog: It would be far too easy to say: Well, of course we would never build in North Korea. Before we accept a commission, we ask ourselves whether we can achieve something that goes beyond the commercial. Our strength is to develop buildings that permit contradictions. We refuse to take part in projects that permit only one use, one form of interpretation, perhaps even an ideological interpretation. No one in Beijing asked us to deliver an ideological building.

SPIEGEL: You acquired a special status long ago, and you can do things that others would never be allowed to do. You are planning a giant pyramid for Paris, and Switzerland's tallest skyscraper for the quiet little city of Basel. You have triggered euphoric feelings among Hamburg's otherwise cool residents with a proposal for the cloud- and wave-shaped Elbphilharmonie concert hall, despite the fact the project is as fantastic as it is unreasonable.

Herzog: Why do you say that?

SPIEGEL: Many experts doubt that this concert hall will attract large enough audiences, because there isn't enough interest in classical music in Hamburg. How will you bring people in?

Herzog: The truth is that the project is unique in Europe, because its development was akin to an act of piracy. First there was a private initiative, followed by the enthusiasm of Hamburg residents, and only then came the politicians. This is astonishing in such a commercial environment strongly influenced by Protestantism. This makes it especially clear that our architecture can only seduce people with beauty if there are rational arguments, too.

SPIEGEL: What are they?

Herzog: The Elbphilharmonie is important for the new HafenCity district, because it will be one of the few places that are not purely commercial. We believe that the utilization concept will succeed. Without such a cultural anchor and the appropriate architecture, this new city within a city  would be perceived as something less valuable, something inferior to the traditional downtown area along the Alster Lake.

SPIEGEL: But the pleasant sense of anticipation in Hamburg is gradually subsiding as the cost of the project grows. The estimated cost already exceeds €241 million ($374 million), and it continues to rise. In fact, it makes the Beijing Olympic Stadium, at an estimated cost of €316 million ($490 million), seem relatively inexpensive by comparison.

Herzog: That's purely the result of the vast differences in wages between Germany and China. In fact, we were just talking about the poorly paid migrant workers. Besides, a stadium is relatively primitive in terms of its interior, while a concert hall is a highly demanding project, especially because of the acoustic requirements.

SPIEGEL: You work around the world, and you have been able to create spectacular structures. Have you achieved everything?

Herzog: No, but for the past two years Pierre de Meuron and I have been paying more and more attention to one question, namely: How do we work today, and what will we want and be able to do in 10 or 20 years? How can we hold younger architects to account? And how do we adjust our organizational form to conform to the changes?

SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting a withdrawal? That would come as a shock to the world of architecture.

Herzog: Most of all, we want to shock ourselves and our people with such scenarios and questions.

SPIEGEL: Aha. What will Herzog & de Meuron look like in 2030?

Herzog: Pierre and I want to continue to be involved in our old age. But that can only happen if the firm is capable of functioning well without us. This means that young people from around the world work for us around the world. This cooperation among different generations could also be a model for society.

SPIEGEL: You are thinking in historical terms. That's very self-confident.

Herzog: Not when it comes to our work. We don't think in historical terms, but in contemporary terms. How are architecture, the city and the landscape changing today? This affects our lives directly and those of the people who use our buildings. Everyone knows how rarely contemporary architecture functions and is accepted. This is also a constant source of uncertainty for us, which makes the success of a building like the Bird's Nest in Beijing all the more incredible. People have accepted it with an unbelievable amount of joy. No one can force that on them. It's simply there. Even in a dictatorship like China.

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

Interview conducted by Ulrike Knöfel and Susanne Beyer. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

Mehr lesen über

Verwandte Artikel

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.