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Swiss Pair Win Pritzker Prize

Architecture * Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, designers of London's Tate Modern, take the field's top award.

April 02, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the architects of the celebrated Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London, have won the 2001 Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor.

Based in Basel, Switzerland, the team has recently landed a string of high-profile commissions, including London's Laban Dance Theatre, the expansion of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the De Young Museum in San Francisco, scheduled for completion in 2004.

But it is the Tate Modern that has brought them worldwide recognition. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station along the Thames River, the museum pushes the notion of art of the masses to its extreme. Its broad entry ramps and enormous turbine hall serve as massive social condensers, whisking hordes of art viewers through the building. The museum is perhaps the most important work of architecture to rise in London since St. Paul's Cathedral, which stands directly across the river.

"It was wonderful to hear we got the prize," Herzog said in a telephone interview from Basel. "It is already a very good moment for us. We have projects on every continent. Maybe it will allow us to explore new kinds of subjects, to expand our research."

Pritzker juror Jorge Silvetti said: "They belong so clearly to the Swiss tradition of craftsmanship and spatial simplicity. But they have discovered ways of manufacturing and using materials that no one has seen before--like their silk-screening of concrete surfaces. It is profound work."

Herzog and De Meuron, both 50, met in a Basel playground when they were 7 and often recount stories about designing together with Lego and Meccano bricks as young children. In 1975, they graduated from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich--then considered one of the most progressive of European design schools--and opened their practice in 1978.

Among their early influences was Aldo Rossi, the Italian architect who was an advocate of a Postmodern, historically based architecture. Rossi's influence can be seen in the simple, even primitive, forms of many of Herzog and De Meuron's early designs--a block-like house with a pitched roof, a gallery that glows like a translucent light-box.

But Rossi never matched Herzog and De Meuron's range, and ultimately the duo may have more in common with artists such as Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. Working like conceptual artists, they are known for treating seemingly conventional forms and materials in unexpected ways--allowing water stains to show on concrete surfaces, experimenting with the reflective qualities of glass. The goal is to force us to see familiar ideas with a new, unexpected clarity.

The main facade of the 1985 Schutzenmattstrasse apartment building in Basel, for example, is entirely hidden behind an enormous steel grate with a pattern of wavy, vertical bands. During the day, the grate gives the building a tough, gritty look. At night, it has a softer, fabric-like quality. But the grate is also loaded with conceptual meaning. Modeled on the city's sewage grates, it transforms an object associated with urban ugliness into an emblem of high elegance.

Later projects evoke the same blend of industrial grit and urban elegance. In a 1989 design for a railway signal box at Auf dem Wolf, the architects wrapped the squat building in endless bands of copper. The copper serves a functional purpose, protecting the electronic equipment inside. But it also gives the building a haunting quality. The bands are slightly twisted, allowing light to flow into the tiny offices inside and creating a subtle bulge on the exterior, as if the building were humming with life.

Similarly, at the Dominus Winery in Napa Valley, completed in 1998, the building's stark, low form is built out of wire frames stuffed with rocks and supported on a steel frame. The mortarless structure allows air to filter through the building, cooling the wine. Beams of light stream through the rock walls, flickering across interior surfaces.

All of these projects reveal a deep understanding of material. Concrete, stone and copper become tools for sensitizing us to our immediate environment and, in the process, an antidote to the numbing effects of daily existence.

"Our work is about research," Herzog said. "It is always shifting; it is not about one style. In each project, we start from the beginning again."

At the Tate, these notions are fused into Herzog and De Meuron's first truly important public work. Visitors enter the museum down huge ramps and arrive at an enormous, 115-foot-tall former turbine hall. The hall's raw, concrete walls evoke the abandoned machines of the Industrial Age, but the sense of interior movement is closer to a subway at rush hour. Visitors are swept into the building and then funneled up to the galleries, as if they were being swallowed up by a big, churning machine. In effect, the building is a play on notions of intimacy--the intimacy of the crowd versus the intimacy we share with a work of art.

In recent projects, the architects have begun to create spaces that are more formally complex. The main level of the Kramlich Residence, for example, now under construction in Napa Valley, is designed as a series of undulating glass walls that intersect to create rooms. And a multiplex cinema in Basel is designed as a series of layered, folding planes.

"Rossi once said that architecture is architecture," Herzog said. "It is so stupid and smart at the same time. For example, nothing is as beautiful as an electronic image if you have never seen it before. But architecture has a smell, a scale, a tactile quality--it is even stupidly physical. And it can go beyond that. And then the electronic image seems dumb and flat--an experience that lasts an instant."

The award will be presented May 7 at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate in Virginia.

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