An architecture of the senses

Birdsong, Ricola candy, a fragrance called Rotterdam, sketch models, material studies, video installations: all feature in the exhibition ‘No. 250 an exhibition beauty and waste in the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron’ on show at the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

Everything that Herzog & de Meuron do is experimental. In October 2002 the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal opened an exhibition called Herzog & de Meuron: Archeology of the Mind. The concept devised by curator Philip Ursprung and Herzog & de Meuron was an answer to the often-posed question: how can you exhibit architecture when you cannot see the original object? On display in the gallery were no presentation models but, rather, study models, material studies, stones and shells. Works by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Gerard Richter rather than plans and sections covered the walls. Not a single reference to realised buildings. Instead, the display focused on the sources that inspired the built forms and the treatment of materials. Archeology of the Mind was a 1:1 architectural exhibition that revealed something of the office's design approach. Herzog & de Meuron use the term phenomenological to describe that approach; their starting point is the intuitive and unconditional experience of phenomena as they present themselves. The Montreal show was founded on a similar phenomenological premise. But the concept was given a cool reception by most critics, who felt the exhibition was too abstract. 'Time will tell if it turns out to be a minor contemporary art show or a landmark architectural exhibition' wrote David Theodore in the Canadian Architect. After Montreal, Archeology of the Mind was scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh and Rotterdam. Whether it was down to the lukewarm reviews or the fact that loans couldn't be secured for artworks, the exhibition never travelled. So Herzog & de Meuron made a new exhibition: No. 250; An exhibition beauty and waste in the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron. It opened in May 2004 in the Schaulager building they designed in Basle (Switzerland).

Now the exhibition is on display, albeit in a smaller version, at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. A difference between the Archeology of the Mind and No. 250 is that less is expected and required intellectually from visitors to the latter. Yet Herzog & de Meuron insist that architecture cannot be exhibited, and in No. 250  they show a way to represent architecture. Displayed on tables in the main gallery of the NAi are Beauty (the essence of the object) and Waste (what the object also is, namely the waste matter produced during the design process) arranged per project. The tables of recent projects in particular are laden down with study models, samples of materials, and reference images and assorted other objects. The relation between the objects on the table is understandable, even for visitors unfamiliar with Herzog & de Meuron. Only a discreetly placed snapshot photo, added reluctantly it almost seems, hints at the relationship between the objects on the table and the finished building. This exhibition doesn't portray the architect as a big artist who comes up with the perfect form in a burst of creative inspiration. The tables reveal the endless process of trial and error that goes into shaping the definitive form and material. Throughout the exhibition, the waste of the design process is left exposed so that the public can feel, smell and taste the material.

The exhibition also includes work by different artists. Unlike the exhibition Archeology of the Mind, No. 250 features work by artists directly connected to Herzog & de Meuron. Among them are Thomas Ruff, who photographed work by the architects, and Zilla Leutenegger and Armin Linke who made video installations in which the work of Herzog & de Meuron provides the decor. Aim: to contemplate architecture in another way.

'We don't believe in entertainment in art or architecture,' asserted Jacques Herzog in an interview. All the same, No. 250 is a festive affair: the Bronboek Schaulager represented as Gerard Richter's Atlas of Collages, Photographes, and Sketches, Sweet Dreams (prehistoric Swiss discoveries as Ricola candy accompanied by a 'don't touch' sign), and a perfume called Rotterdam that smells of water from the Rhine, hash, dog, fur, algae and mandarin – a serious exhibit that also pokes fun at the glamour and star status of architects.

'No architect has ever been allowed to design a scent by a major house. Why? An architect's name may be well known in the media, but not in a way that the perfume houses think is valuable. Some day this may change because it makes sense and it is obvious that architecture is related to scents. Scents have a strong spatial and emotional effect on everybody, ' said Jacques Herzog in 1997.

It's highly unlikely that a building by Herzog & de Meuron will ever appear in Rotterdam because of the tight construction budgets here. And considering the buildings put up by Renzo Piano and Norman Foster, that's not so regrettable. But walking through Rotterdam, the visitor to the No. 250 exhibition will always associate the scent of the city with Herzog & de Meuron. And ultimately, a scent and a fond memory of an exhibition are preferable to a pastiche building.