Shared drawings from childhood

Architecture's highest honor won by Swiss pair of friends.

The Pritzker Architectural Prize for 2001 will be presented to a team of architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, of Switzerland, on May 7 at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va.

It's the first time architects from Switzerland have won the esteemed prize, and it's only the second time two architects will share the honor the same year. The prize includes a medal and $100,000.

As Thomas J. Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, explained, "Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron work so closely together that each one complements the abilities of the other."

It would be almost unthinkable not to make the honor in tandem, for Herzog and de Meuron were born the same year, 1950; in the same town, Basel, Switzerland; attended the same schools; began their architectural careers together, and formed a company in 1978 in Basel.

From the age of 6, these childhood friends spent part of their playtime drawing things that were around them. According to Mr. Herzog: "We were both fascinated by movement, decoration, color. By the time we were 10, we were making miniature carousels and other models."

Today, that same fascination and enthusiasm power their architecture. It is represented around the world: from a corporate building in Japan to a winery in California; from a library in Germany to expanding the Walker Museum in Minnesota; from a stone house in Italy to a huge urban complex in Spain; from a house on stilts in France to an art museum and a dance center in England to a railway engine depot in Switzerland and a museum and cultural center in the Canary Islands.

"Although we've always been friends," Herzog confided, "we share many different interests. We weren't destined to work together. I was interested in soccer, then when I entered the university, I took biology and chemistry. I was frustrated, for my two great interests were natural history to become a scientist, and art to be an artist. Pierre wanted to be a civil engineer. Finally, after a year in school, we decided to study architecture. We felt it was a combination of communication, drawing, construction, and research. It opened up a world for us."

These doors are still opening. The Tate Modern, built on the Southbank of the Thames in London, was an old dinosaur, a long unused power plant. It was surrounded by a decaying, lackluster neighborhood. The new Tate, which opened last year to great critical acclaim, has not only opened a window to art and culture, but has transformed the Southbank into one of the most exciting areas in London.

"Early in our careers, we designed several industrial buildings. There's small opportunity to make great changes in what an industrial space should be, so we focused more on surfaces and textures. We wanted to show what incredible beauty can be given industrial sites and spaces," says Herzog.

A railway utility in Basel boasts an exterior cladding of copper strips. "The building resembles copper-wrapped boxes, which night or day are really gorgeous.

"They appear very different with changing light and seasons. Recently in Tokyo, we did the headquarters for Prada, and that exterior looks like a many-faceted diamond. We discovered new qualities in plastic and synthetic materials, like glass fibers and fiber optics that added excitement to the project, as well as stimulated our search for new materials," Herzog says.

"One of our major projects, a winery in Napa Valley, Calif., has a heavy, almost archaic exterior It could be a traditional 2,000-year-old building, but as you come closer, the stone becomes almost like lace, and is totally light- filled and seems light in weight as well."

Both agree they want to use matter and materials in new and unexpected ways.

"Just like in nature," Herzog says, "there is an ongoing process of change and transformation. This is why architecture remains fascinating."

It's also why they have written so many books. They want to share their ideas not only for buildings but urban growth and culture.

Currently, they are working on "one of our greatest challenges - building the De Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park." Since the last earthquake practically destroyed the museum, they envision building a whole new structure.

"The design is to engage the natural setting in a much richer, more complex way. We are adding a twisted tower, also a copper-clad building. It's an amazingly interesting project for us," says Herzog.

Both Herzog and Mr. de Meuron are visiting professors at Harvard. "Our architectural project this year is Barcelona, Spain. We show the students what we are working on, it's called the Forum 2004. Our building is both a cultural project, a conference hall, and a mixed-used kind of complex."

According to the newest Pritzker laureates, their goal is "to look at the world, even though it's not perfect, and find love for it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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