BERLIN — From the converted industrial space of the Tate Modern in London to the polygonal, copper-clad de Young in San Francisco, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have broken new ground in museum design. They come to the trade naturally: Encounters with visual artists were crucial to the development of an aesthetic that is as inventive and stylish as it is sleek and restrained.
But museums by no means make up the bulk of the partnership’s work; Herzog & de Meuron has established itself as one of today’s most highly sought-out firms for the way it reimagines private residences, hospitals, schools and other public spaces around the world.
Recent work has included high-profile urban projects like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, and the luxury residential tower at 56 Leonard Street in Manhattan, which features a sculpture by Anish Kapoor at the building’s base. The firm is also at work on the modern and contemporary art center M+ in Hong Kong, scheduled to open next year; the 20th-century art museum Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; and a new site for the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada.
“Whenever Weiwei is involved, he offers more than just a formal solution,” Mr. Herzog said by phone from Basel. “I think that’s why we get along well. We can develop concepts together without being bound by personal taste.”
The following conversation with Mr. Herzog has been edited and condensed.
How did visual art provide a model for new ways of thinking about architecture?
At the end of the 1970s, we were not at all keen to continue in the tradition of modernism, and we didn’t find postmodernism interesting enough. We needed to put together our own language that we could use like a palette.
When an artist starts in the morning, no one tells him or her what to do. The slate is blank. We were fascinated by this openness and tried out everything at our disposal as architects — whether color, space, structure or ornamentation.
We wouldn’t have had the same approach to material without our experience with Joseph Beuys, or to the notion of doubt and ambiguity without our proximity to Gerhard Richter, just to name a couple of artists we have admired and worked with.
Have your designs in turn challenged artists or curators?
A museum today should have generous classical galleries but also spaces inspired by industrial rawness. There has been an almost explosive change over the past 20 years. Artists today are working with all kinds of materials: performance, sculpture, video. That’s why you cannot just offer white cubes.