This interview took place on April 11th, 2017 at the office of Herman Hertzberger in Amsterdam, with questions by Daniel Koehler.
Daniel Koehler: After all your years as a teacher, maybe it would be a good departure for conversation if you can tell us what is your favourite exercise for teaching architecture?
Herman Hertzberger: Well, my favourite exercise is making a housing environment, where small children could live and play outside. This is an old-fashioned thing, but I am absolutely convinced that children should play in the streets in order to find out about the world and to learn about the good and the bad things that exist. I am afraid that today in urbanism you find high-rises, and the immense distance from the living unit to the street is a problem. Consequently, cities only have playgrounds with fences around, and there children are safe to play. But the world is not only about safety, the world is about finding out how far you can go in your life.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you began to communicate as a group during the beginning of structuralism?
We started a school! We had seminars for discussion, where everyone brought in something to discuss. And then we had the Forum editorial staff. There was Aldo van Eyck, Jacob Bakema and others who are less well known (Dick Apon, Joop Hardy, Jurriaan Schrofer and Gert Boon). There was an enormous amount of communication. Every Tuesday night we saw each other with no exception, where we discussed the next issue of the magazine.
And, what was the relevant media at the time you started to develop your ideas?
Magazines were very important. We used to have three or four Dutch magazines, two French, two English, one American, two Swiss, two Italian. They were all on the table. “Did you see that building? I think it is good.” And then we had a discussion. Today we still get some magazines, but today you get all the information from around the world in one click. That is fantastic, the possibilities today are just immense. It is more information, a lot of pieces of an enormous puzzle. But is it also possible to put it together? I hope the younger generation can.
The magazine Forum was for me a sort of postgraduate study. At that moment I started to see the work, the hands and eyes of real architects. That helped me to start thinking. And there were connections to many other architects from all over. There were conferences, and there you saw people. At Delft University, where I was teaching, we invited all the architects we were interested in. We are still doing this.
When one reads the current literature, one can draw two different issues. On the one hand a common critique of functionalism in architecture, and on the other hand, the influence of new ideas coming from sociology. Would you say that this enormous explosion of ideas and diversity of projects was a response to architectural problems or were these new concepts coming from other fields prescriptive to your projects?
First of all, there is nothing coming from sociology. I have little or no connection to sociology. Sociology is the science of human relations. But you do not need to go into this science as an architect. Architecture is a matter of using your eyes and ears to look into the world and see what needs to be done. But today, architecture is driven by algorithms and rules. All the rules, saying you should do this or that, you are supposed to not do this. Architecture is then reduced to problem-solving. You must be aware of that mistake. Architecture is not problem-solving. Of course, you have to solve problems, but this is only one aspect of architecture. It starts to be architecture when it provides more freedom to people, opening the possibility that things are getting better than they were before.
Can you give an example?
A dwelling needs to have a balcony. Why? To let people go outside, and there are rules about the size of your balcony. Most architects think: well, I included a balcony. But they should base the form and dimensions of a balcony on the needs of daily life. Such as sitting in a corner without being seen by others or not being disturbed while reading your book yet with the possibility of having contact with your neighbour. Second, you may want to be able to have a meal with your family. You maybe want to have flowers and plants. In a way, this is culture. Make that list, and when you design a balcony, be sure that all the points you have listed have also been fulfilled. In this way you increase people’s freedom. Most balconies do not do that. On most balconies all you can do is sit. Most architects don’t think, they don’t look at what is going on. And then, of course, the developer says, “It should not cost more, so we have to make it small.” So I have rules independent of the developers. For me, it starts to become good when those rules are going to be met. This method works for every part of the building, from a dwelling, to a living unit, to a street, to the school. In a school, you can design where the black board in a classroom is going to be. And you have to think about what a school might be. I don’t need sociologists for that. Sometimes, sociologists can tell you some interesting things, but you have to think, and in the first place, look for yourself.
Your communal spaces are famous for their human scale, like the doorstep. I think that this down-scaling of the city to elements of a building enables you to design the building as an open system. For me, it seems you draw a difference in creating a building as a building and designing a building as a city.
For me, city, architecture, and building are very much related. Aldo van Eyck believed that making architecture is always making things more inside than before. Aldo van Eyck said, “Whatever you do, it is supposed to always increase the inside quality.” When you want to go outside, you go to the fields. There you have the horizon, you have the clouds and the openness. A city is for exchange – exchange of goods, of ideas. Cities are mostly based on trade, and on having a cinema, having shops, having communal things, being together.
Aldo van Eyck also claimed that the city should be a big house. I think that is a dangerous thing to say because the city is not the house where you are yourself, or where you are enclosed. The city should never be enclosed but always open, in connection with the whole world. It is the place where you see the airplanes flying above you. But it is an inside space in relation to the open field. And a building is, in fact, a small city. Make a building as a small city to have the emphasis lay on communication and exchange.
But most buildings are private territories with public corridors. How narrow can a public corridor be? It cannot be a centimetre larger, because this would cost money. Means of communication are considered extra. You can sell the dwellings but not the corridors. As a result, most buildings have very beautiful apartments and very small corridors. I am pleading for buildings where the corridors are streets. I try to put more emphasis on the communal spaces in a building.
When you consider a building as an open system, what role does the boundary between inside and outside have? Do you think that these open systems have an outside or do you think of them as endless? What is their relationship to the context and environment?
City is not just buildings but the space in between the buildings as well. The edge of building is forming the space of the city. You have to conceive of the edge of a building not as an end where the outside starts. You must see it the other way around, as a wall in the interior space of the city. The idea of the building as city is to put buildings in such a relation that the space in-between them is as important. This is something that is completely lost. It is also considered nostalgic. But look to New York. In New York, you have these high skyscrapers, but you also have very nice streets. When I am in Manhattan, I feel quite enclosed. That is because of the very strict system of the grid, and the building lines by which the streets are defined, and the blocks in between are open.
In one of your articles [Open City, 2011], you rightly point out that most of today’s housing projects consciously exclude communal spaces, and focus only on the assembly of private areas without any spatial linkages between them. Private areas are protected to one another rather than connected. A common – and I think dangerous – justification for such a design refers to changed economic circumstances, and most cynically, to the death of the welfare state. Would you say architecture is so dependent on economics?
Every square meter is supposed to generate a fee, so public space will be reduced to a minimum. Architecture has become business. And that makes the position of the architects to contribute to better spaces and towns very difficult.
But then architects are even more important.
Important as long as you are able to be aware of what sort of culture you are living in. I cannot give you the answer what to do. You have to explain and fight. But you need clients who believe in the architect. Things are very materialistic today. But there are also very interesting initiatives. For example, in Rotterdam, you have these old industrial halls which could be reused without high costs. Add a little paint, and it works. There are ways today that are contradicting this idea of architecture as economics. There is a lot for you to invent.
When I told a friend that we will visit you as one of the main protagonists of structuralism, his response was: ‘Wait a moment! Herman Hertzberger is not a structuralist; he is a humanist.’
Can you not be a structuralist and a humanist at the same time? Is this contradictory?
I think what my friend was pointing at is that there is a difference between structuralism as a style and structuralism as modus operandi, as a form of organisation and composition.
Style has to do with aesthetics, but aesthetics is a pitfall. Most architects think making something beautiful is all that architecture is about. But you can’t make something beautiful, it is impossible. That doesn’t work. What you can do is make a painting which is striking, and shows you something you never saw before that makes you happy or fall in love with the painting, and then we decide this is a beautiful painting. But in architecture, don’t spend energy on trying to make something beautiful. Make it work. Then you may hope that someone says this is beautiful. For instance, the composer of music Arnold Schönberg said, “Do not do what others consider beautiful, but just what is necessary to you.” I like a building because it works. When someone if I think it is beautiful, then I say, when you are in love it is going to be beautiful. Beauty comes as a result. But you cannot say, now I am going to make it beautiful. Beauty is a pitfall for architects.
Structuralism means there are simple rules that enlarge the amount of free space that you can achieve. I took the grid as an example earlier. The very rigid system of the grid allows you to be more free in the blocks in between. All of the blocks can be different; some high, some low. It is an enormous mosaic of possibilities that is held together by the grid. When you know what rules you have to use, you can be creative. It is a misunderstanding that the one contradicts the other.
It is interesting that you describe a rule as a form of enclosure, as a form of an inside.
If something is not limited you create chaos. Rules prevent you from chaos, and within rules you can be creative. Noam Chomsky [the linguist] uses the words competence and performance. The structure of language is its competence, it is its capacity to express. And performance is what you are actually expressing with it. In language you have grammar, but every individual talks in his or her personal way using the same rules.
Would you say that you have a grammar and vocabulary then? Do you have certain elements that you are frequently using? You were talking earlier about balconies and streets. In your work do you consider elements repeat structurally, which can re-emerge in different styles, but with similar performance? Or do you begin each project with a new grammar?
I do not use the same grammar for every building. I could, but I want to try different things. There are many people who thought housing should be produced in a factory, like cars. It is such a simple idea. But it doesn’t work, because every location has its own needs, whereas a car is the same everywhere. So, you can not use the same grammar. I use another grammar for a school and another for housing for instance. Some things have a similar grammar, like how you make a door, which works in most cases.
Do you have a particular vocabulary of elements that reappear during your career in different articulations and styles?
Architecture should accommodate people and things that people are concerned with. I use this everywhere. To give you a simple example: when I make a column, most of the time I design it with a base for people to be able sit on it. This is for me an accommodating device. It always works. This sort of thing is universal in my opinion: the idea of accommodation. Another example is the handrail of a stair. I always make a handrail that guides you where to go, making the end of it in such a way that even without looking you have the feeling that this is the end of the stairs. Everything I do tries to consider how it works for people. However the point is that it should be friendly to people, but not soft.
Friendly architecture! This is a wonderful conclusion. Thank you, Herman Hertzberger for sharing your time and thoughts with us.