Interview with Herman Hertzberger (2017): architecture as visual and social connection

Portrait Photo of Herman Hertzberger by Hans van den Bogaard

Our second interview with the architect Herman Hertzberger – the first from 2016 is here and covers a broader range of topics. This conversation focuses more explicitly on the roles of architecture and space in helping to establish social connections and provide people with resources to act in space. It also covers looking and the visual’s relation to the social as well as how Hertzberger himself looks and works. The interview took place on May 3rd, 2017.

To explain a little context because it comes up in the interview, before we began talking more seriously we discussed what happens in schools and Hertzberger, joking, mentioned older students flirting with each other and questioned whether schools were really about maths and other formal subjects. It was also a useful reminder that he sees schools and school life in a refreshingly broad way.

 

A lot of the spatial and organisational work of schools as buildings and institutions involves dividing people into groups. In contrast, you make extra effort to ensure possibilities of connections between people. It seems to me that connections (visual connections, social connections, spatial connections) – these are things that are possibly harder to do than separating people, is that right?

Well, it might be the origin of architecture. The point with churches, for example, is to have people coming together, space is there for that. In dwellings too. There’s always ways for bringing people together. It’s a matter of people facing other people. Architecture and social life have a very strong connection. Most people take architecture as a sort of formal thing, something with styles and I am inclined to consider it more like a utensil, a tool, a tool for social life mostly.

There is this old story – a house is just a shelter, when it rains you need something over your head, that’s one way of thinking. You make walls and roofs – the building as a sort of artificial grotto or cave. But I see walls more in order to make windows in – you need something to make windows in. Roofs too are opportunities for windows.

 

And this is the beginning of connection then?

This is about connection – when you make a window, you have an outlook. An outlook means you try to be in connection. Connection, basically for me, lies in space as to see and to be seen. This is what I refer to when I talked about boys and girls – they want to see and be seen, the social space. I’m not going to make it too philosophical but the whole idea, that you have the feeling that I’m not alone but I want you to see me and I want to see you.

 

It’s a fundamental thing…

It’s a fundamental thing for me, it’s the fundamental thing for architecture. Most buildings are just slices on top of each other: you have an elevator and you know you have to go to Floor 4, or 40 or 400 and you get in and press the buttons for 40, you wait and it stops. It works for you, it’s automatic but you have no space, no feeling of being on the 40th floor.

 

You can cut out floors 1-39 and 41 and above. Floor 40 is your world.

It’s completely out of your feeling. So, I try (and it’s difficult today) to make it clear that you see I’m here, that you are oriented in space.

 

You said this is difficult today, why is that?

Well to put it simply, it is because developers just want floors and elevators and they’re trying to find the smallest unit because spaces for transport and circulation don’t pay. But if small children live on the 40th floor, when they want to play in the street, they have to have a certain age – you can’t let them go alone because there’s no contact between the dwelling and the street unlike a bow window, for example, where you can see what they’re doing.

Le Corbusier at least made the roof so that children can go there to play – you know that they’re relatively safe because there’s a big balustrade, they’re not going to fall off.

Photo by Rene Burri showing children playing on the roof of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation
Children playing on the roof of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, 1959. Photo: René Burri / Magnum Photos

I remember from my youth that I was playing in the street all the time and there you learn about the world, about the bad guys and the good guys and you have your front door always at hand. When things are too delicate or too risky, you can go back to the house. Or your mother can shout out “It’s time to eat!” There’s a direct relationship between the dwelling and the street whereas today there’s a sort of complete distance.

Now they make playgrounds with big fancy surroundings and there’s a sort of “play presence” and they have to carry children to that place and put them in the official play area. Anyway, I can go on but what I want to say is that I do my best to make buildings in such a way that they have internal space that makes it clear to you wherever you are, where you are, whether that’s up or down or on this side or the other and not just in one of these slices. I remember the Technical University at Delft where I taught. I was teaching on the 6th floor and it took me a couple of years to realise that one of my closest colleagues was working one floor down and I didn’t know! We should have made a hole in the floor… We were alienated and we’re fighting alienation all the time.

 

It seems to me that there’s something quite rebellious about the spirit with which you write. Even the formalism you were talking about there – the formalism isn’t the thing for you, it’s the breaking of it, it’s the connecting. And so socially there’s also something… rebellious, is that the right word?

I understand what it means but you are not just following the rules or algorithms today but you try to think and you try to see. I’m desperately trying to find out how it all works and I’m not just believing the rules that say it works like this or like that. So, I’m sort of suspicious more than anything else. I want to say, “Well, are you sure?” And this is what they call a critical attitude and I think you should have a critical attitude, you must have it also – and not just believe what is commonly-held, what is normal. That to me, when you really insist on talking about education is the main thing.

You have two types of education – well you have 200 types, but you have two main types: one is telling people how the world works and the other is trying to let people find out themselves how the world works. And today they tend to tell people how it works: as long as you do this, this, this, these steps, you’ll be fine and fit for society, you’ll get good money and a good job and you’ll be happy. That more or less is what education is today.

What I consider education is trying to find out how things work instead of being told how it works, finding out, finding out yourself, thinking and feeling…. I have been very happy in my life because I happen to have always been in situations where I was encouraged, “Find out how it works, find your way” and not just told to follow the charted path.

This is one of the main things of Montessori education. My mother didn’t know where to put me in school and she followed some progressive friends who put their children into a Montessori school and she said, “Well, they can’t be completely wrong, I’ll do the same” and that was really the beginning. In a Montessori school, everything is displayed and they don’t say “Now you’re going to do mathematics, now you’re doing languages”. You’re there and they ask you, “What are you going to do?” And you think, “Mmm, well that seems interesting!” And you take that and this, and so in this way you make something which I think is completely different.

And my mother in the kitchen used to let me make sauces. She said well, try it out. [motions adding ingredients] Oh no, this is going wrong, I have to put some sugar in it. No, this is too sweet, I have to put some salt in. And I took something else. So, this experimenting with taste, in this way you find out your life, yes?

 

It takes trust, whoever’s in that situation, your mother, the teacher, you have to let go.

And you also make mistakes – you need to make mistakes.

 

That’s something that I wanted to ask you – there’s something of that in what you seem to be doing in your architecture and in your writing, allowing for possibility, for success and for mistakes. You talk a lot about “spatial opportunities” and people interpreting their situation. In that sense, there’s a possibility that the spaces you create are risky as well. I don’t mean a serious risk but you’re giving something to people – these resources, these ideas to do something with in space, you’re not saying what to do.

For me it was a revelation to read Chomsky, his philosophy of language, competence and performance. Competence is like the money you have in the bank and you can decide what to do with it, you can do different things with it, perform different actions with it. Performance is like interpretation – the what-are-you-going-to-do-with-this-competence. In language, you have grammar and the words you know and every individual is going to use these words and grammar in his or her way to express what they want to do. And that for me was very interesting – what we should make in architecture is something like competence, possibility – something that people can freely handle in their own way. Performance is what you actually do with that capital you have. Architecture for me is trying to give people capital, competence which they can interpret in their own way. Maybe interpretation is better than performance but anyway, he used the word performance.

 

Yesterday I walked quickly around the Apollo Schools, there was something very simple about the external steps – they’re all curved outwards, the steps come to meet me, I can walk up them from any angle, I’m not forced into approaching them from a particular direction:

A photo of the main steps of Hertzberger's Willemspark School (one of the two Apollo Schools) in Amsterdam

These stairs are also made in a way that you can use them as a grandstand. And that’s also a discovery I mean, I was in New York in the 60s and I was looking at the Columbia library and there were the stairs in front of this mock Greek temple – the library – on a base and that base has big stairs:

A photo of Columbia University's Low Library steps in the 1960s
Photo: Joe Pineiro, courtesy of University Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York

The idea of the Greeks with the Acropolis was to elevate the building, make it more distant as if the temples were saying, “Listen, we’re going to make you small.”

But this day at Columbia was an important moment in my life. It was in the sun and there were all these people sitting on the stairs and there was one guy standing there giving a revolutionary speech of some kind and all of these people were just looking at him, sitting on the stairs. And the stairs changed completely the way I thought. They weren’t to distance the building but they gave the possibility for people to be together and that was a big inspiration for me to do that in schools, to make those kinds of stairs.

At the Apollo schools, they’re not only working on those stairs – I remember the discussion I had in the office about this idea coming from Columbia and one of the people in the office said that making them in marble would be better and I remember saying “No, marble’s too cold, you need to have a warm feeling.” They should also be a table, stairs that could also be a table. I have photographs that show people working on these steps and it turns out that they’re are not only to go up and down but to sit, and to be big tables. I was surprised to see the children take off their shoes when they were sitting and working on the stairs. They had the feeling to do that. No-one said “Take off your shoes!” but they had the feeling maybe that they were on a table at home. It’s fantastic! But we’re drifting…

 

No, because it’s interesting, the other thing about these stairs yesterday – the school was closed so there were no children around – but underneath the stairs is a brilliant place, if I was a kid it would be a great space for telling secrets. And you’ve put seating there and you can see from where the paint is scraped that children sit and play there:

 

A photo showing the underneath of Hertzberger's Willespark School steps

This is my favourite place. In another school, I even did this… [Hertzberger sketches on the back of some notes]. This is a sort of non-place, but when you do this [adds dip or well in the ground underneath the stairs], it becomes the place where all the children want to be:

Sketch by Herman Hertzberger of an area underneath stairs
Sketch, Herman Hertzberger.

Yes!

This is a favourite place for people, they sit there, work there. So, you have to exploit these sorts of spaces.

 

This ties in with the idea of looking and your looking…so, I’m thinking of any building – not one you’ve designed – but a building that you walk into it for the first time. What do you do, what do your eyes do?

Well, how can you get in? How do you get in the building? Is the building friendly to you, is it inviting you in? Or is it saying “Stay away!” And then you come into a whole. You want this whole in such a way that you can have a look at the rest of the building. It’s very important that you see, that you already have an inviting space. When you go in a church, they’re inviting you in. An architect should… I mean whatever we do, we should make it inviting.

 

So that when you’re walking in to that space, you want to be able to understand the building?

Yes, understand in the sense that you read it, that you can orient yourself.

 

This is something you want people to be able to do in your buildings, to make things visible to them, there’s no surprises, to feel empowered?

We made a big school in Rome and sunk the whole structure a little, so that you really come into it.

 

And as the person approaching, you can get a more global view of the school, you can understand it…

Yes, you have the opposite feeling of when you’re in an airport, where you have to check your ticket, you have to look at the displays, “Gate 14, where is Gate 14…?” Or on the highway, you are completely dependent on signs – well maybe today you have Satnav – but you are dependent.

 

You’re made helpless.

You’re made helpless and you’re made dependent. And you want the opposite of that. It’s the same as not being alienated but instead being in an environment you can trust, one which is inviting. My argument in cities is always to make them comprehensible, that you know where you’re going. I mean it’s nice to be in Venice but even there, once you know it a bit there’s one main road and everything is connected to that so it’s comprehensible too in fact. I mean you can just be in small streets but you always come back and you just follow the big stream of tourists and you arrive in Piazza San Marco finally. This way or the other way but you always arrive. That sort of comprehensibility is important I think. I also like old cities where you can just be lost, just for the sake of it. It’s nice sometimes to be lost but that’s not the main thing.

 

Maybe that’s for when you’re off duty… This is quite a basic human emotion – if we can understand the space in which we are, we tend to feel safe and more relaxed.

Relaxed because you feel safe. But “readable” is perhaps the right word.

 

So what you’re talking about essentially is empowering people, it seems to me, giving power and possibility to people.

And freedom.

 

And freedom. What we’re talking about in another language is a kind of politics of space if you like. I wondered to what extent you are interested in a politics of space?

Absolutely. You may call it a politics of space, I’m not against that idea. You empower people, you give them freedom, you give them a safe feeling (not in a sense of protection from harm) but empowering people is the right way to say it.

 

To return to seeing, and how you work. Do you draw, do you draw and write? When you’re on your own, when you’re thinking, what do you do?

Always sketching. I’m always trying to imagine people’s situations. It is always about how people behave and what you think they want. I mean that’s not the right way to say it, “what they want” but what, following their nature, might be what they want. Trying to follow human nature and to understand it and to facilitate it.

 

So you’re sketching and you’re running through your imagination…

I’m going through situations that are similar to what I need to have. I mean when I was teaching, an assignment I gave was to design a school. I did not start by saying, “Well, we need so many classrooms and we need this and we need that.” But I started at a table and by asking people one after another about their own experiences in their own school. In the beginning not much comes out but after a while they say, “Yeah, I remember dark corridors.” And I ask, like a psychiatrist, “Did you like those corridors?” And then more things come, often fantastic things until people are living in this educational situation. And that’s the same starting point for myself.

If you ask me to design a prison, and since I don’t have any experiences of my own, I’m dependent on what I think a prison is. So, it’s important to see a lot about the world, to read the news so that you know something about a prison so that you know and can imagine yourself – what would I like? what would I do? The process is always based on associations and trying to imagine yourself in this situation – what would be the right thing to do?

And don’t simply follow the rules. Classrooms and corridors in schools are based on a way of organising education that I do not follow – I wrote Space and Learning about this. I think people should be able to make projects for themselves in spaces where the corridors, for example, are large. You have to be aware of alternatives – why are things the way they are? And why shouldn’t they be different?

Norman Foster’s Bank of Hong Kong was a different way of thinking about space – you come in, there’s a very big public space, there’s a street going through the building and then a sort of glass roof. You can look through that whole building. It’s a fantastic entrance. So, you ask me what am I doing when I enter a building? I’m watching. As an architect, you’re always watching, you’re always in space and so you’re always watching and finding out how something works. And then thinking: this works better; this could have worked if they’d done this or that. You’re always working. For an architect, there’s no free time because you’re always asking, “Hey, there’s the stairs here, why is this like this, why couldn’t it be there?”

Living in space is a condition. Being conscious of living in space is a condition that holds everywhere. Even in your bed, when you’re fighting about blankets with your wife next to you! “Give me more of this blanket” is the beginning of a spatial condition. Where you are is a space condition, I’m very strongly aware of that.

 

Adrian Forty once wrote “to Hertzberger, ‘users’ are the ultimate measure of an architect’s work” (2004:313). I’m interested in how people get to have that position. One thing that comes across in your writing is a strong sense of the professionalism of the architect – it’s the architect’s responsibility to think about space, not necessarily about people participating in the design process.

No.

 

There’s something more basic I think, something to do with the philosophy of space, people are in your conception of space from the beginning.

Yes. I mean you cannot…in my opinion it’s a false idea to let people help you to design. They don’t necessarily have the tools. You have to say where it’s better or to suggest, it could be better there because of this or that. So, when you have a bedroom, you want the door to open outwards so that when the door opens suddenly, people have time to cover themselves. There’s knowledge, there’s basic knowledge which is maybe very similar to what a psychologist knows, more that is normally claimed. You have to know something about people’s behaviour and I compare architecture very often with clothes – you know you want your clothes to fit, to feel free but not too large, not too loose, and they should form part of your identity – with a tie, without. Architecture is like clothes.

 

Could we talk a little about the future? You’ve written how recently you’ve been thinking more about time, and how time works together with space.

Well, in the sense that everything changes and that’s an experience I have with my own buildings. The office building, Centraal Beheer in Apeldoorn, is not an office anymore – they don’t need it as an office. We’re currently busy making it into housing and that fits perfectly with the idea that we did not make specific office space, but rather we made spatial units that could be used for different purposes. I now have the chance to show that these spatial units can be filled in with dwelling.

The idea for me is that we should not be functionalist, making things exclusively for a particular purpose but that we make things, constructions, that could be used in different ways and that we concentrate on what the conditions for this construction are. What are the conditions that are always necessary? That always work? You always need toilets, you always need stairs, things that are independent of time. A lot of my buildings have completely changed as far as function is concerned. That to me is a very important thing. I see that all famous architects are designing beautiful libraries and beautiful museums – well museums are relatively safe because you can make any space into a museum, but when you don’t need the museum anymore, what do you do? How can you use Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao? You have to throw it away. I would like to make more durable, more sustainable things.

 

There’s something else about time, on a shorter-term scale, the time of my time, your time in the building there. And I thought your disagreement with the idea of flexibility was interesting and the way that you suggest polyvalency instead: people need ideas, they can’t just have an empty box, it’s cruel almost to give them an empty box and expect them to immediately have responses.

No, you must make incentives. For example, by making ledges – so not saying that that’s where you have to put a plant but where you might. The only problem with ledges is you have to clean them!

When you have a dwelling, a living unit, it changes considerably within 15 years. It may start with a couple, then they have children, then the children leave – it’s a constant state of change. Another way to approach this is the difference between an apparatus and an instrument. An apparatus is a thing – a coffee machine or a shaver, a thing based on the one thing it’s made to do – to make good coffee or whatever. A shaver is completely designed for cutting hair. But an instrument – like a musical instrument – is a thing that incites you to put your own ideas into it. A musical instrument gives you the challenge to do what you think you should do. And I want to make my buildings more like instruments and less like apparatuses.

 

 

This takes us back to the idea that buildings in themselves are not the thing.

No, they’re an instrument to _____ and then you fill in what you want.

You asked me about my hopes for the profession and the culture of architecture. It’s an interesting question. My answer is this: it’s a painful thing that not all the people in the world have a house or a place to live. Our first task is housing for everybody. Which means, inevitably means, that you are not going to make houses of hundreds of square metres but that you are going to concentrate on compact housing. I would ask students, how can you make compact and cheap housing?

There’s always been this tantalising idea of producing houses like cars but for some reason or other, that doesn’t work. My whole life I’ve seen people trying to make houses like cars – Jean Prouvé for example – and for some reason it doesn’t work. But I’m still dreaming of this idea to have housing units that you could adapt to every situation, to every building code and that are cheap because of the number required. A car is extremely cheap given the enormous technical nature of what’s in it. You must be able to make to make a very compact house for the same price as long as you have 200,000 a year to make and we need to make 200,000 a year but somewhere we haven’t been able to make that work.

The other thing is fine structures that are transformable in time and the third thing is to think about the space of the city. The grid plan remains a fantastic idea because of the way it gives structure to everything. You can have buildings with different colours, different heights, different styles but you always have the space of the street. We make objects in space and somehow we need to find a way not only to make the objects but something inbetween. Taking this in mind, we should design the space around buildings as a negative building.

Apart from the grid plan, we haven’t managed to move to new ideas. In the 20th century the city fell apart and we still don’t have the right tools, the right ideas to make it into a space again. They want to have green everywhere – what I call a green soup – everywhere but actually a clear cut green space is a place you can have in blocks, you can have parks here and there, like pockets. They work, people feel enclosed – not enclosed in the sense of taking your freedom but a sense of safety.

I think there’s a lot for architects to do but I’m afraid they’re going on with just making beautiful objects as if you’re always outside the building looking at it. The great lesson from Aldo van Eyck is that whatever we do with architecture, whatever we create, it should always end up being more inside than before. This is important – and I’d add to it, “with a view”. When you leave your house you should come into another space but a space of another nature, one that implies you always see a horizon, you see the next thing.

 

This comes back to connection again, knowing where you are, feeling oriented.

Yes, but also where you are going in time.

 

So, this is a dynamic thing. In some disciplines, structuralism is seen to be static but in fact your structuralism is not at all. [See Hertzberger’s Architecture and Structuralism] It’s all about movement, the dynamics, the possibilities.

Like a soccer field, you have some very simple lines or rules but here these rules are not fencing you in but giving you liberty, giving you rules that provide you with freedom.

 

 

 

Our 2016 interview with Herman Hertzberger is here.

Image of Herman Hertzberger by Hans van den Bogaard.

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