Clean, Well-lighted Places

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are best known as the architects of the Tate Modern, but they have also created stunning private museums in Europe--and now in America.

"I think art is for the public and it should go to museums eventually," says Swiss architect Jacques Herzog. At first, this might sound self-serving: His firm, Herzog & de Meuron, is renowned for museum design. When its remodeling of a London power station opened in 2000 as the Tate Modern, the towering turbine-hall entrance and sleek skylighted galleries generated more talk than any art space since the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. At the moment, the Basel-based firm--which last year won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award--has two other high-profile museum projects in the works: the new De Young Museum in San Francisco and an extension of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Herzog & de Meuron's most compelling exhibition spaces, however, may be those it has created for museums that are not public but private. At a time when the art museum has replaced the cathedral as a center for civic congregation, the "private museum" seems almost a contradiction in terms. Yet until the Age of Enlightenment, all art collections and museums were private. The great European caches of art housed in the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum belonged to royal or princely families; and the earliest museums, or Kunstkammern, were established by such rulers as Rudolf II and Peter the Great, for whom knowledge was as enticing as power. Even after the French Revolution opened the Bourbon collection to the populace and inaugurated the era of the national museum, the private museum held its place. Some of the best environments in which to view modern art--the Barnes Foundation, the Menil Foundation, the Fondation Beyeler--began their lives as private collections.

Herzog & de Meuron's private museums range from those designed for the exclusive use of the patron, like the studio the architects built for their artist friend Rémy Zaugg in Mulhouse, France, to the Küppersmühle Museum in Duisburg, Germany, a public space displaying the collection of one man, Hans Grothe. For Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, lifelong friends who founded the firm in 1978, designing a private museum often provides the chance to experiment with new ideas that they will then adapt for large institutions. It can also, as with the combination house and video gallery under construction for Richard and Pamela Kramlich in the Napa Valley, pose requirements so unique that the architects are inspired to do breakthrough work. "All these collectors are amazing people," Herzog says. "They are a bit crazy, maybe. You put so much energy and money into something that it impacts how you live, how you see the world. The architecture should help them understand the art and how they live with art."

An angular 51-year-old with a runner's build, close-cropped hair, and an astute sense of fashion, Herzog is not a collector himself. "I have some art, but I don't have the feeling to be surrounded by art," he says. "I love the world to be filled with different points of art, with art in different places." Although Herzog & de Meuron boasts a wide range of commissions--right now it is designing the Tokyo flagship store for Prada and a convention center in Barcelona--Herzog is proud of the fact that his firm has become known for its art museums and for its sensitivity to such issues as the interplay between natural and artificial light, the need to highlight yet not overwhelm the art, and the creation of rooms that seem permanent but provide flexibility. In designing a private gallery, another requirement pops up: balancing public access with personal space.

A collector is accustomed to buying a finished work of art from a dealer. When he or she commissions a museum, however, the transaction is no longer a simple purchase but a collaboration. Still, a gallery designed by a firm like Herzog & de Meuron resembles a painting more than it does a made-to-measure shirt. Like an artist, the architects consider the problems posed and solve them in a way that leaves identifiable fingerprints. "It would be wrong to say we try only to express the client's wishes," Herzog says. "A project expresses the client's personality but also our own moment, what we were able to do at that point in our career."

The structure that first showed off the firm's flair for gallery design was the Goetz Collection building, completed in 1992. Here, in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Munich, Herzog and de Meuron defied conventional gentility with a bracing breeze of modernism. Formally, what they built is a floating box--a shoebox, clad in large panels of pale birch, that hovers between bands of translucent green-tinted glass. The glass-enclosed ground level contains the library and office, while the upper glass band allows light to enter the second-floor galleries from a clerestory strip. The architects had thought of installing a glass ceiling but changed their minds, partly because of the objections of the artist Helmut Federle, a friend who introduced them to the client. Herzog and de Meuron continue to avoid glass ceilings for museum display, believing that art is better appreciated in rooms with lids. "An all-glass ceiling reduces the space to a vessel, with wall and floor and sky," Herzog says. "Ideally, we want to create a ceiling that is more physical. It makes the space feel rooted and contained."

Ingvild Goetz, known as Jeanny, was an architect's dream client. She and her husband had resolved to put a gallery in the large garden that separated their house ("a late-sixties house, not a very appealing house," Herzog says) from the street. Goetz had been an art dealer, and she had a personal collection that was strong in Arte Povera, the late-sixties Italian movement that utilized simple materials like raw wool, twigs, and metal pipes. In contrast to the self-consciously modest quality of her art, her furnishings at home were extravagant. "We said she should keep all the baroque and kitsch part, with the gold leaf, in the house, and the gallery should be a different pole of her personality, where she could live like a monk, where she could sleep on the floor with a blanket," Herzog says. "This was how she expressed to us what she wanted." Or, as she recalls it: "I asked them to build me a contemporary Zen monastery, where you can concentrate on art and nothing keeps you from that concentration. No windows. On the ground level, you can see the green of nature, but in the galleries, only art."

The building that Herzog & de Meuron constructed reminds one of Jeanny Goetz. Superficially, it has her coloring: the birch and glass of the exterior echo her fair skin and pale-green eyes. Inside, the rough white plaster walls evoke both her desire to simplify her life and her attraction to meditative Eastern philosophy. Looking at the building another way, one recognizes the architects' preoccupation in the early nineties with sheathing simple boxlike forms in elegant skins. The Goetz Collection building also marks an early stage in the firm's lighting design. Daylight illuminates not only the main-level galleries but also (thanks to the lower glass band) a suite of below-ground exhibition spaces. Allowing natural light into the basement galleries satisfied both the client's request to avoid a "cellar feeling" and the architects' impulse to upset hierarchy--so that the lower floor, which is literally subordinate, needn't feel that way. However, the control of sunlight into the galleries remains primitive. With the press of a button, a white curtain within the double-glazed windows can be raised or lowered. Even when it is down all the way, it can screen out only so much light; when Goetz investigated replacing it with black cloth, she found that the absorbed heat could crack the glass.

Limiting sunlight wasn't a concern when Goetz commissioned the gallery. At the time, her collection consisted almost entirely of paintings and a few small sculptures. Since then, however, she has acquired photographs and drawings, which deteriorate in the presence of strong natural light. To preserve these works, she resorts to a quaintly old-fashioned system. The gallery is normally open (by appointment) for just four hours on weekday afternoons; at other times, cloths are draped over the drawings and photographs as a shield.

Goetz's interest in sculpture has also evolved since the gallery was conceived. When she approved the installation of a radiant heating system beneath the oak flooring, she wasn't interested in big, heavy sculptures. Now, if she sometimes finds her head turned by a gigantic hunk of steel, she has more than her own taste to keep in mind. When considering a piece of sculpture, she must determine not merely whether she likes it but whether her floor will support it.

When they design a private museum, Herzog and de Meuron don't forget that the collector's tastes and needs will shift over time. Yet their response to this reality is not what one might expect. "If you concentrate on making it flexible, you will fail, because it will not work at this present time and it will not work later," Herzog says. In Goetz's case, the completed gallery itself provoked a radical change in her tastes and needs. "We thought we would have a living room and dinners here, and be with friends walking around and looking at art," she says. "We never did. We opened it after half a year to the public." Instead of living there like a monk, she began organizing exhibitions. "The building has changed her life completely," Herzog says. "It has become her life." Her plan had been to cultivate her Zen side in the gallery and let her more baroque tendencies flourish in her residence. "As a child, I wanted to have a house with ten different rooms--a white one, a black one, a pink one, each for a different mood," she says. "But this has overtaken it." She has disposed of her gilt tables and Indian curtains; her house, like her gallery, feels monastic. "Now it's empty," she says. "Only for use."

Even more clearly than Goetz, Hans Grothe knew what kind of museum he wanted for his enormous collection of postwar German art. He called it a "Kunstkiste"--an art box. It would be squat and wide, thick-skinned and brusquely direct, much like Grothe himself. A successful real-estate developer based in Duisburg, in northwestern Germany, Grothe in the early seventies reoriented his collection from German Expressionism, which had become too expensive. He attended a show in 1973 of the Pop artist Sigmar Polke and liked the art so much that he bought all of it--33 pictures. "For this price today, you can only buy a frame," he says. He was off and running as a collector of contemporary German art. Today, he takes pride in his friendship with many of the artists whose work he collects, and he buys in bulk.

As with most things, Grothe has strong opinions as to how his paintings should be displayed. "Many of the museums in Germany are better without art in them than with art," he says. "I wanted a purer architecture, without mannerism." He feels that the design of the museum should defer to the art, and from one of his favorite painters, Georg Baselitz, he's taken his architectural guidlines. "It only has to be a box," he says. "Above there has to be light. That is all. A simple box, white walls, and ceilings six meters high." He didn't know who the right architect for his box was until he happened to be passing through Basel by train. Looking out the window near the depot he saw a monolithic signal tower wrapped in copper bands. "That is my Kunstkiste!" he exclaimed. The Basel signal box is a powerful and sensuous form that Herzog and de Meuron designed in the late eighties. (An instant icon, it was the prototype for signal boxes to be constructed at railroad crossings throughout Switzerland.)

Grothe arranged a meeting with the architects, who agreed to make his Kunstkiste, slated for the last open plot at the Museum Forum plaza in Bonn. They planned to construct it of concrete. "I think the concrete box expressed very well Hans Grothe's hermetic nature," Herzog says. "He wanted something almost brutal. It would have been like a rock, with thick concrete walls, like a castle almost, where he wanted to hang his heroic German paintings." The few, asymmetrically placed windows might have been embrasures for firing cannons at the enemy. Using a photochemical process, Herzog and de Meuron planned to inscribe the concrete exterior of the building with large photographic images of the galleries within. Grothe would assume the entire $9 million cost of the construction. But the toughness of the box aroused tough opposition in Bonn. "It was like a revolution," Grothe says. "So I said, ŒTo hell with them.' I didn't insist." Instead, he announced that he was taking his art elsewhere.

After investigating options, he found his way back home to Duisburg--specifically, to an abandoned harborside mill built in the early 20th century. As part of a deal with the city, Grothe insisted that Herzog & de Meuron be retained to renovate the space. Like the concrete box that his firm had devised for Bonn, Herzog found the Küppersmühle, an imposing red-brick former cereal mill, to be "very German, like a castle." Long interested in renovation, Herzog & de Meuron converted the interior, as Grothe requested, into gleaming white-cube galleries with ceilings that soar to exhilarating heights and floors of smooth gray stone blocks. (The museum opened in 1999.)

The art is displayed on three levels, connected by a voluptuous undulating staircase. Composed of brown concrete, the staircase has the grain, knotholes, and rough texture of pine, except for the pebbled treads and the polished terrazzo banister. At once brutal and delicate, it is a piece of concrete poetry. Though bare fluorescent bulbs light the staircase, it's also illuminated by natural light from vertical strip windows. The architects had to cajole Grothe into permitting sunlight to enter the museum at all. It is excluded from most of the galleries, which are lit artificially from above. "The architect must serve the art," Grothe says repeatedly. "Of the great architects, Herzog and de Meuron are the only ones who realize that art is higher than architecture."

Rémy Zaugg is as assertive as Grothe. An artist rather than a businessman, and a longtime friend and collaborator of Herzog and de Meuron, he had very strong ideas about what he was looking for in his studio, completed in 1996. Because his art is conceptual, Zaugg may spend more time editing and revising than he does painting. "I can make exhibitions there," he says of his studio. "To look at the paintings is as important as making the paintings. Perhaps even more important." He wanted the space to be as simple as possible. He also wanted it to be flooded with natural light.

At Zaugg's studio in Mulhouse, less than an hour's drive from Basel, Herzog and de Meuron tried out the lighting scheme that they would later use at the Tate Modern. "The studio was like a big model for the Tate," Herzog says. The architects admitted light through vertical slot windows, which they also would employ in London. (The facade of the power station already contained long, thin strips that were easy to convert.) More important, they devised rooftop light boxes. From inside the studio you see only flat Plexiglas panels set flush into the ceiling; above them, however, are plastic-sided boxes diffusing the light that beams down from above.

Even diffused light, however, is changeable, and the architects proposed further ways to modulate it. "That was where I had difficulty with Jacques and Pierre," says Zaugg, an intense, heavy-smoking, exuberant man. "They wanted to put in an electronic system with louvers. But if you put in louvers, even if they are vertical, you already take away fifty percent of the light. I found this absurd. Second, this building is very simple. Such a system would be a contradiction." Instead, the light is allowed to change all day long. "It is very alive," he says. "It is the good Lord who controls the light." On dull days or at night, Zaugg turns on naked overhead fluorescents that match the color of northern daylight. He much prefers his system to the more complicated light boxes at the Tate Modern, which can be adjusted according to the brightness of the day. "Because five million people enter that place each year, you need technical elements--to dehumidify, to ventilate," he says. "There you see a sophisticated simplicity. Here you see a natural simplicity."

While Herzog and de Meuron used Rémy Zaugg's studio as a laboratory to try out new techniques, they also employed some of their previous stylistic flourishes. One of their most celebrated buildings is a factory and storage facility completed in 1993 for the Ricola company, also located in Mulhouse. Rainwater that collects on the flat roof spills down the concrete walls of the long building's short sides, marking them with long vertical lines of green and gray as the water reacts with the mineral content of the concrete. The same profile appears, in gray and rust, on the exterior of Zaugg's studio--a recurrence that, as an artist, he appreciates. "When you work continuously, one work inspires the next," he says. "A work doesn't fall down from heaven." While he refers to the rusty, ever-changing "wall painting" as his studio's "only frivolity," he quickly adds that the water on the roof helps cool the building in summer, making it practical as well as beautiful.

The most lavish and impressive private museum that Herzog & de Meuron has yet designed is currently under construction on a beautiful 24-acre site in the Napa Valley. Like all the work the firm is doing these days, the residence for Pamela and Richard Kramlich is innovative in its form as well as its skin. It's safe to say that the California wine country has never seen anything like it. The need it is filling is also unprecedented: a country retreat that will display a museum-quality collection of video art.

More than any other genre, video art is unforgiving in its exhibition requirements. Before acquiring the work, a collector must agree to the artist's stipulations. "In most instances, there can be no deviation," says Jean-Frédéric Luscher, the Herzog & de Meuron associate who is overseeing the Kramlich project. "You sign a contract with the artist or the gallery, you buy a master CD, and then you have a list of requirements." For one work in the Kramlich collection--Initials, by James Coleman--the room size, the qualities of sound reverberation, and the floor and wall coverings are all specified. To design the house, the architects had to create exhibition spaces for works that were currently in the collection while at the same time leaving flexibility to accommodate future acquisitions. Even trickier, they needed to allow the house to swing back and forth between its roles as a gallery and a country retreat.

The basement level was originally conceived primarily as exhibition space, but during the design process the clients indicated that they might want to entertain there as well. Now the basement includes a simple kitchen, and the chairs in the largest gallery can be folded up to convert the room into a dance hall. (Dancing is the Kramlichs' other passion.) The seven galleries have been laid out for specific works, but they can be modified--in part because the architects have created spaces between the galleries to absorb light and sound. "The big challenge with video art is its obsessive presence," Luscher explains. "You have to look, you have to listen. So when you leave, you need a transition space. We will put felt on the walls, floor to ceiling. If it becomes necessary, we can put it on the floor. You never see this in museums. Even in the good ones there's usually only a curtain."

The second level of the house, containing the living quarters, is enclosed in a sinuous wall of glass, several portions of which have been covered with a thin film that will allow for video projections. "The glass level opens to the lushness of the garden," Herzog says. "It is a bit like a traditional glass house, but it can be transformed by switching on some of the video art and the lighting, so it becomes like an installation piece. Inside-outside, nature-artifact, all of it blurs."

The top level is a kind of minimalist belvedere. The overhanging roof, made of fiberglass coated with Teflon (a tensile fabric similar to the one that covers the Denver airport), is pierced by an oval cutout (above an oval pool on the ground floor) and by a triangular cutout that frames a roof terrace with a majestic view of the valley. "If you look at the Kramlich house vertically, the basement is a dark space, then there's a glass house, and then a roofscape," Herzog says. "The dark space is a mental space, not a physical one. It is created only by the art. You go up one flight and it is both. You can open the glass to the outdoors and smell the garden, or, when the media art is on, you see that the walls are undulating glass. It is a mix of the material and the immaterial. Then you have the roof space, where you are exposed in an intimate way to yourself and to nature."

It remains to be seen how this museum-house, when it is finished in mid-2004, will affect the lives of its owners. "I don't want my life changed too much," Pamela Kramlich says. "You really have to set the rules, otherwise you're just inundated." Two years before its completion, the house is already provoking enormous public interest. "The media character of this art makes it unprivate," Herzog says. The Kramlichs leave open the possibility that years from now the house, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, will end up as a public destination. Yet for now, the house is unequivocally a residence, which its architects never forget. "I'll say something and they listen to it and they'll tell me when they think I'm crazy and when it might be a good idea," Kramlich says. "It's probably not the same concern as when they're doing a commercial museum. They're aware that we have to live in the house. They're aware that we have to be comfortable with it."

Arthur Lubow most recently wrote about the Parisian restaurant Le Grand Véfour and the International Herald Tribune in Departures.