All architecture needs a humanitarian approach, says Jacques Herzog


Architecture is a fundamentally humanitarian profession according to Swiss architect Jacques Herzog, who believes a building's success should be judged on whether it is filled with people.

"I hope that every architect has a humanitarian approach to architecture," Herzog told Dezeen. "I think architecture is about that, I really do."

"I would be sad and cynical if that wasn't the case," he added. "If architecture was just about form and pleasure it would be absurd."

The co-founder of Basel firm Herzog & de Meuron was speaking to Dezeen at a press tour of the studio's newly opened Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford earlier this week.

"Oxford is an almost sacred territory for world class education," he said. "Its architectural heritage is equally impressive."

"We saw the Blavatnik School of Government as an opportunity to connect back to the traditional building typologies such as the interior courtyard and the stack of different volumes."

Herzog said that the design for the school was imbued with physical manifestations of the school's ethos of openness and transparency.

"They just wanted a nice building," said the architect. "Mostly [an education building is] for young people – people who are in their own making – so it's good to encourage everything that is about encountering, informal meeting, so there are friendships and connections which last longer than the time they spent in that building."

Jacques Herzog speaks at the University of Oxford
Portrait of Jacques Herzog by Adriano A Biondo

The building's spiralling concrete form features horseshoe-shaped elements based loosely on the layout of parliamentary buildings, and features glazed classrooms, offices and "Europe's largest double-glazed window".

Spaces are arranged around a curving atrium, intended to encourage students and tutors to join in impromptu discussions between floors.

"It is made to stimulate communication and informal exchange between students, scholars and visitors from all over the world," Herzog said.

While the firm primarily works on public buildings – it is currently undertaking revamping Chelsea FC's London stadium and working on a curvy tower block in New York – Herzog said variation is vital and likened the design process to exercising a muscle.

"I think being an architect and doing different things is like the muscles in your body, you have to train the different muscles – the small ones and the big ones – so that you remain flexible and active," said Herzog. "If you just do the same thing you become an expert and a specialist, and you become blind."

"Private homes is the one thing that we like least, but I think it's important that you try to go back to different types of commissions," he added.

Jacques Herzog speaks at the University of Oxford
Herzog & de Meuron's newly opened Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford features horseshoe-shaped elements based loosely on a the layout of parliamentary buildings. Photograph by Iwan Baan

The firm is set to participate in the Venice Architecture Biennale later this year. This year's edition will be directed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, whose radical approach to social housing also made him the winner of this year's Pritzker Prize.

Despite this, Aravena claimed architects should never feel morally obliged to work on socially responsible projects when speaking at the Biennale press conference this week.

But Herzog said humanitarianism is inherent to architecture and warned against placing too much emphasis on Aravena's approach as the Biennale's creative director.

"I think we shouldn't overestimate the director who organises the Biennale, because I think it's more about the Biennale and the people and their projects," said Herzog.

"I don't know how his show will be," he continued. "I think it's good to have such different concepts every time, some are successful or less successful."

Irrespective of its director and its theme, Herzog said the Biennale will continue to be blighted by financial problems and take advantage of young architects so eager to exhibit they are willing to self fund their projects.

"There are always the same problems – not enough money," Herzog told Dezeen, "and the young architects are so proud to participate – that's why they are ready to pay, even if they lose a lot of money. But somehow it works."

  • dave brubeck

    Herzog & de Meuron are one of the few large international practices who I feel have kept their integrity and this exemplifies why.

    Waiting for the predictable and incomprehensible Patrik Schumacher response/lecture that will bore everyone to death…

  • a question

    You mean after receiving their first million and after they became famous (like you)?

  • I admire Jacques Herzog’s humanitarian ethos for architecture, but I’m not sure how it explains cathedrals, temples and other places of worship that are, for the most part, spiritual and transcendental rather than humanitarian in purpose. Some of the greatest architecture is that symbolic kind, not functional per se.

    This blog also made me wonder why photographs of new structures are almost always devoid of people, as though the human uses are not part of the vision. I am not an architect so I may be missing an explanation that is obvious to professionals. But there is a pristine, sterile, airless aesthetic to much architectural photography that belies a humanitarian agenda.

    • bill

      Photographs of new structures are often shown devoid of people because they are about the architecture. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s nice to be able to see the space and also the details/connections and so on.

      The argument that this is somehow a failure of architecture is tiring – it’s not hard to use your imagination.

    • I agree with you about the lack of people. Bill has a point about photos being primarily for documentation of the building. But when producing renderings or drawings, it is always good practice to include entourage for a sense of scale and program.

      It would be great to see people using the spaces as intended by the client, and translated into built form by the architect.

      • The original post promoted a humanitarian agenda for architecture. So in that sense, separating architecture from humans doesn’t seem to fit the agenda.

        Like viewing fashion apparel on a rack instead of on a body. We perform that separation with ruins of ancient structures of course, because ancient people are no longer around.

    • Fred

      Robert, the experience of transcendence in a cathedral or temple has been designed; designed by humans for human experience. This experience has been created with the use of proportion, light, scale, references to other cultural or natural elements, etc.
      If you sense that this experience is beyond the capacity of one individual, I would agree; it has been developed over time by many generations. It is the ultimate humanitarian architecture.

      The Italian architect Aldo Rossi was one of Jacques Herzog’s teachers. His work focuses on exactly that: typologies developed over time that are engraved in the collective memory of a culture. What makes buildings of any size humanitarian is that they successfully connect to the collective memory, and are therefore loved and used.

  • goodmaab

    Today population impacts all people and whether it is housing, transportation or infrastructure, cities are at their most complex imbalance in years. New York City and San Francisco show prime examples of market forces not doing enough.

    This is where architecture takes the reins and shows in what ways the boundaries can be stretched and solutions that benefit humanity, and the public realm really are needed to be shown and the public informed that market forces are not the only catalysts for change.

    Architects show and evolve the ideas and concepts for a better sense and scale of humanity. Think about the public housing issues and future of mass housing developments. With the planned endeavour of the 1930s/1940s there is always precedent that can be utilised as a starting point for improved projects.