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Build It Black

Sex, violence, and noir walls at Herzog & de Meuron’s strange new MoMA show.

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Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron  

Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron lost out in the MoMA expansion competition, but now they’re getting to design something at MoMA all the same. Starting June 21, their show, “Artist’s Choice: Herzog & de Meuron, Perception Restrained,” will transform one 2,650-square-foot gallery into a black-walled box lined with benches and filled with art from the permanent collection. The first architects to participate in MoMA’s “Artist’s Choice” series, the partners picked everything from Eva Zeisel porcelain to Francis Bacon’s portrait of Blake to Tupperware—and then embedded it within the inky walls, the works visible only through horizontal slots. As for the benches, they’re to better view film clips that are projected, in short bursts of Warhol sex and Scorsese violence, on the ceiling. The architects aren’t willing to call all this a critique of the museum’s design—but how else to interpret a space so aesthetically opposed to MoMA’s acres of white walls? Alexandra Lange spoke with Herzog.

You had access to almost anything in MoMA’s collection. What made you install the art in this way?
Strangely, even now that there is more space to display all the stuff in the new building, you hardly see it. Doing an installation that restrains your perception—you have to make a bigger effort both intellectually and physically to perceive it—that was [our] main idea.

What’s the story with the movies on the ceiling?
This ceiling could be seen as a historic reference to the painted ceilings of Romanesque churches of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, where the history of our lives and our past is described.

I was especially interested that you used the film Fargo.
Why, do you like this?

Yes, I love it. I think it is hysterical.
It is terrible, somehow—frightening. This idea of harmony and abstraction and form that is very often displayed at MoMA is juxtaposed with sudden terror and death. And I think this is something that is very rarely displayed in a museum. The blood and the sex on the ceiling are so much more closely related to our daily reality than the kind of art which we understand to be in the MoMA.

Were these the issues that you thought about when you were competing to design the new MoMA?
No, no, no. We developed this in more recent designs for museums, for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton and for a new project we just won in Zaragoza, a Goya [gallery in a] museum.

What do you think of the new MoMA?
I am not so interested in answering that kind of question. I think the design they have gotten is quite exactly what they wanted, which is within the tradition of the history of the museum.

Why did you put Tupperware in your exhibit?
Why do you ask me about Tupperware? Why not about chairs?

Chairs are something that architects often design. Tupperware is not something people connect with serious architecture.
I think it is as serious as anything else. Honestly, I am not interested in design at all, whether it is a chair or a table. It fits well because of the size and the proportion. That’s basically it.

Do you collect anything yourself?
Actually, I hate collections. I like to produce new things. We have many artworks that are left over from collaborations with artists—a lot of Ruff and Gursky, Richter, Beuys. They are somewhere in the office.

What is it like working for Ian Schrager on 40 Bond downtown?
It is a condo building, which is certainly not something we would like to do all the time. But it is not commercial in the sense that it is squeezing out every dollar from the building just to sell a name.

Are these condominiums designed by famous architects a fad?
Architects have become global brands, so that is why these architects are being picked.

Surely there must be a benefit to being a global brand.
It is interesting to be relatively free in accepting or not accepting commissions everywhere in the world. It is part of the game to pick the right commissions.

Are there any other sites in New York where you’d like to build?
There are very few uninteresting places here. Let’s say if you took acupuncture as a way to discover a city, to discover hot spots, New York has many of those acupuncture points. In other cities, wherever you put the pin, they have not much life to discover.


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