Triggered by a visit to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, the most important critical work of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to date uses transparency as a litmus paper for examining the nature of artistic and architectural modernity, in a journey that goes from Bruno Taut and Ivan Leonidov to Dan Graham and Gerhard Richter via Marcel Duchamp and, of course, Mies himself. This inquisitive voyage to the dark side of transparency, which they find more in art than in architecture, is at the same time an exploration of their own sources and an indecisive bonfire casting flickers on their work. Both Pierre de Meuron’s sharp photographs and Jacques Herzog’s limpid texts cover their flaming criticism with a dressing of cold precision and stark clarity.
The gist of the book is synthetically presented in the first pages: “In art, transparency opened avenues to radical, critical, and pessimistic social discourse, while in architecture, transparency was propagated as an expression of a new and open society in harmony with nature.” At this fork, needless to say, the sympathies of the Basel partners are closer to the distrustful attitude of artists than to the positive and hopeful stance of architects, because the text comes from their experience of disappointment in the Farnsworth House, which they expected to visit with the awe due to one of the canonical works of the 20th century, but which instead sparked a critical reflection and a questioning of the essential elements of modernity. The resulting ‘thoughts and observations’ center on transparency and its ambivalence; it is associated with full exposure, yet is often just appearance, built with glass, crystal, and mirrors: an enumeration that exceeds the functionalist modernity of glass to include the visionary premodernity of crystal and the scenographic postmodernity of the mirror.
The book’s longest section is devoted to the Farnsworth House, and here Jacques Herzog’s text and Pierre de Meuron’s images harmonize with each other to dismantle the work of Mies severely and painstakingly, their analytical gaze dissecting the building as if with a scalpel in the frozen atmosphere of an autopsy room. Avoiding the postmodern critique that since Charles Jencks has reproached Mies for his platonism, the Swiss find in the Farnsworth House a beauty that offers no shelter, that is oblivious to the psychological aspects of architecture and inferior to examples of primitive or vernacular architecture.
This is an important book, one I believe deserves to be read with the attention given half a century ago to ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’ – the article by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky whose inclusion in Perspecta in 1963 enriched our perception of modernity – and which brings the voices of the Swiss partners into a critical dialogue that had Rossi and Venturi as exceptional milestones, and that later drew in practicing architects like Eisenman, Moneo, or Koolhaas. In an interview some years ago, Jacques Herzog thought aloud: “Maybe I should write more…” He has started to.