01 | 2020

Interview with Ascan Mergenthaler

“We are strict, but always open to dialog”

Are star architects really all that complicated? Ascan Mergenthaler is a Senior Partner at the architect’s office Herzog & de Meuron, which is based in Basel. He has constructed spectacular buildings all over the world. For example, he collaborated with HOCHTIEF to build the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg. In a talk with concepts Editor in Chief Torsten Meise, Mergenthaler offers an insight into the thinking and work of Herzog & de Meuron.

conceptsMr. Mergenthaler, the HOCHTIEF employees who made the design of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall a physical reality agree unanimously that this project’s complexity was unique. From your perspective as an architect, would you agree?

Ascan MergenthalerOther construction projects have been similarly complex, but I admit that there haven’t been very many of them. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall is certainly one of the most complex buildings ever designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The concert hall alone had to fulfill so many criteria, ranging from statics to acoustics, insulation, the sight lines, and the smoke extraction system. And the need to build all that at a height of 37 meters on top of an existing ­construction didn’t make the job any easier.

conceptsAnd it all began with a sketch?

MergenthalerThat’s right. This doesn’t happen very often at our company, because we normally don’t work that way. But at the beginning there was this simple concept: placing the new construction on top of the existing one, a former warehouse for coffee and cocoa. However, the actual implementation of this concept was incredibly complicated.

conceptsAs an architect, how strict must you be when a design is being constructed? 

MergenthalerWe don’t want to build castles in the air, but we fight for our ideas. We also want to encourage everyone involved to challenge themselves. Nonetheless, if something still doesn’t work we have to back down. After all, the original plan becomes stronger if you accept input from outside and integrate it creatively. We are strict and demanding, but always open to dialog. It’s like a game of ping-pong. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall was an extreme case of that.

conceptsBut you do like to push the limits of what is possible?

MergenthalerNo, that’s not one of our guiding principles. Sometimes the most ­complicated construction makes sense if it enables you to achieve what you wanted to. And sometimes it’s enough to fall back on tried and tested methods and solve a construction task in the simplest way possible. It doesn’t make sense to always push the limits as a matter of principle.

conceptsWould you say that quality control is very important? 

MergenthalerYes, it’s an extremely important aspect. However, we don’t make a fetish of details. Our main focus is on making sure that the space and the materials are of high quality. The building and the materials that go into it must not only be beautiful, they also have to feel good to the touch. The high quality has to be perceptible by all of the senses.

conceptsThe Elbe Philharmonic Hall was a dazzling solitaire. By contrast, your latest project with HOCHTIEF, “Am Tacheles,” seems to be trying to discreetly integrate itself into the existing urban landscape of Berlin’s Mitte district. What are the special characteristics of this project?

MergenthalerThe special thing about it is that it creates new urban spaces: courtyards, alleys, passages, open spaces, squares large and small, places that are open to everyone. In the course of the project we found out that the Tacheles cultural center used to be the main building of one of Berlin’s most impressive shopping arcades. We want to re-create this historical footprint in the midst of the Friedrichstadt district, not as an arcade or a shopping mall but as a streetscape.

conceptsYou’ve created the master plan, and now you are implementing it together with two other architects. How strict did you have to be in the process? 

MergenthalerWe’ve specified the space for creativity, and every architect has taken advantage of it in a very individual way. Historically, the block of buildings that dates back to the late 19th century was of course an integrated whole, and we want to restore that wholeness. We want people to see that these buildings belong together. We’re creating this effect by stipulating the use of mineral facades throughout and a uniform range of light colors. This will not be a collection of expressive autistic buildings—the architectural vocabulary is rather conventional, but the details are elegant and refined, with wonderfully tactile materials. 

conceptsThe 1920s brought us perhaps the greatest wave of modernization in the history of architecture, residential buildings, and urban development. Will we see similar fundamental changes in the 2020s? 

MergenthalerLet’s hope so. Many changes are already happening, but architecture and urban development are very slow-moving. For example, we are only now beginning to take the entire ecological assessment of a building into account. In this area we are already in a state of radical change. You can’t look at a building or its components in isolation—you always have to take the whole project and its context into account.

conceptsIs that changing the way architects such as Herzog & de Meuron work?

MergenthalerYes, we’re thinking a lot more than we used to about urban development and regional planning, for instance. How are people moving through the city and from one city to another? How can we make cities more efficient? How can we set the course for cities to be fit for the decades and centuries ahead? Our field of architecture has always been broad, and we now want to expand it even further, from the macro-perspective where we’re thinking about suburban railroad lines and infrastructure all the way to the footstool that will stand in the building one day. For us it’s exciting to deal with this wide range of challenges.

The project ⇨ At the moment there is still a gigantic urban-development gap in the triangle formed by Friedrichstrasse and Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. “Am Tacheles” will close the gap. A new urban neighborhood that includes homes, shops, and offices is taking shape in the heart of Berlin. Eleven buildings with a total of 86,000 square meters of aboveground space will blend in very harmoniously with the surrounding buildings, which reflect the style of the late 19th century. The former Kunsthaus Tacheles art center is part of the ensemble.

Ascan Mergenthaler ⇨ Mergenthaler, a 51-year-old native of Stuttgart, is one of the five Senior Partners of the architect’s office Herzog & de Meuron and is currently managing up to 14 international projects. He has worked since 1998 at this Basel-based firm, which was honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2001. He has realized iconic projects in cities including Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and New York. Mergenthaler was responsible for the Elbe Philharmonic Hall project almost from the start. He is also the Partner in Charge for the “Am Tacheles” project that has been started in Berlin.