Hermann Hertzberger Gold Medal Lecture

With the expectant audience at the RIBA’s Jarvis Hall sitting in front of the Jarvis Hall’s computer controlled projection screen, waiting to hear the 2012 Gold Medal recipient Hermann Hertzberger’s Gold Medal lecture, it was no surprise to anyone that the famous frontman for humanism in architecture was having difficulty with the Powerpoint.

The audience had seen the same two slides of the Pyramids and a Roman Amphitheatre so many times, it was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day-before Hertzberger realised he had been holding the remote the wrong way round. The Gold Medal winner can be forgiven his refusal to engage with cold hard technology- it hardly seems his thing.

An assumption that made his ensuing lecture so surprising. At the outset Hertzberger, in his understated way, said that he would be showing a lot of slides of other peoples’ buildings; but it turns out it would, in the best Shakespearean sense, be about burying them as well as praising them.

So if brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll get through the hit list quickly. Pyramids, No. Amphitheatres, Yes. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, No; despite being ‘a very good and clever architect’. And they might have been in Humanist group Team 10 together, but Alison and Peter Smithson are a definite No- ‘can’t even talk about them- but they are also very clever and good architects’. Patrik Schumacher and the MAXXI Centre in Rome are No, No, No.

Strangely, Norman Foster and his Hong Kong Bank is an amazing, ‘genius’, Yes! as he described his love of the public meeting space beneath the bank’s glass belly, with Hertzberger saying ‘Somebody should tell him how clever he is if he doesn’t already know.’ And Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building got a great big thumbs up-’ The great thing is it could be a hospital, or offices, or anything else’. Hertzberger’s view is that great architecture should inherently have the ability to be transformed into something else.

The notion of public space is also fundamental to Hertzberger’s ethos, with plenty of pictures of italian squares and arabic housing over common streets to illustrate his point. In this regard the ‘very clever’ Bjarke Ingels from BIG gets a very big ‘NO’ for his ‘mountain’ housing complex in Copenhagen- ‘Why would you spend all your efforts making your main social space the car park?’ To counter point this, we saw plenty of Hertzberger’s schools, which are all based on the notion of gathering and common observance, with the architect adding sagely ‘Mathematics is the last reason a teenage boy and a girl go to school.’

And so we returned to the the architect’s seminal 1972 Centraal Beheer offices in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands- a model of office and social space that distilled all of his notions into one building. Aaron Betsky had once been shown round the building and had exclaimed ‘This is not architecture- there are too many entrances and exits!’. ‘I’d like to take that comment as a compliment,’ said Hertzberger at the end of the lecture, ‘That the building had become absorbed into the urban fabric, like more streets in the city.’ So would I- after all, his buildings are about being generic enough to allow the people that use them to leave their own imprint, their own trace. ‘Architects so often seem scared of people,’ he mused, ’ and they shouldn’t be.’