Talk delivered in Dublin by Architect Herman Hertzberger.

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 17 weeks ago.

I was listening lately to Danah Boyd's lecture at Vienna on Google Video. And all throughout the
talk I was reminded of a piece I wrote having attended a lecture given by the famous Architect
Herman Hertzberger. Enjoy.

The opening Slide was of his office building design, Central De Beer in Holland. Herman
comments, that a revolution in Society facilitated a revolution in Architecture. Nowadays Herman
seems to enjoy re-designing schools, more than re-designing office space. Because after 35 years
since the design of Central de Beer, this architect still wishes to follow where ‘the revolution is
happening in society’. Herman Hertzberger wants a building to become a city. “This is not a
building, it is a settlement”. Herman proclaims about Central De Beer. He designed it to promote
the working of people in groups. But this response to the program of designing office space is no
longer possible, given the widespread engraining of a ‘managerial mentality’ in today’s society.
John Meagher made strikingly similar comments on the design of church architecture in his talk,
relating how the priest on the pulpit likes to eyeball his listeners at all times. Herman described in
architecture today, the use of the ‘sliced sectional diagram’ – the slices in the building’s section,
slicing the occupants of the office building into a many distinct and separate social islands. None of
who are aware of any of the other ‘slices’.

Herman even goes further in places, to compare the Victorian notion of school design to
sophisticated prisons. The building Herman is interested in designing becomes like a three
dimensional city, with lots of open space where socialisation of many different cultures can occur.
Contrasted within the brief for a school building should be ‘spaces for concentration’ with a space
designed around the concept of ‘togetherness’ and ‘view lines’. Not only that, Herman’s brief for a
school project even extends to the entrance spaces, where the kids parents meet one another as they
deliver their children each morning and receive them in the evenings. I guess you only have to
observe the chaos that surrounds entrance spaces to many schools here in Dublin city, to understand
where Herman is coming from. Certainly kids’ parents in Dublin like to meet each other too, but
often we do not provide adequate space for it to happen. The resulting traffic chaos saying it all – an
opportunity for better social integration missed. We tend in this country to think of the school-run as
a cause of vehicular congestion. It only underlines how much we have learned to view environments
from the traffic engineer’s point-of-view of the automobile. Note how many schools have featured,
in the keynote lectures at the AAI this year. Carme Pinos also described some very worthy school
projects of hers in Spain. There must be a revolution happening in society at the moment, strongly
centred around the school as a building type. Though in fairness, the lessons derived from hearing a
talented architect speak about school design are important to almost any other building type – and as
Herman would argue, even the design of cities.

The issues Herman spoke about, reminded me of the Theatre or Cultural Centre Building projects
done in Architectural Schools. Where the project explores at its extreme best, the possibility of
social interaction amongst the staff working to produce performance projects –varying in form from
small experimental productions, to dance, art exhibition, up to larger commercial productions. The
brief for a Cultural Centre will often include an accommodation unit for a visiting artist. Here
Herman Hertzberger’s comments about ‘slices of space’ and slices of people are equally as valid.
Throughout a career in architecture spanning many decades, Herman Hertzberger has always been
interested more in the ‘in-between’ objects, as opposed to the objects themselves. Indeed Herman
relates this to being interested in what urbanists are interested in, rather than what architects might
be interested in. In his school project, Herman observed how 1,300 people all move around the
school at once. So in his resultant design, he maintained stairs in the middle of the building, which
were ‘as open as possible’. The school whose occupants consisted of many different Ethnic Groups
were encouraged to be in more contact with one another. In another slide for a juniors school, you
could see two kids were busy removing the ‘wall’ between the formal space of their classroom and
the social space beyond – somehow, from the budget of a school building, Herman was able to
organise for this very nice sliding wall/door element, which offered the occupants some flexibility
in how they used their space. Architecture is about people – not making architecture easier for
people – it is about, what they are. “Everywhere you make steps”, that is, if you wish a building to
become a city in microcosm. Space becomes about connection of people, without any separation.
Changing the use of the ground, whether it became steps for socialisation, or an outside roof that
took the form of a hillock for crowds to sit on, coated in Astro-Turf.

I thought I had remembered everything I could from the Hertzberger lecture, but while I was
walking past the Central Bank in Dame Street the other day, I was reminded of something else that
Herman said about young people wanting to be dynamic. I got nervous that some kid on a
skateboard was going to plough into me, and swirved around me just at the last moment. Initially I
began to feel angry and to think of something to fire back at the young twit, when I remembered
suddenly how Herman manages to turn all of these things, we see as negative, into a positive.

Herman was invited to stand in as part of the jury for a competition in France to renovate an area of
Social Housing. Herman sifts through some of the eliminated entries and happened to come across
one in particular, one which featured a lot of tarmac areas around an existing social housing
complex. Although the jury had discarded this entry, Herman instead re-included it in the final
shake-up,... because he decided the entry made an important statement about the reality of young
teenagers, who love to appear dynamic, who have all of this energy they need desperately to
release, and how our perception that everywhere needs greenery - a surface not exactly suited to
skate boarding - denies the realities of the human condition for kids of a certain ages, in their living
environments. The example he showed of a basketball court on the roof of a bookshop/cafe, was
also used to drive home the same point. So I definitely learned something from Herman
Hertzberger's lecture in the context of my experience with skate boarders on Dame Street.
On Form and Significance.

Herman is someone, who struggles to find meaning first and then form. Hence his use of physical
models through which he tries to understand the existence of what he calls ‘view lines’. All of the
ideas about the building as a city, and how to raise people - are thereby incubated and encouraged
through his process of using physical models. ‘I am one of those older Architects who tries
desperately to find meaning first and then form, as opposed to form first and then look for meaning’.
Though the above is a rough approximation to Herman Hertzberger’s comments on the search for
form in Architecture, the are very similar to the words uttered down through time, by other people
in other fields of expertise. I always like this quote from Sun Tzu in the ‘Art of War’.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.
Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his
battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it
means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a
position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.
Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won,
whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.