Good Architecture Cannot Be Legal; It Is Illegal!

Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Zvi Hecker, 2015


The architect's studio, Berlin, May 19, 2015

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your name, Zvi is pronounced "Tsvee." Is that right?

ZH: Yes. It is a Hebrew name, because I was born in Poland, my full name is Zvi Tadeusz Hecker.

VB: Yesterday I had a chance to visit your Jewish school here in Berlin. It is not just a school, but a walk through an architect's mind—experiencing how you see what architecture is for you. The original idea came from the pattern of sunflower seeds; it was not the first time you attempted to use it. Could you talk about your fascination with the sunflower, and why you think it is a good guiding principle for a building?

ZH: Well, one can't qualify it as a blueprint for every building. This one is the first Jewish school built in Berlin after the Holocaust. Coming from Israel, I wondered—what could I bring to the children of Berlin? A flower is a natural present and a sunflower is a common flower in Israel. What began as a sunflower evolved into a series of continuously changing images. Already in the construction stage, it looked to some as a kind of a small city with winding streets and courtyards, not really a building. Later on when the schematic model of the loadbearing walls was made, we were surprised to find out that "pages of an open book" were hidden in our design. Strange that we didn't realize it earlier—in Hebrew, school is Beth-Sefer, which literally means "house of the book."

VB: So if you wanted to be clever, you could say that you conceived the school as the house of the book from the beginning.

ZH: But if I will begin with the idea of a book, I will certainly end with the sunflower. [Laughs.] Because it is the transformation from one idea to another that happens in the process of design. No matter which way the process begins, it is the result that counts. One can start with "a" to finish with "k" or hopefully with "z."

VB: Going back to the sunflower, you said that it is a good gift to the children of Berlin. But you've used the sunflower metaphor in the past as well. So it is a recurring idea in your work. Could you elaborate on why?

ZH: You know, during World War II, we were deported to Siberia from Soviet-occupied Polish territory. Then we were sent to Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. There during the afternoon, after the classes at primary school, I sketched the local Uzbek houses. Seems that's when I became an architect. It was a time of a food shortage and the sunflower was helpful... So the sunflower has a personal meaning for me. And it is also nature's greatest phenomenon. The formation of its seeds follows the mathematical sequence of the golden section. It provides great nutrition, its vibrant color radiates to great distances... What else could nature do for us?

VB: Speaking about your school project, you said that the "dynamic and organic character of the sunflower resonates with the nature of education." How so?

ZH: Well, the school was first a sunflower, then a city, then a book... But in a way it remains a sunflower. And it is not as if Zvi Hecker has built a sunflower, nothing like that, but because the walls, facing the sun, reflect the sunlight deep into the classroom's interior. The unique nature of the sunflower, not its form, is at work here. The way children assimilate knowledge is reminiscent of the way the sunflower captivates the sun's rays. Education is the illumination of the mind. And I think that education at this school goes on not only in the classrooms. The architecture of the building is a source of education in itself.

VB: Your school is not just a realization of one unique building. It is consistent with what you have done before and since. It is a work in progress. It is your manifesto in the making, is that right?

ZH: For me, the greatest human invention is bread. You take the flour, yeast, water, salt—nothing special—and you bake the most delightful foodstuff. The same is true for architecture—you mix cement, sand, water—nothing special—and you get a beautiful concrete. You know, Frank Lloyd Wright once said: "Ladies and gentlemen, a brick is worth ten cents, if you give it to me, I will turn it into gold." It is the magic of transformation—what you make out of what you take. And this alchemical process is a life-long labor, not just for one building.
What seems to be consistent in my work is the absence of free-standing buildings for people to go around in admiration. You know, you can't go around the Jewish school, there is nothing to see. You have to go inside even though it will still be outside. My buildings very often tend to interchange into a semblance of a city, its walls shape buildings, squares, and courtyards, providing an enclosure and a sense of security.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, all great revolutionary upheavals pledged to improve the lot of man and its imperfect nature. Humans, improved and reeducated by political doctrines, will be housed in glass buildings, having nothing to hide. People could be put on display. But human existence is not for display, it needs to be sheltered. I am at heart a medieval architect—in my architecture, one wall reinforces another one. Buildings are walls and the walls are buildings. Whatever form they take is the consequence of the place, the material, and the function.
It was said that in my work one feels the place where I'm building and the place from where I come. I come from the medieval city of Cracow; I grew up in the medieval city of Samarkand, and began my architectural practice by building a walled city in the Negev Desert. Uprooted so many times in my life, it's no wonder I try to build a world that would withstand destruction. One tent to believe that the artist's life holds the key to the understanding of his work.

VB: Could you talk about different ideas in your work? Some of your early residential projects are based on a repetition of the same modular, and other projects are freer, based on such imagery as hands and spirals with all spaces being unique. Are these different ideas or are they part of one idea?

ZH: As a student of Alfred Neumann it was natural for me to use modular geometry as a kind of matrix and grammar for the architectural design. But of course it was only the way to make the idea intelligible, not an aim in itself. Rather a kind of scaffolding taken off when the building is completed. Later on, images like the palm of a hand, a maple leaf, or a sunflower imposed their own syntax. An organic metaphor runs through many of my designs.

VB: Once you compared your Jewish school to a landscape of our childhood dreams. Could you say the same about your other projects?

ZH: That would be a very literal thing to say about our unconscious dream desires... But there is some relationship between dreams and landscapes. As I avoid free-standing objects, my architecture tends to be associated with landscapes and generally with nature.

VB: Okay, now let me ask you this—you came up with your design for the school that started as a sunflower, then it merged into a city, and finally turned into a book. At some point you built a model, put it in front of the client, and there it was—a strange beast with acute angles and impractical spaces. Was that something you had to fight for? What was the client's initial reaction? Didn't he say, "Oh my god, how in the world are we going to build this?"

ZH: This was a competition project. After I won it, both the city engineer of Berlin and the client said, "This school cannot be built." The jury liked the design, but now we needed to turn it into a real building. Despite many objections we succeeded to proceed without compromise. Inken Baller did a great job directing and supervising the project. I feel we made it work.
Quite often I've found myself building without the needed support of the client. The Jewish school is not the only example of this situation. But I've always taken the work very personally. Sometimes I've personally directed the construction, like in the case of the Spiral Apartment House. It is fantastic when you feel you can do things regardless of what others tell you.
Now we are building a large new campus for the Royal Dutch Military Police near Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. It is the result of an interview, no design was drawn up. Later we had to develop the project under the watchful eye of our military client. Each presentation was highly charged. The generals thought that simple barracks are good enough. They tried to convince me to change my design and I said, "No." They almost fired me.
The complex seen from the plane is actually a new gateway to the Netherlands. Its form is reminiscent of a walled medieval city but here the wall is the city. This wall contains offices, dormitories, a school, a restaurant, a sports hall, and so on. When it's finished this year it will be my largest realized project to date.

VB: Just like Leon Battista Alberti said: "A city is a big house and a house is a small city." What other metaphors have you used in your projects apart from the sunflower—a spiral, a hand, a wall, what else?

ZH: Well, for example, looking from a distance at the Spiral, the stairs and the ramps resemble large snakes that infiltrated its interior, climbing all the way to the roof. In the Jewish school, snakes are very important as they form corridors for children to stroll through.
The sign of the hand in Middle-Eastern cultures means that behind the wall there is life. The Hebrew word for hand is yad, and yad also means "memorial." For example, Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. My Jewish Cultural Center in Duisburg, Germany unfolds into the figure of an open hand, a memorial for the destroyed synagogue that once stood there. It can also be perceived as an open book of five large concrete "pages" that introduce light into the interior.
But no one really needs to know about these metaphors. You may also be unaware of the fact that Filippo Brunelleschi used the golden section throughout Cappella Pazzi in Florence. However, upon entering the chapel you are enlightened by a sense of harmony and great simplicity.
I think that one doesn't need to know much more about these metaphors than about the fertilizer of an apple tree. It is not the roots of the tree we look for, but its fruit. An architect takes care of the roots.

VB: Do you ever share your "problems" with your clients?

ZH: Yes. I told you that sometimes I might be inflexible because as soon as I start to understand the unique character of the design and how well it functions it becomes hard for me to compromise.

VB: You are perceived as an "artist-architect." Is that how you see yourself?

ZH: I see myself on both sides of the art spectrum. I regularly exhibit my artwork in art galleries and show my architectural projects in architecture museums. Sometimes I hear people say, "So, you are really an artist." I suppose it is a compliment, since being an artist seems to be better than just being an architect. [Laughs.] I don't deny that I am an artist and I answered, "I am an artist whose profession is architecture."

VB: Do you intend your buildings to be works of art?

ZH: I believe an artist's path is toward transcendence. I hope that my designs, when built, will be considered works of art within architecture, but who can predict it. We also don't know what our children will become but we must provide them with the best possible education. This is what the process of design is all about, broadening the intelligence of our designs.

VB: Would you say you are an auteur architect? Is that the intention—to find your distinctive voice and express it artistically?

ZH: Distinctive voice is a very poetic expression; I like it, though I think I am rather looking for a distinctive voice for each of my designs. If one detects certain coherence in my "oeuvre" it is a natural result of what I stand for; what I believe in, it is not a conscious attempt toward a distinctive diction of mine, but rather a faithfulness to what is manifested in the design.

VB: Isn't that the intention of every architect?

ZH: Personally, I try to satisfy my common sense and eventually refine the intelligence of my design. But I am not trying to attain a particular expression that would be distinctly mine. It would anyhow be fruitless. I believe that if you cultivate your own garden something will grow out of your seeds. As a young architect I consciously avoided Le Corbusier's example, but it was very tempting. Some of my generation fell into this trap. I liked Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture and his arrogant posture. You know, Bruce Goff once told me about Wright's reaction to one of his latest designs: "Bruce, who are you trying to scare?" And then he added, "but we do scare them sometimes." [Laughs.]

VB: Scare the clients . . . So you like testing your clients and really exploring your limits.

ZH: I am an artist after all. You know, real art and real architecture cannot be totally legal; very often both are in direct conflict with legality.

VB: Say what? These are some radical thoughts!

ZH: Well, look at my Spiral Apartment House in Ramat Gan, Israel. It has its illegal twist. One can question, for example, the legality of the changes I made in plans during the construction phase, plans that were approved by the building authority and bought on paper by the people. They wanted to sue me. The construction was stopped repeatedly because of complaints from the neighbors. In order to keep going on, it needed the assertion of my personal will and total dedication, by working by myself on the scaffolding. This illegal provocative element is not foreign to art, it is a kind of disruptive agent that upsets the established order.

VB: So do you see yourself as a radical architect?

ZH: Not at all. The so called "radical designs" play egalitarian games and look very commercial. I would gladly consider myself as the architect of the pyramids in Egypt, temples in Greece, or castles in Spain. I am a traditional architect because I try to address the basic traditional needs of the people. If someone sees me as a radical, it is most probably because of the way I interpret those needs in contemporary terms.

VB: Well, being radical is also a tradition—building something that never has been done before, whether pyramids, temples, or castles. Part of architectural tradition is breaking traditions, that's what you mean. You teach architecture; do you have any particular ways of doing that?

ZH: The architectural tradition is the richest and oldest of all the arts, and is also very well documented. For over 4,000 years now. But at some schools of architecture, teaching begins with so-called modern architecture. I think students would learn more if exposed to the way cities like Rome, Paris, Barcelona, and Cracow were masterfully expanded by nineteenth-century architects. They were the real modern architects!

VB: You've said: "Architecture is above all an act of magic . . . due to the fact that it hides more than it reveals. What we look at, what we see, is only a reflected image of what we cannot see: architecture's soul." Do you think architecture's soul is always hidden?

ZH: Architecture's soul can't be seen. Like in the plays of Anton Chekhov—we can only guess what the sisters in the Three Sisters feel like, as they are unable to spell it out. That is why these plays are always contemporary; silence is never outdated. The same is true for architecture. The silence of what can't be seen creates the architectural form and its invisible soul.

VB: You moved to Berlin after the fall of the Wall. There is a sentiment that after a short period in the early nineties, when some radical projects were conceived and ultimately built, predominantly by foreigners, architecture here has become very conservative. Do you agree?

ZH: Well, for example, there is this ongoing saga concerning the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport, its opening being postponed again and again. The officials cite many reasons for years of delays: mismanagement, poor planning, low quality construction execution, and so on. But I think there is another, more significant reason, which is deeply rooted in the way we approach the importance of the built environment here in Berlin, particularly after the unification of Germany. Since then, no real piece of architecture was built in Berlin, no new Neue Nationalgalerie, no new Philharmonie, no new Stadtbibliothek. I am convinced that in the present conservative atmosphere, Hans Scharoun would have had no chance of building the Philharmonie, for example.

VB: Why is that?

ZH: Before the unification, Berlin was an island in a sea of communist regimes, and as such had to prove its importance and its very existence. International competitions were staged in order to choose not banality but originality. Today, architectural banality is the way Berlin grows. Doing nothing new, we became parasites on the achievements of previous generations.

VB: Do you ever tell students what architecture is? How do you explain it?

ZH: I don't know what architecture is; I only know what architecture is not. I have to discover it for myself in each new project. You may find some common threads in my work, though it seems to me that I always start from zero. I believe so. For me, designing a building is like cooking a meal. I try not to reheat the old stuff, but start with ordinary ingredients in hopes of arriving at an extraordinary taste.
I like working with limitations. It is all about overcoming and exploiting difficulties. As a result, some of my buildings look as if they were always there. That's a very good sign.