Arts Extra: Designing Men

Jacques Herzog, one half of the ober-hip Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, stood on the steps of Monticello last Monday as a golden twilight began to fall on the mountaintop mansion near Charlottesville, Va. It was an incongruous momsent. Here was Herzog-wearing a tuxedo with a ruffled pink shirt open at the neck-about to accept the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize on behalf of his partner, Pierre de Meuron, and himself. Most famous for their design of the Tate Modern art museum in London, built in a huge re-habbed power station, Herzog & de Meuron get at the essence of architecture with pared-down forms and inventive materials. So why were these two avant-garde Euros being honored at a paragon of 18th-century Americana, designed by our only architect-president, Thomas Jefferson?

Herzog, who'd been spotted earlier in the day on a historic Charlottesville street (and he was easy to spot-he was the only guy all in black including a leather jacket), said he didn't have a clue what his connection was to our third president. Jefferson's buildings aren't analyzed in Swiss architecture schools. Of course, Herzog hastened to say, he was honored by any comparison.

The Pritzker Prize, often called architecture's Nobel, was started in 1979 by Chicago's Pritzker family, who run the Hyatt hotel chain. The family foundation funds the annual $100,000 award but doesn't choose the winner-that's decided by an independent jury of architects and critics. But the Pritzker family does weigh in on where the ceremony will take place each year, and it's become a moveable feast, celebrating not just major living architects but also significant structures around the world. Since the site is usually chosen before the jury comes up with a winner, there've been some fascinating juxtapositions. In 1989, Frank Gehry got his Pritzker at the Todai-ji Buddhist Temple in Nara, Japan. A few years later, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, revered for his austere modernist designs in concrete, was honored at Versailles. Last year, the up-to-the-minute Dutch designer Rem Koolhaas picked up his award at the Jerusalem Archeological Park in Israel.

But just for fun, let's take a stab at linking Herzog & de Meuron to our designing Founding Father. Like Jefferson, the Swiss misters are innovative, but draw on traditional forms. Jefferson, who loved Roman architecture, designed the first temple-front building in America, the Virginia state capitol at Richmond, based on the ancient Roman Maison Carre in Nimes, France. Herzog & de Meuron have deliberately employed the simple form of the box and, more ingeniously, once designed a house shaped like one from a Monopoly game-no eaves, no extensions except for a chimney poking up, as a child might draw it. ("We love to destroy the cliches of architecture," Herzog has said. "To do this most effectively, it is sometimes useful to work with them.") Jefferson was concerned with screening doors and windows for privacy while admitting light and air. He loved louvered shutters, as you can see today on the doors to the student rooms he designed at the University of Virginia. Herzog & de Meuron are fascinated with different ways of admitting daylight or emitting artificial light at night. At a train station in Basel, Switzerland, they designed a signal tower that's covered in horizontal strips of copper, looking vaguely as if the entire structure is wrapped in venetian blinds.

Herzog & de Meuron hunger for new technology, as Jefferson did. In his acceptance speech, as the sun was setting on Monticello, Herzog expressed a yearning for the industry to devise new materials with which they could build. Then he and de Meuron, wearing their new Pritzker medals on red ribbons, joined their wives and the firm's other two partners, Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger, for dinner under a big tent pitched on Jefferson's lawn. They and the Pritzker's other guests dined on quail (Jefferson's favorite dish) and garden vegetables (Jefferson, the first multitasker, was a busy botanist who cultivated many varieties of peas).

In the end, a historic American site may have suited Herzog & de Meuron perfectly. After years of building only in Europe, they're now spending a lot of time in America on a half dozen projects: they designed a vineyard in Napa Valley and are building a house nearby for a couple with an extensive multimedia art collection. They're also designing the new de Young Museum in San Francisco and a major addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. And they're collaborating with Koolhaas on a hotel for New York City. Herzog has said, "What we are interested in is using well-known forms and materials in a new way so that they become alive again." That sounds like an idea Thomas Jefferson could embrace.