Throughout the course of his career, the forms present in Zvi Hecker's work have undergone significant changes – from the rigidly geometric shapes of his early work such as his Ramot Polin housing and Synagogue in the Negev Desert, to his more freeform recent works like the Jewish School he designed in Berlin. Hecker, though, sees all of his works as both consistent with each other and individual, describing himself as “an artist whose profession is architecture.” In this interview from his “City of Ideas” column, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Hecker about his inspirations and the ideas that underpin his career.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I visited the Heinz-Galinski school here in Berlin where your original idea came from the pattern of sunflower seeds; it was not the first time you used it. Could you talk about your fascination with the sunflower, and why you think it is a good guiding principle for a building?
Zvi Hecker: Well, one can’t qualify it as a blueprint for every building. This one was 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 like a kind of a small city with winding streets and courtyards, not really a building. Later on when the schematic model of the load-bearing walls was made, we were surprised to find out that “pages of an open book” were hidden in our design. 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 began with the idea of a book, I would 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 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. 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 you 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.
VB: 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: 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 a signature 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 a 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: You like testing your clients and 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: These are some radical thoughts! What do you mean?
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, 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 Krakow 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: Do you ever tell your students what architecture is?
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.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.
A version of this interview was previously published by uncube. It was shared with ArchDaily by the author, with permission from uncube.