Revisiting Design Dialogues No. 6

Our never-before-published conversation between Jacques Herzog, Kanye West, and Hans Ulrich Obrist that took place during Art Basel Miami Beach 2013.

On Dec. 4, 2013, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jacques Herzog, Kanye West, and Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist convened for a discussion at the Moore Building in Miami’s Design District during the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. Here, an edited and condensed version of the never-before-published talk.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Jacques Herzog was the first architect I met, when I was 17 or 18 years old. He’s also the first architect whose studio I ever visited. So it’s incredibly exciting to interview him here tonight for Design Dialogues and with Kanye West—someone I’ve always wanted to interview.

The idea came about because I heard that earlier this year Kanye had visited Herzog & de Mueron’s studio, in Basel, during Art Basel. Kanye and I had an amazing conversation then about many different things—about notions of sound, but also about this idea of product, of mass. It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had had with Jacques a few months earlier, about the idea that architecture could go more into mass [culture].

I wanted to begin with the first question to Kanye. I thought we could start with where it all began.

Kanye West: My original creative background was fine art. I’ve been in art school since I was 5 years old. My mother and father both had Ph.D.s, My mother was an actress and went acting school, and was an English major. She saw that I had some talent at drawing, and she placed me in every form of art school—animation, computer graphics, programming, comic books layout, painting—by the time I was 10. When I was 14, I was in national competitions for art, and later I actually went to school for art. Sometimes I forget that, except for when I do tour and look backstage and say, “Wait a second, this is the whole kind of trick I pulled on everyone, to make them think that I was a rapper or a musician or a celebrity when the entire time it’s all been a like giant art project.” Life has been like an art project in some way. I’m actually just an art student that dropped out of college, because I thought that my opinion wasn’t strong enough with what I was painting. When I would see my own work, I never thought that I would visually be able to become one of the masters. I thought that I had a stronger opinion when I worked on music because I got a stronger response.

Obrist: Was there an epiphany with music? What was the trigger for you to go into music?

West: My mom bought me an Amiga computer when I was in seventh grade. It was way cheaper than any PCs—around $600. I was trying to program video games on it, but all of the programs to make the characters walk and design it were way too difficult for me to program on my own. The sound program was way easier, and I would find myself running home after basketball practice, just working on the sound programs and learning more and more. I was into dance and rap and Michael Jackson and Tribe [Called Quest].

I was into creating in general. I had this program that I kept using. I was falling in love with programming every night. Eventually, I got this eight-bit sampler when I was 14 years old. I’d bought it with my money from cutting grass. It was like $200. I found out that rappers use sampling. Before, I was just using all these computer video game noises and putting that together. When I started making beats more seriously, at age 14 in Chicago, I was considered to be a prodigy. This is before people had home laptops or the Internet.

Obrist: Jacques, how did it all start with you and architecture?

Jacques Herzog: It was a very undramatic beginning. Pierre [de Mueron] and I didn’t know what to study. We picked architecture because we believed it would be a mixture of different things—some language, some drawing, some science—and that’s how it came.  There were no architects in our families.

Obrist: Part of your story includes an encounter with Joseph Beuys. How did that happen?

Herzog: Once we started our studies, we really went into art. We became really interested in—and became friends with—artists of our generation. Beuys and Andy Warhol, in the ’60s and ’70s, were the big stars. It’s difficult to imagine today that there would be one, let’s say, “superstar,” because we have a globalized world. It couldn’t be compared with the ’60s and ’70s. At that time, it was really Andy and Beuys. They represented a totally different way of perceiving the world. Both are in some way amazingly important, and looking back, one can understand why.

Obrist: In visual art, it’s often very interesting to see where an artist starts, where the early period comes from, and then where the mature work starts, where the artist finds his or her own language. I was wondering, Kanye, if you could tell us a little bit about how this happened for you.

West: When I was trying to rap in New York, it was a completely different landscape. It was all gangster rap, and everyone said I didn’t have the proper look or the right style of lyrics to cut through. I always liked the idea of crashing this. When I brought Mos Def to the studio with Jay-Z at Baseline, it was a monumental day of blending these two arts together. I always saw myself as a gap between those two [worlds].

I was trying to somehow have my rap sound similar to the music that was out, like DMX or Jay-Z—all the more aggressive music. Then, when I reached into my heritage and the way I was brought up by my mother, and started just explaining, “Hey, I’m so self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” I found my breakthrough and my voice.

Obrist: Jacques, can you tell us about the moment you found your language?

Herzog: It was the beginning of postmodernism, and we didn’t like that. We didn’t feel that we could ever enter into this world. There was a world of architecture “installed,” which we didn’t like. This is comparable to Kanye: You have to destroy a lot before you can find your own language. It’s about destruction—or at least fighting against something. The moment when you feel at home with what you do is hard to tell, but it was many years, and many moments of frustration and of feeling you can never really enter this world. I think for every generation that’s a serious and tough issue.

For us, it was probably when we started to do the overly simple things that looked almost banal, but were really shocking somehow. Like the Dominus winery, which is just a stone gabion-filled building, and the very early minimal structures. Minimalism didn’t yet exist in architecture.

Obrist: Kanye, this idea of breaking new ground brings us right into the present with your Yeezus album. I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about the genesis of it, because you’ve mentioned many times that architecture played a big role in its evolution, that you were inspired by Le Corbusier.

West: As this little black boy growing up in Chicago, I would go to Barnes and Noble down the street and look through comic book magazines or Playboys, and get to architecture magazines. Even before I could afford to buy the magazines, I would just sit at the Barnes and Noble and look at whatever I could see, whether it was Architectural Digest or Dwell, trying to learn about architecture without even ever having a conversation in high school about going to school to be an architect. That wasn’t even something that was brought up as an option. I was always in art class or playing basketball, so I never even knew about actually studying it.

When I started hiring people, [I met] Virgil Abloh, who is a trained architect. I hired him around nine years ago because of a color palette [he created] that I just related to. I kept on opening up more information and finding more and more people like this to work with. [An early Donda employee would] mention an architect or interior designer I should take a look at. One of these recommendations was Joseph Dirand, out of Paris. Because I’m a star or whatever, I have the ability to come to design studios and walk around. When I went to visit Joseph, he started showing me different furniture and teaching me about Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier—this time last year I didn’t know these names.

I’m in a place of such high influence but such low education. This is the issue that people usually have with celebrities. They feel like it’s high influence, but not backed with high education. The problem is, the truth is being held back oftentimes from us. We can be drones that can’t push people to open thought that’s based on truth; it’s more often based on whatever new came out at the Gucci store. This moment of education was like pavement cracking for me. I understood a little more about the market of furniture and how, when you first do your apartment, you want it to look nothing like your parents’. 

The first piece of [20th-century or contemporary design] furniture I bought was the Teddy Bear chair by the Campana brothers, from Murray Moss. I still have an affinity for that because of the scene in Akira—one of my favorite movies—when all of the teddy bears come together. It took this long for me to just to find out about Le Corbusier. As many blog posts as I’ve put up about architecture—about Zaha [Hadid], Herzog, [John] Pawson, or any of the more known people—it took me this long to learn about Le Corbusier.

Obrist: Jacques, it would be interesting to hear about how you first encountered the work of Le Corbusier and what kind of impact it had on you.

Herzog: Honestly, I found what Kanye just said about Le Corbusier more interesting than what I have to say. I’m really very happy, Kanye, that you accepted this invitation by Hans Ulrich and Surface, because there is actually in our society and culture—which is global—almost no relationship between these different disciplines. The way you explained how you learned about Le Corbusier, and how you find a way to make that popular through your own life, I think is a super important contribution. I feel there is a real lack of ways for these different fields in our society to come together and to learn from each other. Even today it’s almost a medieval situation, and that’s a real pity.

My own relationship with Le Corbusier—as an architecture student, you have to learn about Le Corbusier.

Obrist: Kanye, you mentioned minimalism, and in a recent interview you said, “I’m a minimalist in a rapper’s body.” You also referred a lot to Rick Rubin with Yeezus, Rubin having had that impact of producing that record in an almost minimalist way. Can you talk a little bit about this?

West: Rick Rubin said he’s not a producer, he’s a reducer. My next album, I think, is going to be eight songs. [Editor’s note: The album after Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, was released in Feb. 2016 with 19 tracks.] People say, with design, minimalism is the point where you can’t take anything else away; Yeezus was very, very designed. I took a departure from radio and popular music in order to get this seat here on stage; if I hadn’t made Yeezus, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Yeezus is 50 percent void of actual music and what I would consider to be music. It’s more these like scientific-type sounds.

Obrist: Jacques, I want to talk with you about the Pérez Art Museum building. When we were speaking about Le Corbusier earlier, it reminded me of my last conversation I had with Oscar Niemeyer. He was 103 years old. Oscar was saying that even Corbusier, when he came to Brazil, had to adapt to the climate. Corbusier became a very different architect in Brazil. It’s something you’ve always mentioned: the influence of local climate. You’ve said to me that you often came to Miami in the early ’90s with your family. A very different Miami then—a Miami probably more in the way of how Joan Didion described it. You were mentioning that at that time most of the hotels and buildings here were completely ignorant of the climate, and that you felt that with the Pérez Art Museum building it was very important to kind of bring that in. Tell us a little bit about the whole genesis of the museum.

Herzog: Art deco is just a decorated box, and it’s very alien to the climate and the fabulous conditions this city offers in terms of climate and landscape and lush vegetation. We found it important that architecture has a more important role in exploiting all of these ingredients. We felt architecture should do more. This is what we tried to do in both 1111 Lincoln Road, which is basically a naked structure, and also the museum. For a museum, it’s more difficult to achieve that: Art needs to be shown in a relatively stable condition. We tried to achieve permeability and make it accessible for everybody. The museum should be a civic place in an almost European way. That’s very appropriate for the kind of cultural crossroads Miami is at. 

West: I’m really inspired when Jacques brings it back to Warhol and Bueys, or to seeing Miami. I was going through a Jean-Michel Frank book, trying to pin some different pieces I liked, just educating myself. I was looking at some of these sketches of rooms. It bugged me out that people’s houses are still exactly like that—there hasn’t been much forward movement in the way that we live. I think there is a new frontier for living. There is a new standard to be set, to come out of the information that we have post-Tumblr, post-internet. When I see kids’ Tumblrs, I feel like they’re screaming for a world that isn’t there.

One of the reasons I really love fashion and retail spaces is because entering one is like you’re stepping into a new opinion of not only how these clothes should be worn, but the type of space we should live in. I feel like I see 100 examples of things where we’re just being extremely traditional and not accepting new ideas and not empowering people like Elon Musk, people with actual ideas. When I go to Harvard [Graduate School of Design] and say a really bold statement like “I think the world could be saved through design,” to say “saved” sounds very emotional and artistic and politically incorrect, but the world could be engineered, made easier, made more simple, made more effortless, made more ergonomic.

Luxury is time—that’s the only thing that you can’t get back. The luxury of free thought, not having so many opinions forced on us—every place we go there’s a fucking opinion. Someone’s shirt is an opinion, this car is an opinion, this watch is an opinion.

I have this other thing I was gonna say, and I know this might be fucking wrong to say out loud, but watches are dated. People come in and say, “Look at my watch! I’m the man!” But it’s dated. I know I’m not supposed to say that out loud. I’m just giving you an example of where we’re not moving forward as a civilization. We’re still using these old forms of communication to express or put ourselves in that like higher bracket of richness or class. Sorry to anyone with a watch on, but you know you check your iPhone for your time!

Herzog: Kanye and I are very similar in our thinking. Architecture in some ways is very archaic. To have this kind of conversation between different worlds, and people who normally don’t speak or exchange ideas is, I think, an interesting way to transform our societies.

Click here to watch our video recap of Design Dialogues No. 6. 

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