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KIPNIS – The Cunning of Cosmetics


Jeffrey Kipnis

The Cunning of Cosmetics


Sykes, Krista. Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2010. Print.


Ricola Europe, France, 1993


J. Kipnis introduces himself as a defender of the avant-garde, the exotic, and a dismisser of cartesian volumes such as Herzog & de Meuron’s. He calls these simple and superficial because of their focus on the cosmetic and fastidious details – clearly frivolous in comparison to radical experiments.



Minimalismus und Ornament

He begins to talk about when he started noticing Herzog & de Meuron’s work, in a March 1996 Arch-Plus special issue by Nikolaus Kuhnert entitled Herzog et de Meuron: Minimalismus und Ornament. Jeffrey then compares the cunning of cosmetic in their architecture with a computer virus that reprograms his thoughts and feelings, that slipped into his consciousness through his will, eluding any and all resistance.



To Kipnis, the title “Minimalismus und Ornament” and its taxonomy could not possibly apply to Herzog & de Meuron’s work. However, he does not dwell on this act of classification but is rather amazed at the architects’ ability to surpass these diagonally opposed categories, by incorporating both minimalism and ornament seamlessly into their work. Jeffrey calls it the “insidious guile of an architecture able to infiltrate so effortlessly such irreconcilable categories, and, in so doing begin to dismantle and reform them” – he exemplifies this dichotomy with the SignalBox and its copper bands skin, in that they can definitely be considered an act of ornamentation, while the building’s form set its place in the minimalist category.

As outlined by Kipnis, the most potent characteristics of de Meuron’s architecture are:

“an urbane, cunning intelligence”

“an intoxicating, almost erotic allure”

According to him, these traits enable it to go anywhere and everywhere, to appear fascinating and harmless at the same time, with undermining subterfuges and sly deceits.


The SignalBox


Jeffrey then goes back to addressing Herzog’s signal boxes which are signal stations in a train yard – he compares these boxes to sirens – you are “enticed, drawn to a distant train yard when there’s absolutely nothing for you there”.

Herzog & de Meuron achieves the á la mode edge by brushing aside the usual considerations for a signal station and its grungy site, while till managing to make the understatement of the signal box “as hip to its surroundings as a gangster in colors on South Central LA.”

The design shows no concern with network flows on the site, its architecture is rather a matter of cosmetics and “hypnotic”, seductive system of copper bands. Rem Koolhaas remarks on the beauty of Herzog’s façades to be “architecture reinforcement therapy or does it play a role in redefining, undermining, exploding, erasing…?”

“Does every situation have a correct architecture?”


Cosmetics vs. Ornament

To Kipnis, there is transformative power in the cosmetic – God forbid we associate cosmetics with ornaments!

Ornaments attach as discrete entities to the body – reinforcing the structure and integrity of the body as such, while cosmetics are indiscrete and relate only to the skin – taking the body for granted.


  • ornament = entity – requires balance/ proportion / precision
  • cosmetics = aura/air – req. control gone out of control / schizo-control

Could then the two be analogous to piercings and tattoos, relying on the body as their structure and taking it for granted respectively?



Ricola Europe

He goes back to Kuhnhert’s taxonomy and points out Herzog & de Meuron’s decisive achievement – the coherence between ornamentalism and minimalism. He exemplifies Ricola Europe, with its walls silkscreened with leaf images.

Jeffrey goes on to describe the sublime of this screen, and that the images are only visible from the exterior if the light hits at the right angle, contrasting it to the straight forward plan and blunt form. The genius of this building, he says, lies in its stark presence seeming to disappear in its delicate allure – this marriage of heavy and weightless becoming the tour de force of cosmetics.


The New Redefined Orthodox

Herzog & de Meuron’s technique is architectural in that their use of form, structure and material follow the “strictest canon of the architectonic”, or simply put, they follow elements from the same architectural vocabulary of all time: molds that grow on surfaces, stained water tracks. However, they create a renewed sensibility from this palette instead of introducing new entries. They claim that the power of the cosmetic resides in architecture’s orthodoxy itself, and by pursuing design within existing materiality, they achieve a dematerialization that surpasses even Eisenman’s ideas more than two decades old now.

Eisenman’s buildings are dismissed as ’irreal’, as he rendered his forms as empty shapes in indifferent materials – he did so because he considered materiality to be a perversion manifestation of fetishism or nostalgia. As such, they fail to insist themselves as Herzog’s do.

Using highly tactile materials such as concrete, de Meuron would emphasize the reality of a building and dematerialize it by manipulating the concrete instead of replacing it.

Kipnis gives the Kunstkiste Museum as an example of an intensified weight of materiality in its top heavy proportions and extreme use of concrete, which is however destined to be stained on every surface by the roof water. Vertical striation of rust and algae will be created, transforming what initially appeared as a concrete box, into a contradicting appearance, that of a viscous liquid in an aquarium with blackened windows floating at random with neutral buoyancy.



Heavy or light?


Solid or liquid?


Real presence or imagined illusion?

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