Zumthor goes to the essence of things
Peter Zumthor, Study model of Hotel Therme in Vals, Switzerland Peter Zumthor is a legendary figure among leading contemporary architects, both for the quality of his work and for his aura of mystery and inaccessibility. Born in 1943 in Basel, Zumthor studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule and at the Pratt Institute in New York but since graduating he has preferred to live and work in a ravishingly beautiful part of Switzerland near Chur in Canton Graubunden. He has designed seminal and sometimes remote buildings like the Thermal Baths at Vals and the Kunsthaus in Bregenz. His current projects include a pilgrimage chapel, a summer restaurant on an island in Lake Zurich and a home for Walter de Maria’s I Ching, designed for the Dia Foundation’s estate in Beacon, New York. Visiting him a few days before he lectured at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Jeremy Melvin realised how the Alpine setting mirrors Zumthor’s personality and work. His exquisite but uncompromising buildings do seem to be wrought from the living rock but perceptions of human need are also important in their shaping.
At Home in Haldenstein
Peter Zumthor relishes his home in the dramatic and mountainous landscape around Haldenstein, the village outside Chur in central Switzerland where he has lived for nearly 40 years. Every July, when the university term finishes, clients go on holiday and the phone rings less frequently, he withdraws to his home and studio to engage with his 15 collaborators in a controlled burst of creative energy. Designs for new projects emerge which have similarly powerful bonds with their own surroundings.
‘You always build in a place,’ he says. ‘One possibility is to impose your own style wherever you go. Another possibility is that the place inspires you to do something special. I belong to the second category. I see the site as a source of inspiration and my desire is to create something which corresponds with it. This house is an example,’ he says, gesturing at his own home. ‘It says “I like all my neighbours!” and I hope this house tells the story that it likes to be here.’
Close to the original timber-clad studio is his new house and personal working area. Its cuboid, concrete forms arranged around a courtyard garden exude a sense of symbiosis that parallels the way an 11th century watchtower seems to grow naturally from a sheer mountainside visible through the giant kitchen window.
The Presence of the Past
Peter Zumthor aims to integrate his buildings so closely with their surroundings that distinctions between past and present, new and old, seem to melt away. Spending the first ten years of his career preserving historic buildings helped to form this sensibility. He explains how this came about.
‘In 1967 or ’68 we drew the conclusion that gestaltung [form-making] was out because you first had to change the basis of society.’ He remembers the revolutionary climate of the time: ‘we felt the political correctness hard and so there were ten years during which preservation was good to do… The late 1960s saw the start of a reaction… The Germans were destroyed by war but we [the Swiss] were destroying by building’. Shortly after he completed his architectural training ‘I found myself working for the office for preserving historic monuments in this whole area… landscapes and ordinary farmhouses as well as high-ranking monuments’. He satisfied his interest in contemporary culture in other ways. ‘We started a little experimental theatre in Chur which still exists…’
‘Swiss German architects were all politics and no design, our Latin compatriots in the Ticino like Luigi Snozzi were determined not to leave architecture to the speculators so they formed their own Communist Party’ towards the end of the 1970s. They drew inspiration from the Italian architect, educator and theorist Aldo Rossi and the historian Stanislaus von Moos, both then teaching at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, whose architecture school is one of the best in Europe. ‘This made it possible to go back to architecture and for the first time I entered competitions,’ remembers Zumthor. ‘It is hard to imagine being an architect without having had experience of working on old buildings – let’s hope it has had an influence.’
Swiss and other architectural cultures
‘The Swiss are pragmatic and don’t overestimate themselves,’ says Peter Zumthor when asked why Switzerland has produced so many leading contemporary architects. Apart from himself, the roll includes Herzog and de Meuron and Diener and Diener in Basel, Luigi Snozzi and Mario Botta in the Ticino. With its system of guest professors from all over the world, the country’s leading architecture school, the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zurich ‘is a solid, old school which absorbs new cultures, and has a certain openness so students get in contact with what is happening in the world’.
In what Zumthor calls Allemanic culture, covering southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, there is an intellectual tradition of ‘going to the essence of things’. ‘If I read a crazy guy like Heidegger’ – who came from this part of the world – ‘he’s too much for me but sometimes I read something and do see what he’s trying to say. I understand him as trying to look for the essential and not for fashion.’
Zumthor contrasts this with the Dutch who were sent abroad by the Spanish to be merchants because the Spanish ‘didn’t want to send their own guys from Spain as they would have had too much freedom’. As a consequence, the ‘Dutch have a very open-minded culture which you find now in their architecture. It is the opposite of what I do, going into the earth and embracing it, craftsmanship and all this bullshit… These are the two extremes. Maybe time will tell, but the appreciation of looking at a quality thing will always come back… Not everything will be Dutch!’
Atmosphere is my Style
‘Atmosphere is my style’, wrote JMW Turner RA to the critic John Ruskin, and Peter Zumthor cited it in his book Atmospheres (Birkhauser 2006). ‘Architecture is something physical and experiential. You have to ask, how does this feel? How does this look? It’s not about being intellectually brilliant, thought it’s nice when that happens.’ Architecture ‘doesn’t deal with abstract things like philosophy. Knowing what you’re doing is important, but it doesn’t start there. It starts with emotions. I feel in a line of people, not just architects, who are looking at and experiencing the world, and the more you look at it the more interesting it becomes. I have a relationship to people in other arts. We make the same investigations… looking passionately, emotionally and trying to be part of what we see.’
Design: between invention and discovery
Architecture, says Peter Zumthor, depends on ‘dialectic between invention and discovery. Both are essential. It’s good to know that there is not only invention and also good that it can’t only be discovery… something happens and you end up doing something you haven’t done before.’
‘Archaeology or topography can be important’. Referring to a current project for a summer restaurant on an island in Lake Zurich, he continues, ‘[the island] is an odd thing which has come up from the bottom of glaciers. It is very polished, like the back of something. There is a layer of soft, horizontal light. Then comes the polished rock and then a thin layer of earth. The building reacts to this. It has a lot to do with the silhouette and the soft, almost erotic light, the old churches and baroque buildings.’
‘I don’t make a big myth of drawings. A real representation of something would destroy it. The best images of something not yet built are the ones that give you a broad, open feeling, like a promise… You have to spread some enthusiasm for a project before it is built. You have to do it for yourself and to contaminate other people.’ This effect is achieved in the model photographs of the tiny pilgrimage chapel dedicated to St Nikolaus von Flue. ‘Why did we make these images?’ wonders Zumthor. ‘We did the model to learn from it and photographed it, and all of a sudden it was easy to see how it might be in reality. These images transfer it into another reality… that’s why you can sell a concrete building to someone who dislikes concrete by making a model in wood.’ The building itself is formed from concrete poured around a tepee-like structure of tree trunks, which will be burnt out using a charcoal-burning process, leaving a roughly moulded surface to modulate light entering from top before it disperse onto the lead floor.
The future: Summerworks 2006
Shortly after giving the Annual Architecture Lecture at the Royal Academy Peter Zumthor started his Summerworks for 2006. One project is a hotel adjacent to the Thermal Baths at Vals, started in the previous year with a wax model of striated fingers defining a series of flowing spaces. ‘These are four dramatic rooms opening up to the view. The model is a plan of a tower and we are trying to get a sense of being up in the air, 20, 30 or 40m above ground… it’s fun to do it.’
But becoming a fully-fledged Zumthor client is not easy. He describes a ‘guy from Dublin [who] invests in city centre real estate, buys art and says “people tell me you’re the best architect, you can do me a house, a key work of the 21st century” and I tell him “you cannot order these things!” I have reputation for being stubborn and not driven by money.’
What he longs for are large scale urban projects. ‘I hope I will get a client who wants to do a really big housing project with a patient client who wants to invest in quality… We had a big project for a town in Finland, but the developer said ‘no’ and the city did not have the power to force him… With housing you have to solve functional problems, but it’s tough and quality is hard to achieve with a developer.’ Of a scheme on a site owned by the Swiss Railway company in Luzern he says I want to ‘show these idiots that it could be a commercial success, in the centre, right next to Nouvel’s congress hall where there is a need for better apartments, God damn it!’