Selected Articles

Peter Zumthor: Architecture's Swiss Mystic

January 7, 1999

Tags: architecture

HALDENSTEIN, Switzerland - THE image of the mountain mystic clings to Peter Zumthor, the former cabinetmaker and surveyor who is a leader of the new Swiss architecture. A visit to Mr. Zumthor is not unlike a pilgrimage. It can take all day to traverse the mountain valleys from Zurich to this farming hamlet of 700 in the southeastern corner of the country. Here, among the music of cowbells and smells of the chicken coops is Mr. Zumthor's studio, distinguishable from his neighbors' wooden barns by its high-style metal door.

The door swings open and here stands the architect, looking the part of the mystic, with his cropped hair, robelike garb and bemused expression. Is he laughing at the sight of yet another visitor arriving, breathless, at his door?

At 55, Mr. Zumthor has barely a dozen buildings to his credit, yet a powerful legend has grown up around him. Until last year, he limited publication of his work, most of it in this remote canton of Graubunden. In contrast to the hectic spirit of much fashionable architecture, he creates an architecture of calm and sufficiency: his mountain buildings are simple volumes, meticulously constructed of basic materials. When he was awarded the international Carlsberg Architecture Prize in September, the judges noted: "Perhaps because he lives in a remote part of the country, he has been able to pursue his ideas with few distractions. The isolation has not made him provincial, but more profound."

But Mr. Zumthor's obscurity is becoming a thing of the past. The first book on his work, "Peter Zumthor: Works, Buildings and Projects 1979-1997," appeared last spring, followed by a collection of his essays, "Thinking Architecture," both published by Lars Muller. In Berlin, his museum for the Topography of Terror, on the sensitive site of the former Gestapo headquarters, broke ground in September. In Hamburg, his Swiss pavilion at Expo 2000 will soon be under way. Such events inspired Richard Ingersoll to observe in Architecture magazine that, like Zarathustra, Nietzsche's hermit protagonist, "Zumthor has come down from the mountain."

There is an atmosphere of studied tranquillity to Mr. Zumthor's studio, a low, shady room with a band of windows looking out into fruit trees. On one side stands a grand piano. Mr. Zumthor is practiced at calming the visitor. "We all know what it feels like to be in a good building," he says. "It gives you a sense of well being, of feeling good from within. I have such strong memories from my childhood of this feeling. You can return years later and have the same sensation." His voice rolls on, accompanied by Bach and the clang of cowbells.

Without belonging to any style or period, Mr. Zumthor's buildings unself-consciously evoke local tradition. His barnlike houses are faced with boards. His shingled chapel in Sumvitg recalls the cylindrical silos of the region. His Archeological Museum, which stands over the Roman ruins in Chur, the nearest town, is "like a barn we would build to protect bales of hay," he said.

Evocatively photographed, the architect's wooden facades have become his signature in the design press. Yet, similar wood siding is ubiquitous in Graubunden. What, then, causes critics to describe his buildings as "lyrical" and "ennobling" or, in the case of Mr. Ingersoll, "wrenchingly mysterious"?

The permeable sheds of Mr. Zumthor's Archeological Museum do not exceed what is needed to protect the Roman site. What could be more practical here than wooden louvers? Yet, the structure is not simply utilitarian. In the daytime, these walls look solid. At night, viewers have the thrill of looking through them.

Mr. Zumthor has built the enclosure as not one, but two boxes, whose subtle placement electrifies this corner of the town. They heighten one's awareness of the handsome wood siding of the old building across the street and of the rich texture of the forest behind them. As the English critic Peter Davey said in awarding Mr. Zumthor the Carlsberg prize, "While his buildings always respect their surrounding, they are never meekly contextual." The buildings hold their own in Switzerland's highly evolved rural landscape.

Mr. Zumthor wants people to experience silence in his buildings. For him, this is a state related to permanence achieved through craft. "I dislike cheap consumer products such as CD players, with their built-in obsolescence," he told Mohsen Mostavi of the Architectural Association in London. "I prefer to have something that my children might use, or my mother used before me."

The architect grew up in Basel, a Swiss city with a proud artisan tradition. As a teen-ager in the 1950's, he served a four-year apprenticeship in woodworking at the side of his father, a cabinetmaker. Then, he took a degree in interior and furniture design at the Basel Arts and Crafts School and a year of courses at Pratt Institute in New York. In the 70's, he moved to Graubunden to work for the canton's preservation council.

Mr. Zumthor relishes his youthful memories of the cabinetmaker's shop. "I was 18 when I got to design my first cupboard," he said. "I remember the satisfaction of fitting the door so it closed with a special sucking sound. I have the Basel pride in the well-built object."

Temperamentally, Mr. Zumthor suffers few of the urban architect's afflictions. He doesn't talk about alienation, or the fragmentary nature of modern life. He says straight out that "buildings have a soul." His writings are suffused with a marked optimism. "My colleagues Herzog and de Meuron used to say that architecture as a single whole no longer exists," he said, "but has to be created in the head of the designer. I'm not mainly interested in what buildings mean as symbols or vehicles for ideas." And at a time when architecture can seem like just another form of entertainment, Mr. Zumthor defends its separate identity. "I believe that architecture has its own tasks and that its essence is the act of construction," he says.

Mr. Zumthor's own command of building skills can be seen by the naked eye. One has only to look up at the beams of his mountain chapel, or observe the pattern of its shingle skin. Yet, he is insistent that how buildings are put together affects us at a level far deeper than the visual. In designing apartments for elderly mountain dwellers being resettled in the town of Chur, he played on a range of sense impressions. "I wanted them to have many of the same experiences as they had living in their mountain houses, such as wooden floors that make a sound when you walk on them." In the kitchens, he put small windows up high to catch the morning light, "for mountain people who have been early risers all their lives," he said.

The architect's thermal baths in Vals, opened in 1997, have brought design pilgrims to this quiet spa town. A tour de force of stonework, the baths are an extreme expression of his lifelong preoccupation with materials. He began by imagining a single enormous block of the local stone emerging from the mountainside. The baths would be created by hollowing out this stone.

In the complex of pools, terraces, and changing rooms nearly every surface is a greenish striated stone. Quarried nearby, it was cut into 12-inch-wide "boards" that are stacked like lumber and integrated into concrete walls. The lavish use of wide stone slabs gives an impression of solidity rare in modern building.

The result has inspired rapturous comparisons to the baths of antiquity and primitive buildings. It also demonstrates the ideological pitfalls for a contemporary architect who evokes the timeless. Wilfried Wang, the director of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, said: "This attempt to evoke an archaic architecture is dishonest. If you want the primitive feeling of a place like Stonehenge, you can't also have air-conditioning. This is scenography."

Among the bath's admirers is Frank Barkow, a Berlin-based architect, who designed the American pavilion for Expo 2000. "I expected the baths to seem archaic and vulgar at the same time," he said, "almost like something you'd find in Hollywood. Only someone with this Swiss mastery of craft could bring it off."

Authentic or not, such buildings are painstakingly designed for their mountain settings. Yet, Mr. Zumthor laughs at his image as an exotic regional architect. "This place is not the city, but it is not remote," he said. "My sons watch baseball and dye their hair blue."

Chance led the architect to settle in the mountains. "When I came back to Switzerland in 1966, I was lost," he said. "New York in the Vietnam era had politicized me. My training in the Bauhaus tradition suddenly seemed meaningless. When I heard about a job here with the preservation council, it seemed like socially useful work."

As easily as he wears his mountain persona, Mr. Zumthor is a man of the world. His English is not only fluent, but hip. In the 80's, he taught at the adventurous Southern California Institute for Architecture in Santa Monica. He declined subsequent invitations to teach in the United States until recently; next month, he will join the Harvard University faculty for a term.

Mr. Zumthor rejects labels, including Swiss minimalism. But he acknowledges a general kinship with fellow Basel architects like Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Roger Diener. "We share the strain of sobriety in our culture, a respect for what is pragmatic and down to earth," he explained. "It's in the Basel tradition of aristocratic understatement."

In the last few years, Mr. Zumthor has left his mountain territory for the town and city. Besides the baths, his most prominent new building is the multistoried steel and glass art museum of 1997 in Bregenz, Austria, which shimmers above the downtown lake front. As with any regional architect famous for small country buildings, Mr. Zumthor's admirers wonder about his future designing for urban settings. If the shed is simply enlarged, the result can be a big box. Will it be that critical anathema, a boring box?

"If that's what people said about me, I wouldn't care," he said with a shrug. "I don't make architecture to be entertaining. I don't want to stir up emotions with buildings."

This attitude served Mr. Zumthor well when he won the Topography of Terror museum competition in 1993. The setting is a weed-choked vacant lot in the historic Wilhelmstrasse government district where the Gestapo and SS headquarters and prison once stood. In 1979, simple placards were placed around the grounds, stating what had taken place there, one of Berlin's most feared addresses. Mr. Zumthor's design is a long narrow building of alternating vertical "boards" of concrete and glass reminiscent of his shed for the Archeological Museum.

Its modesty is in tune with Mr. Zumthor's assertion that "what goes on in a building is more important than the architecture." It is also his way of respecting authenticity of place, a nearly sacred concept in the Berlin architectural debate. The gallery will be unheated, with a gravel floor, in the spirit of the original outdoor exhibition. "I don't want to give visitors the comforts they would have in the symphony hall," he said. "They can keep their coats on while they look at the exhibit."

The architect is the last person to claim that he works best in Swiss settings. "If the world is not present, the work will be dull," he said. Mr. Zumthor has his worldly ambitions. "You know what my dream is?" he asked, leaning across the desk. "To do a hotel in New York City, a small hotel that would give people an old-fashioned sense of home."

"The old buildings in New York are very well built," he said. "There is a sense of materiality. I want to prove that the architect in New York does not need to be alienated. I would not be alienated there at all." Of course, he added with a smile, ever the village householder, "the hotel would have to be personally run."

DIANA KETCHAM

New York Times, 1/ 7/1999

Selected Works

On Architecture
The design process of architects Herzog and de Meuron for their award winning de Young Museum. “A fine book about design” --Robert Campbell, Boston Globe
On Historic Gardens
“A richly illustrated history of the garden as shaped and experienced by artists.” --New York Times Book Review
On Writers
Articles on Henry Roth, Tom Stoppard, M. F. K. Fisher, E. M. Forster, Jessica Mitford, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Jefferson, and others.
At Arion Press
Introductory essays to work by Leonard Michaels, Tom Stoppard, Brillat Savarin, and Edith Wharton.