How to remain traditional in the 21st century and avoid being labelled as conservative at the same time? Peter Zumthor is one of rare contemporary architects who makes a compromise between the old and the new successfully. He has no web site and his office is not positioned in one of the world’s metropolises. His bureau doesn’t have hundreds of employees or multiple projects but nevertheless he is recognized and classified among giants. He has chosen quality. Humble attitudes and clear goals have produced masterpieces. 

From Carpenter workshop to Pritzker Architecture Prize  

Peter Zumthor was born in 1943 in Basel, Switzerland. His father, Oscar Zumthor, was a carpenter so he taught his son the fundamentals of the craft. During his four-year stay in the workshop Peter was in direct contact with raw materials. “There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon.” In that way he acknowledged their sincerity and simplicity, which he still emphasizes in his work. 

After finishing secondary school, Peter Zumthor stayed in his hometown where he entered the Kunstgewerbeschule – School of Applied Arts. When he was 23 he applied for students’ exchange within the Pratt Institute in New York. He had been studying industrial design and architecture for three years there but in 1968 he decided to go back to his hometown. At the beginning of his career he found a job as conservationist architect in Switzerland’s Canton Graubünden in the Department for the Preservation of Monuments. Even as a young fellow he had experience in various fields of design and architecture which enabled him to clearly define his own interests during the career. 

He has spent most of his working life as a lecturer at Universities such as University of Southern California, Technical University of Munich and Harvard Graduate School of Design. Since 1996 Zumthor has been a professor at Switzerland’s Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio whose founder was Mario Botta. He became independent in 1979 when he founded his Architectural Practice in Haldenstein which remained there until today. At the very beginning, his bureau accepted limited number of work deliberately so that Zumthor could keep track of every segment’s realization. Sketches that came out of his thoughts would often become internationally recognized projects. His career is marked with numerous international awards such as Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 1999. A decade after this recognition he received a prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize as the author of the Therme Vals Spa.  

The consent of theory and practice

Peter Zumthor is the author of numerous books, among which the most famous would beThinking architecture, Seeing Zumthor and Atmospheres. His psychological approach to projecting has been explained in his books very concise and clear. “I work a little bit like a sculptor. When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It’s not about paper, it’s not about forms. It’s about space and material.” He celebrates the atmosphere as a goal that should be achieved, everything else represents tools for achieving it. Materials, sounds, furniture should be imperceptible but should contribute to a certain feeling. Important elements that Zumthor has been playing with are light and shade. We will often notice beams subtly crossing over the finest textures, emphasizing them. Spaces that are free from decorations are completed with shimmering beams that are shaped by deliberately left cracks. 

We can also describe him as a deep contextualist prone to respecting space around objects. The obvious example would be Therme Vals spa, partially hidden in the slopes of Switzerland’s Alps. Cubic forms are immersed in the landscape as if they were formed together. They were made of more than 60 000 local quartzite tiles that in combination with concrete give the building a cold tone. Rigorous moves are brought to life by bronze railings bringing warmth into space. Windows frame views to breathtaking nature while the presence of water makes the surrounding even closer. Many visitors consider this space to be magical and unreal. Does it mean that Zumthor has achieved his goal? The atmosphere characterizes objects’ function, that’s for sure. 

Furniture as a tool for achieving the atmosphere

All of Zumthor’s works have been elaborated to the smallest details. The fact that he himself has also designed furniture for several projects of his own proves this. These are the pieces identified with architecture and have been designed for this purpose in order not to disrupt it. They were made in the same manner as objects, clear, elegant forms shaped with sincere materials. They are not intended for serial production but for a particular ambient. 

Lounge for Vals is an example of a timeless classic reminding of Bauhaus design. Waved mahogany that follows the body line was designed only for this space. Clear, poetic lounge chair is made of series of parallel, wooden elements. Fragile legs are almost imperceptible in comparison to strong horizontal move. Pillow is placed so that this piece doesn’t resemble lounge chairs that we can find on the beaches. With its color and material it looks sophisticated and expensive. Undoubtedly, in combination with fence and warm artificial lighting, this piece of furniture ennobles the space.  

Saint Benedict Chapel is another of Zumthor’s successful projects. This Chapel in Sumvitg is famous for the domination of one material in interior. All the segments, from the roof construction to flooring are made of wood. The essence of this project is represented by minimally processed benches that fill the central space. Unobtrusive, but dominant at the same time. Zumthor has achieved the perfect harmony, without forgetting the practical side of furniture design. Massive benches are stable and can hold the weight of a large number of believers. In this way, the power and gracefulness of a wood are represented in full power. 

Peter Zumthor gained an additional popularity in 2011 when he was chosen to project the Serpentine Pavilion within Hyde Park in London. The solution that he had suggested was one of the most appreciated. He presented audience the concept of a park inside a park, confirming all the aspects of his work with it. Then he designed chairs that fitted perfectly into this green space. Made of one color, light, they contribute to relaxed atmosphere of an open space. Visitors assemble, move and adjust them to their needs. Metal construction connected with canvas is in harmony with nature that surrounds it.  

Modesty is priority

Zumthor’s works represent a picture of a great balance between firmly connected disciplines. None of them is neglected, from ones that are expected in the world of design, to the unexpected ones. Zumthor often uses photography as a way of expressing himself in his books, showing his universality additionally. He turns a construction into aesthetics skillfully while manipulating the materials easily. He unites purpose, beauty and stability really successfully. 

Above all, Peter Zumthor deserves respect. Fame didn’t change him, every single piece of work came out of carefully chosen details that took a lot of time. The most important human resource – knowledge, he shares selflessly. He remains humble throughout his creativity. „I am not going for commercial projects I go for projects where I can put my heart into it.“ Now, after half a century long career, he is still faithful to benevolence in all segments of his actions. The charm of Zumthor’s works is hidden here, dedication colored in stylishness.

Featured image: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor at the Venice International Architecture Biennale in 2018 by KovacsDaniel, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 / extracted from original

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