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Peter Zumthor: on architecture, time and nature

Peter Zumthor has only a handful of buildings in his portfolio because, he told us in this interview, «you do not live forever, and we have the right and the duty to choose. It’s not snobism, just consistency». A talk with the Swiss architect after the presentation of the new wings of the Beyeler Foundation.

When Peter Zumthor laughs, he does it heartedly, throwing his head backwards. At lunch, at the Beyeler Foundation‘s restaurant in Basel, of which he has just presented the expansion plan, the Swiss architect Pritzker Prize 2009 has smiles for everyone. And, between a forkful of asparagus and the other, he even cracks a joke.
«Some time ago my daughter scolded me», he recalls. «She was angry because I received a mail by Tom Ford asking me to design his new home. And I replied, “No, sorry, I no longer interested in designing houses”». A sip of water and he bursts out laughing. «Another American villa? No way… His movie was lovely, though».

The Beyeler Foundation, Peter Zumthor

Tall, with intense eyes and a white beard, Peter Zumthor resembles what Steve Jobs could have become had he reached his 74 years of age – a man of a few but very serious words, who does not like exposure (his studio does not even have a website) or self-promotion.

Peter Zumthor’s reluctancy to be in the spotlight brought about series of legends, especially after the making his most famous project, the Vals Spa, a temple dedicated to water and light on the Swiss mountains. He is said to be a sort of monk, guided by ferretic principles in life and work. Someone who doesn’t wish to talk to people unless they venture to his studio, in a small village often surrounded by snow (Haldenstein, in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden) and who rejects most commissions. Recluded, mysterious, mystical are the adjectives associated with his name by the few people who have been fortunate enough to talk to him.

Vals baths, photo Helene Binet

The man who converses cheerfully with the diners – telling anecdotes about his fellow architect-celebrity Herzog («He lived at my aunt’s house when he was a student») or about clients forced to turn into beggers (a mighty middle-eastern lady had to go four times in his studio for hearing) – seems a thousand miles away from this perceived image. But this Zumthor, delighted with his dessert, is also very different from the architect who, only half an hour before, thundered against photographers during the presentation of his prototype (of Carthusian precision and detail) of the new Beyeler Foundation: «Enough with this ticking, I cannot concentrate», he said, burning with his eyes those who did not obey instantly.

Who is Peter Zumthor then? «I’m not a hermit, but I do need silence to think», he says. «And people exaggerate. Being at Haldestein means being able to enjoy nature, surrounded by people who count for me, my family and my colleagues. Zurich Airport is an hour and a half drive away. If I was in London, I would spend the same time to get to Gatwick».  True. But the location of his studio is not the only element that distinguishes him from other internationally renowned architects. It takes an eternity, for instance, to view Norman Foster’s portfolio online, scrolling down on his site at a pace of five buildings at a time. While in the monograph dedicated to the 30 years of career of Peter Zumthor (1985-2013, and Scheidegger & Spiess) there are a mere 43 projects, of which only 19 were actually built.

He shrugs, as if this remark was obvious. «We do not live forever. We all have the right and also the duty to choose. Being famous, rich and courted gives some a sense of existence. I like to make beautiful buildings that, for that matter, require concentration, study and much time. If there are no prerogatives to accomplish them, I will just not bother».

The Allmannajuvet zinc museum in Norway by Peter Zumthor

The adjective “beautiful” in Zumthor’s language has not only aesthetic connotations: «Every little thing becomes important when it is part of something bigger, the evolution of time and nature. It is true for everyone’s life but also for architecture. I am interested in spaces that become a connection: between people, with the landscape, and above all with what is already there. Architecture must stimulate a bond with history, while at the same time produce contemporaneity. If there are no conditions to do create this mix, I don’t even start».

The expansion of the Beyeler Foundation is, in this sense, a perfect project for Zumthor. Because cohesion with what’s pre-existing – the current museum built by Renzo Piano in ’97, which granted the Italian architect the Pritzker Prize – was obviously an obligation. So was making a connection with the park where the extension will be built: a huge green expanse full of centuries-old trees, so far closed to the public and bought by the Foundation. Observing the Zumthor project – which for now only exists on paper and 3D mock ups – shows exactly how it embodies his vision of an architecture that serves as a trait-d’union between man and nature and between past and present.

Instead of envisioning a single giant building, the architect has “unpacked” the three functions required by the client (exhibitions, offices and events) in three structures within the park. And, in each of them, his main concern was to create a link with the outdoors: through overhanging roofs, walkways and seats that emerge from the buildings projecting toward the landscape, unusual openings, such as the horizontal windows in the exhibition space: they will perhaps make life more complicated to curators but «art is nourished by natural light, and looking out over the trees’ fringes has no price». And the Piano museum will be clearly visible from the building dedicated to events, open to everyone even without a ticket. «I will be satisfied if, looking at the new, people will be able to appreciate more than what is already there», says Zumthor.

It is  therefore not forms, styles, materials, or constructive rules to make a “beautiful” architecture, in a zumthorian sense, but the atmosphere: that empty space between things, flooded with light, where everyone is free of being yourself and part of it all. «You know who made me the greatest compliment?» Zumthor asks. «A lady I met by chance at the Kolumba Museum in Cologne (his strictly gray brick building incorporating elements of a Gothic church into a full, perturbated, new and ancestral wall). She told me that she comes to the museum when she feels a bit down because it makes her feel good, in peace with herself and with the world. It’s wonderful if an architecture leaves it free to be. Emotion does not mean to be imposing».

The ways in which Zumthor can thrill without imposing, realizing contemporary architectures that feed through the bond with history and landscape are always different. For the Zinc Museum (an open-air memorial) at Allmannajuvet, Norway, for example, he has made trails that wind around the Storelva river canyon, with local stone stairs and service buildings perched on pre-existing masonry or suspended on huge trampolines: strong but camouflaged looks, whose materials (iron, granite, wood) refer to the miner’s daily life and to the roughness of their existence as well as to the landscape.

Bruder Klaus Kapelle by Peter Zumthor

For the Bruder Klaus Kapelle, dedicated to the Swiss patron (commissioned by a couple of farmers and erected on the hills of the Eifel in Germany in 2007, for which Zumthor has refused compensation) he has instead created a prism of 12 meters in height which stands in the fields: sandy, looks like a geometric set of hay hooves. But the “rural” appearance of the exterior turns into a mystical landscape inside, an unexpectedly conical environment and open on the sky, which seems to be made of trees dug in the cement (to realize it, Zumthor has devised a structure of wooden poles covered with concrete and then burned slowly for three weeks).

«There are buildings that promote a positive experience and others who do the opposite. There are no premeditated recipes, no ways of proceeding or materials that work better than others – everything depends on context, light, and place history», he explains. Some “legends” spring to mind, such as the one what he means with the the term “lookout”: months of observation, even in the drift and in improvised areas, to record the passage of light at all times of day and of the night, and during the alternation of seasons. «The only constant I’m claiming is quality, whether hand-made or machine-made. In a successful architecture, everything has to be done perfectly, because people can feel the care you put into things. It gives dignity to environments and whoever enters them. I like to work for those looking for these same values».

Zumthor does not say it, but it is clear that customers are never the customer to choose him, but vice versa. «Good work requires a communion of intent», he says. Do you find it often? «Currently I am finding it in South Korea, where I’m involved in several projects with people who spent their lives working, and now want to give something back: to tie up a link with the past and make it accessible to people. I’m working for a landlord businessman who wants the public to find a link with nature; with a poet who wants me to build an archive and a library in the center of a city; with a Catholic priest who created a theme park with rosary stages and a chapel by Mario Botta: I had to convince him that the right project for him to create a connection with the country without imposing was a Tea House, a place without modern comforts, where to isolate and meditate between wooden walls and the surrounding nature».

There is no doubt that a holistic approach to architecture such as Zumthor’s could improve cities, often victims of fierce construction. «But this is not a problem for architects, nor can they solve it. Great cities no longer exist because it is not urban planners who decide: skyscrapers go where the money is. Talking about urban planning is now a purely theoretical activity carried out by universities, because governments only make decisions on infrastructure, for the rest they have thrown the sponge and everyone is doing what they want by using more and more energy. Changing this wild criterion is a capitalist-social issue rather than architectural one. Some say I am arrogant because I do not want to work on projects that I do not care about. But even though I can not change the world, I can decide not to have an active part in an approach that, in my opinion, goes in the wrong direction. As I said, we do not live forever, and everyone has the right and the duty to choose. It is not snobism but being coherent».

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