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Comments (19) Posted 04.29.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Thomas de Monchaux

The Mystery of Peter Zumthor


kunsthaus bregenz
Peter Zumthor, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1990–1997. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR

All mysteries disappoint. The power of a suggestive image you can't quite understand, or an airport thriller you haven't finished reading, or the unknowable thoughts of your beloved or your God comes less from the satisfaction of revelation than from the elevated awareness that precedes that moment. Some deep region of the Homo sapiens brain is rewarded by pattern recognition, interpretation and theorization and is disappointed when the need for those activities expires. Which makes Peter Zumthor's receipt of the 2009 Pritzker Prize (popularly considered the Nobel Prize of architecture) a good occasion to think about the mysterious. And about the way in which Zumthor's buildings, in their deep elegance, breathtaking craftsmanship, seeming restraint and enduring atmosphere of enigma can both delight and lightly disappoint.


Kolumba Museum, Cologne, 2007. Photo courtesy Dominic Roberts/Continuity in Architecture

Like Nobelists in literature, Pritzker honorees are subject as much to parochial professional politics and tastes as to a sincere search for enduring excellence. The prize has rewarded architects of worldly status, such as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Gordon Bunshaft, Rafael Moneo and Zaha Hadid, all of who have achieved both brilliance and banality. But it has also been increasingly conferred on architects of self-styled or genuine otherworldliness: Alvaro Siza, Sverre Fehn, Glenn Murcutt, Jørn Utzon and Paulo Mendes de Rocha. This latter group is easier to love, but harder to explain.

Zumthor would seem to be among them. Like Utzon, who designed a certain opera house for Sydney and not much else, he has produced a small body of work that has had great impact within the profession. Like Siza, he seems to have thought for a long time about buildings before he had the chance to build any — an impression supported by his unconventional background in carpentry and historic preservation. Just as Murcutt's works are exquisitely attuned to that architect’s native Australian Outback, Zumthor's seem perfectly poised in the deep valleys and clean cities of Switzerland. (He himself resides in the remote Swiss hamlet of Haldenstein.) Like Fehn, Zumthor has developed a minimal though deeply personal vocabulary of forms. And like Mendes de Rocha, he seems to think as much about the immersive sensory, even sensual, experience of his buildings as about their independent status as conceptual objects. His most celebrated creation, the Spartan yet voluptuous Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland (1996), with their moody dark spaces, indeterminate interior boundaries, and fluid movement between solid and liquid environments across a cascading cross-section, is the incarnate infrastructure for a dream of flying.

Zumthor is a gifted and visibly decisive designer. He gets enormous mileage out of small gestures. At Vals, the subtle decision to match the proportions of the wall's gray stone blocks to the low, wide dimensions of ancient Roman bricks lends an uncanny sense of both lightness and weight and nods to ancient Roman baths without being hokey about it. Cryptically incised facade details in his Kolumba Museum in Cologne mediate crisply between the incorporated ruins of an earlier Gothic chapel and adjacent postwar construction. His Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, a stocky translucent art-gallery tower completed in 1997, achieves a mysterious fragility and depth of surface from the decision to gingerly overlap the large rectangular glass panels that make up the facade, as in a house of cards.

Kunsthaus Bregenz exterior detail
Kunsthaus Bregenz, exterior detail. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR

And there it is again: mystery. Architectural minimalism, the style that comes closest to describing Zumthor's later, less woodsily picturesque buildings, promotes transparency, simplicity, even artlessness. What you see (or see through) is what you get. But Zumthor’s works delay understanding, perhaps perpetually. The Kunsthaus Bregenz facade, for example, doesn't explain the inside. Or vice versa. The suggestive patterns of dark and light behind a translucent veil of exterior glass panels would seem to promise an interior of overwhelming complexity — suitable to the black obelisk in 2001. Instead, one finds a smart, quasi-Miesian pinwheel of circulation and service spaces around stacked central galleries. It’s not bad, but it’s not Kubrick. Perhaps no physical construction can fulfill such rich surface promise or fully reward such anticipation, but the beholder is nevertheless left with a puzzling sense of displacement, even of loss.

Kunsthaus Bregenz interior
Kunsthaus Bregenz, interior gallery. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR

This combination of severe rectilinear proportions and careful details with a spookiness achieved through surface translucency or opacity, shimmer or roughness, is not unique to Zumthor. Many of his regional contemporaries — Swiss firms like Baumschlager & Eberle, Burkhalter Sumi and early Herzog & de Meuron — have combined a boxy practicality in glass or wood with a trans-Alpine interest in the ambiguous, even ominous atmospherics of the sublime. But Zumthor has developed a singular mastery of these themes.

This singularity suggests that Zumthor's Pritzker is about more than his beautiful work. Our long visually saturated and celebrity-fascinated era seems to have left architects straddling opposite roles or chasing two different forms of fame: the fame that comes from always being on an airplane, and the fame that comes from never getting near one. In the first instance, we have the architect as majordomo, as cohort or courtier to titans and tyrants; such architects mention their hotel rooms a lot in their lectures, and their aesthetic currency is a jolie-laide awkwardness — implying that pure forms matter less than recondite global data garnered from anthropology, economics and other dismal sciences. In the second instance, we have the architect as sage or guru or ascetic — someone who writes soon-to-be-out-of-print books in which early childhood memories of light figure strongly, and whose aesthetic currency is breathtaking beauty, skilled material craft and the aura of the eternal. The first role is a dream of timely access; the second, a dream of timeless refusal. There’s a grain of truth in both stories. And maybe this is nothing new. These templates go at least as far back as the technocratic will-to-power and cultish flim-flam of both Corbusier and Wright. But it may be that the tendency toward these roles has reached a critical point, and far from empowering architects has begun to limit their ability to speak and work.

It’s tempting and sometimes even correct to view the guru as the antidote to the courtier. It feels bracing when intentionally modest yet profound accomplishment is recognized and rewarded. But unlike, say, the audience for baseball, politics, or filmmaking, the captive audience for architecture is generally ignorant of its most basic procedures and principles. Architects can easily adopt what they imagine are the manners of the mountaintop (quietude, hauteur, cruelty and, yes, an air of mystery) without having managed its heights. A lot of wretched buildings have come into the world that way, through strategic confusion of the gnostic with the merely gnomic, the numinous with the merely luminous.


Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland, 1996. Photo courtesy Mario Bellvite

Zumthor may be a real wizard, but if we prize magic too much, we invite a lot of cheap tricks from all sides. It may be better to seek and celebrate visionary ideas less from enlightened individuals and more from lively and imperfect collectives on the order of Archigram, Ant Farm and Archizoom, or, today, The Living, Stalker and Périphériques, whose practices have begun to resemble the electrically recombinant and semi-anonymous teams behind the production of today’s best fine art and pop music.

A second problem with overvaluing the guru is, well, more mysterious. It’s again tempting and sometimes even correct to see singularly remote, compact, crafted, uncompromising-seeming buildings as remedies to the digitally enhanced cult of the image. It’s reassuring to know that those dense yet diaphanous structures are out there somewhere in a distant valley. They’re irreducible and irreproducible. But without undertaking a pilgrimage, how do we experience them except through a system of technologically mediated representations? Zumthor’s work happens to make for wonderful images: not everything beautiful is photogenic, but his buildings are both. Their proportions reward the aspect ratio of cameras; their massing and reflectivity and their opaque or cognitively enigmatic facades all suggest great gravity and depth when captured in a static frame. One might wonder whether the greatest and most powerful sites for those glassy, glowing, mutable, deep-seeming, mysterious rectangular facades are actually the glassy, glowing, mutable, deep-seeming, mysterious rectangular screens on which you’re reading this very essay. We can’t really blame Zumthor for this adaptability, but we can be wary of how his buildings are incorporated into a system that we imagine they resist. We might be wiser to regard such work not as a retreat from a culture of surfaces and images into materiality, authenticity or irreproducibility, but as a very particular and peculiar fulfillment of it. As in any good mystery, everyone’s a little bit guilty.


Thomas de Monchaux, the inaugural winner of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing and Criticism, is currently working on Food Money Sex Style Art Stone Glass, a biography of the building at 2 Columbus Circle, New York.
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Comments (19)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

de Monchaux's grasp and love, both heavy and light, and delicately detailed appreciation of Zumthor is a must read. Thanks for posting it.
Howard Stein
05.03.09 at 05:09

I was lucky enough to spend a few days at Therme Vals several years ago, and it is indeed magical, as well as eerie and a little haunted. My designer colleagues and I were reverent and awed by Zumthor's rather overwhelming mastery and control; the local Swiss, blissfully unaware, just seemed to enjoy the water.
Michael Bierut
05.03.09 at 10:48

Has the author been to any of Zumthor's buildings? Curious minds want to know?
Bernard Pez
05.04.09 at 02:17

Has the author been in any of Zumthors buildings? Me too, I was thinking about that. At least Zumthor is aware that an architect, possibly more than a designer, can destroy the world. There are not many built houses, he needs a hell of a lot time to build one. Thinking and working like this, he comes to simplicity, something like a trouth. Every building has a reason or reasons. I my eyes we should bring more attention to architects who are aware of what they are doing that just hype visionary, wanna be innovative, crazy ideas.
Sascha Lötscher
05.04.09 at 02:57

what a load of words... zumthor's buildings stand alone. zumthor stands alone.

a good question posed by the two commenters whether the "author" even went to the buildings- as according to zumthor, you cannot speak of his buildings until you've been there. and even he does not speak much of the buildings in writing at least.

(as an aside, the so called "critic" goldberger when he was asked to introduce zumthor at the austrian forum a few years back had a similar series of "critical" type mumbo jumbo but admitted he had never been to the buildings, therefore invalidating himself from the discussion)
ray
05.04.09 at 10:50

It would be a coup if de Monchaux never visited the buildings and is no more than an armchair traveler and "writer" who revels in wordplay based on images which have no meaning whatsoever (at least for Peter Zumthor, the subject of this lengthy wordplay).
Kurt Neilson
05.04.09 at 04:46

Cool.
Steve
05.05.09 at 09:56

I have been your post a few days, and I like, I will often concern.
runescape powerleveling
05.06.09 at 10:56

But Zumthor’s works delay understanding

This is a value judgment. It assumes that understanding is the aim of architecture. It's like critiquing poetry as if it were prose. Neither is inherently better, but you cannot judge one using the standards of the other.

This singularity suggests that Zumthor's Pritzker is about more than his beautiful work. Our long visually saturated and celebrity-fascinated era seems to have left architects straddling opposite roles or chasing two different forms of fame: the fame that comes from always being on an airplane, and the fame that comes from never getting near one.

I completely agree. And it's about time that we acknowledge a few architects that fit the later description.

Zumthor may be a real wizard, but if we prize magic too much, we invite a lot of cheap tricks from all sides.

To criticize an architect for the poor imitations that he may inspire is ridiculous. The same can be said for any great architect.

It may be better to seek and celebrate visionary ideas less from enlightened individuals and more from lively and imperfect collectives on the order of Archigram, Ant Farm and Archizoom.

Earlier you bring up Zumthor's seemingly thin portfolio and now propose awarding Prizker prizes to artist collectives who have produced few (if any) actual pieces of architecture and who's work would be better suited to international art biennials. It seems that the author's inclination is toward bold statements and theories and is skeptical of work which has much deeper and difficult to define motives. Is it possible that the most critically-acclaimed architecture of the past decades is merely a bi-product of an education system that is heavily inspired by critical theory, resulting in buildings that are interesting to explain and critique but are quite often ineffective, wasteful, insensitive, and unsustainable?

But without undertaking a pilgrimage, how do we experience them except through a system of technologically mediated representations?

This is true of ANY building in the world. To knock Zumthor because his buildings are in small Swiss villages instead of New York City is incredibly unfair.

We might be wiser to regard such work not as a retreat from a culture of surfaces and images into materiality, authenticity or irreproducibility, but as a very particular and peculiar fulfillment of it.

I unfortunately haven't had a chance to see any of Zumthor's buildings in-person, but from most accounts I've heard, his buildings are more impressive in-person than in photographs, due largely to the fact that they must be seen and experienced in-context in order to be fully understand. In fact, as Mr. Bierut pointed out, you may have to be one of the locals to fully experience his buildings as they were meant to be experienced: as buildings rather than images.

Kai Salmela
05.06.09 at 11:27

All mysteries disappoint.

I still want to know, has the author ever been in a Zumthor building?
Bernard Pez
05.08.09 at 01:38

having actually gone on the mentioned pilgrimage to almost every zumthor building, including his home to speak with him, this critique, while more thought out and surely insightful on a general level then some others, is misplaced.
the buildings stand on their own. just by doing what they (the buildings) do well, they have attracted this attention. there was not cameras on these buildings in the middle of the swiss alps from the start, and unlike many situations where architects need stand by to draw attention to their buildings, it is the buildings that have drawn any attention to him.
i agree with the inquiring minds that you cannot write on these buildings unless you have been to them. what is captured on camera is only a very very very small piece of what exists as their success is largely in their sensitivity to context, users and surroundings.
mjf
05.14.09 at 12:02

This reads as an obligation article, ambivalent and overly-complicated and not really willing to really get to the point about this architecture --- Bregenz is great in photos, totally awful in reality. Most impressively, the way it deals with the site is awful, which the photos casually pass over by showing details, and all those so-called "subtle" nuances of the glass, is really lost in that "stocky" construction and scale, and in that normally wet, cloudy, cold weather. I assume "stocky" is a euphenism for simply inappropriate scale and handling of materials. You know, the kind of things one expects from architecture.
Arthur Freed
05.16.09 at 07:16

yeah. Architects in general. So bad at dealing with scale and materials. In particular they're really bad at designing built environments. The world should totally invent another profession that accomplishes the same goals as architecture, but better. Or perhaps some other profession which is better at dealing with scaling and materials should start doing the job of the architect. How about clothing designers. They typically are really good at dealing with scaling and materials. Afterall, cloths are made of materials. And they have to scale the materials so that they fit the body. I think I'm on to something.
JK
05.17.09 at 11:08

Michael Bierut said:
"the local Swiss, blissfully unaware, just seemed to enjoy the water."


How do you know they were blissfully unaware?
LB
05.19.09 at 02:47

LB, I didn't know for sure they were unaware, which is why I used the word "seemed." I can confirm that they certainly were blissful.
Michael Bierut
05.19.09 at 07:00

Thomas,

Great article. You suggest it would be better to "seek and celebrate visionary ideas..more from lively and imperfect collectives on the order of Archigram, Ant Farm and Archizoom, or, today, The Living, Stalker and Périphériques," but I don't understand why this would be better. Does the author really matter? Aren't these collectives equally capable of supplying a magic that could be prized too much? Put another way, isn't it the work itself that should be the subject of the Pritzker Prize or any other for that matter. Perhaps you're suggesting that the characterization of Zumthor as one of the "enlightened individuals" is the error in awarding him the prize. That I would agree. Conversely, wouldn't seeking lively, imperfect individuals be just as appropriate based on your argument? Thanks.
Tommy Manuel
05.23.09 at 04:09

The comments on this post are more interesting than the worthless "critique" from which it emanates. This sort of convoluted language is the province of theory schools, all talk and no action, no real understanding, and essentially full of air.

That it is the maestro Zumthor we are speaking of is not really a surprise, as his proponents here (including myself) attest to the fact that quality work is appreciated after all- beyond words.
Craig Reipold
05.24.09 at 06:28

I've never seen a building designed by Peter Zumthor outside of a book, although that's been enough to make me follow him for over ten years, thanks to Paul Robertson's tutelage, at Cambridge Architectural Books sadly gone (the store, Paul is fine). My favorite is probably his Gugalun House — maybe modest in his oeuvre, but very nice.

But I write here to note that Zumthor is a writer too. Again all second to me, in translations, but his essays collected in the slim Thinking Architecture (Birkhauser 1998 and an expanded, but less lovely second edition 2006). Many of my students (and not only graphic designers) are familiar with his work — and his writing — because it is so beautiful and pure. Lots about detail, memory, going slow. What other architect brings Peter Handke (another Peter, another rock) into his thinking and work?

Words, and pictures, and a friend's hint, are my only access to Peter Zumthor, but for me, this is enough.
John McVey
06.23.09 at 10:51

This reminds me of another interesting article though satirical and much shorter it resonates somehow with this one

Peter Zumthor Hermit Genis
donald
07.12.09 at 07:01



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Thomas de Monchaux, the inaugural winner of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing and Criticism, is currently working on Food Money Sex Style Art Stone Glass, a biography of the building at 2 Columbus Circle, New York.
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