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Peter Zumthor

Av Leo Gullbring
Peter Zumthor has acquired quite some fame during the last years. But his architecture is all but superficial and fashionable. Wrongly classified as a Swiss minimalist and regionalist, his main concern is a phenomenologist search for how we experience space and how we perceive material reality. Light, smell, touch and hearing are key elements in all his work and is handled with a stunning imagination as well as technical innovation.


A small road winds up to the remote little village Vals in the Swiss high Alps. Small alphüttes lies scattered around, soon to be hidden away by the snow which has begun to fall in the early afternoon. I leave my car along the road, and start to look for this famous thermal baths by Peter Zumthor. The only thing to see is two out of proportion hotels from the '60s. But here is a broad trail of neatly laid gneiss tracing up the slope. It's almost an invitation. Still I haven't got eye on the building, though. After some turns I arrive at an entrance. This must be it. Inside it's dark and narrow and slightly damp. If it weren't for the fact that people pass you in white bathrobes, disappearing into a black cavelike tunnel, you could mistake it for a fancy nightclub.

Once inside you hide away behind black leather curtains. In a finely crafted little room you get rid of your mundane clothing, stripping yourself of the quotidian. And sure, this would be the dream of every architect, to have the audience enter almost naked, in the purely natural state so to speak. And what you enter is space. Leaning against the thin railing, I behold a temple of water and stone. The massive walls are made of stacked strata of blue-white-grey gneiss from a nearby quarry. Square and rectangular openings are seemingly cut out, some of them made into glazed windows. Someone stands in a shaft of light falling in from where the heavy concrete slab towering above fails to meet the stone mass. People stroll around in the loggia-like space. The indoor pool is all blue. You hear bubbles, splashes, shrieks of wonder. People are talking, moving around like in a Roman bath, obviously delighted, everybody brought together by the sheer magnitude of the place. And with slightly numb feet I let go of the solemn wonder. Overcome with curiosity I sense that you are here to purify your body as much as your soul. I swim out in the misty water of the outdoor pool, out under the deep blue afternoon sky, where the snow keeps falling down.

These hewn out openings are to be discovered. Here is a brass sign: 42°. The caldarium. It's hot all right. Dark red walls. And just opposite are the frigidarium, the same minimal information: 14°. Cooling off. In another one hangs cups of copper, do drink this mineral water! Another doorway in the perimeter walls leads into a short tunnel, into yet another different space, a small room with roughly cut walls. Your feet are tickled by small inlets of water. The lights are flickering around the walls, like life in the eternal. Some kind of New Age music is heard from somewhere else. Later I find the steam baths placed far inside, in two parallel configurations, I search my way in the mist, from colder to hotter, accompanied by various scents of herbs.

When I meet Peter Zumthor earlier in the autumn, at the Carlsberg breweries in Copenhagen, he is about to receive the Carlsberg Architectural Prize, the Nobel prize of architecture. Honouring this very special sunny day he is puffing on one of many cigars to come, and answering my question as to his working method he says that 'I'm a phenomenologist. I'm concerned with the way things look, feel, touch, smell, sound, that's what I think about when I start drawing a building. It's a feeling, it's not in your head. And only when the work is finished I can start to analyze what I've created.'

He states honestly that he's not concerned with styles, ideals and forms, he rather abhors it. Every building is supposed to be a work in its own right, and sure enough, materials and constructions vary widely. And he mentions Meret Oppenheim, saying that you can ask yourself what is the link between the famous fur cup and the snake made up of pieces of coal? Nonetheless, her way of looking at the world and of intervening in it, is coherent and integral. 'I don't like to list names of who might have inspired me. I would rather talk about what spaces I've experienced. It's more about the intent in real buildings by lost masters like Wright, Aalto and Jacobsen. Some buildings has a soul, that's about it!' And he deplores the way of many contemporary young architects who are turning themselves into a kind of artists, a kind of decorators, too concerned with advertising and marketing, loosing track of the real body of architecture. It's the power of the physical, not the signs, which matters. 'I believe that architecture today needs to reflect on the tasks and possibilities which are inherently its own. Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence. In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language.'

The HM Queen Margrethe II awaits him at the New Carlsberg Glyptothek. The Tivolis boys' brigade march out among Roman and Greek statues while Zumthors favourite musician, the acclaimed Danish bass-player Nils Henning Ørsted Pedersen, enters the stage. A photographer whispers that he has tried in vain to capture the buildings by Peter Zumthor, they have to be experienced, and that's some compliment. And Peter Davey, editor of Architectural Review and member of the jury, cries out that this is architecture, 'Peter Zumthor is a shaman for our times, an architect who creates magic and poetry for the everyday'. Peter Zumthor himself claims that good architecture has to do do with life, it relates to our lives, we should enjoy it, it's the real thing. And sure, architecture is to be experienced with all our senses. Like the good beer which concludes the ceremony. And here's maybe a reason why Carlsberg uses the consumption of something so ephemeral pleasure-seeking as beer to promote a more lasting essential thing as architecture.

What Peter Zumthor has brought back to architecture is something quite evident. It's familiar in a sense, you've seen it in other eras, way back in history, not to forget some oeuvres from this very century. It's simply Architecture. He is obsessed with the sensation in its own right, and readily abandons rules and dogmas just to arrive at a certain feeling. In his own little red book on architecture he tells about his childhood, saying that's our roots. Turning that very door handle of his aunt's and entering into a world of different moods and smells, it's there our biography starts. And when he implores a search of a lost architecture, I'm bound to support him. Modern man has lost his bearings in this ever achanging world, there's a need for places where time stops. His works brings out the dichotomy between civilization and culture, between building and architecture, searching for a spiritual presence in a nature without God and a technology without man.

In his book he writes 'Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep.' But while I recognize his work, and admire it, I'm still carving for more. Some friends draw comparisons to the baroque epoch, and right here is the missing part. The baroque masters strived for the virtual, in a quest to overcome every frontier, to project light and space, to transcend the past and the present into the future. Sure, Zumtor's right in touch with our times longing for the essential and for the particular, leaving the modern age behind, looking for the new, still awaiting a name, Peter Zumthor is nevertheless like an old fashioned uncle, darn good at what he's doing, searching for a lost world, his childhood memoirs, this very essence of architecture. But he's not ready to go further, he seems too stuck on his own path to completely immerse himself in our contemporary neo-baroque society.

But sure he would like to anyway. When I arrive at night to Bregenz, this Austrian town at the shores of Lake Constance, I'm intrigued. Is this a giant lamp or is it an art installation? No, it's a gallery. Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz is a 30 meter high prism emitting a greenish, bluish, grayish light, inaccessibly closed in the dark. The next day I discover that the outside is completely made of etched glass panels, slightly overlapping each others. Peering behind the glass I discover diagonal bracings. The inner glass is transparent.

Inside I encounter a misty feeling, a high-key lighting perfect for any Giacometti or Degas sculpture. The interior has an abstract, mystical dimension, or should I rather say spiritual? Here reigns a perfect diffused natural light which is reflected in the polished terrazzo floor, and which enhances the materiality of the three concrete walls raising vertically through the four storeys. Here, like in Vals, the materials in themselves defines the space. Each floor has a luminous ceiling, where light enters from the outside in the two meter space between concrete slab and hanging glass ceiling. Thus the soft diffused light changes as the day passes on. This is quite an accomplishment in a time when so many new museums are unable to procure natural light.

To arrive at this very impression Zumthor uses an awful lot of hidden technology. It also conceals ingenuous ecological cooling system, thus avoiding an imposing ventilation system. Instead of the modernist white anonymous utilitarian space, or the postmodern ironic cry for a dialog, he accomplish an enveloping whole, a shrine for art.

To be sure not to interfere with our experience of the exhibited art, the offices and the library are housed apart, with a nice bar and cofee house at ground level, in a three storey black cube with sliding glass windows and matching white blinds. And Zumthors buildings does relate to context in a strong way, it's almost a celebration of place. They are neither meekly subordinated to their surroundings, or overtly invading like modernist solitaires. They relate and engage with the place, by the use of local materials like in Vals, or in a more abstract way like here in Bregenz. One can of course retort that buildings like museums, baths, churches are quite a privilege to build, and Zumthors production so far is quite limited. But buildings has the same properties as art, it's enough with one good painting to change a life.

Published in Frame


2001 Calimero