When the Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor was awarded the Nobel Prize-equivalent Pritzker Architecture Prize 2009, he was recognized for being one of the world's most outstanding architects, famous for his pure, austere structures, which have been described as timeless and poetic--inspired by the environment surrounding a building. Born in 1943, he graduated from the respected Pratt Institute, New York, with a degree in architecture and industrial design.
At the age of 36, Zumthor commenced his own architecture office in Haldenstein, Switzerland, and soon enough he developed an individual style adhering to minimalism, coupled with respect for the building craft, as well as for the building's immediate environment; striving to integrate local building and artisan traditions, wherever possible. Of his approach, Zumther says, ‘When construction, function and beauty come together, when everything is connected in such a way that individual parts can no longer be pulled out, then the building is right, then the house has a tool-like quality, which means it is a thing whose shape we regard as natural.’
Zumthor shot to international fame when he was about 52 years old on the back of his memorable projects, Therme Vals and Kunsthaus Bregenz, which made his work stand apart from his contemporaries.
The Therme Valsnd, presented an opportunity to create a series of varied spatial experiences with a novel blend of the monumental and the intimate, and masterful use of materials. The structure is made from local quartz and concrete, and resembles a huge geometric rock carved within the hillside. The entrance comprises a dark tunnel, which presents a mysterious interior view of the site’s series of cubic spaces. Natural light seeps in from the geometric windows carved in the granite exterior, which fuses with the site’s pools of water to create shimmering, refracting effects. A stunning view of the mountain site from the large windows awaits at one end of the building.
Likewise, Zumthor’s other masterpiece, the art museum, Kunsthaus in Austria, consists of four concrete stories with a glass ceiling, letting in natural light that is optimum for a gallery space. To maintain the sacredness and pristine quality of the art gallery, he ensured that the libraries, offices, shop, and cafe are housed in a separate building.
Over the past five decades, Zumthor’s work has attracted a cult following, but he has kept a low profile in the media. Even at 76, he works with a small team of around 30 based in Haldenstein, in his studio, Atelier Peter Zumthor since 1979, at a remote mountain village location in Switzerland. Not known to even have his own website, and with a strict client-vetting & waiting process, he has been often termed as a ‘reclusive mountain-dwelling hermit.’
Some of his other acclaimed projects are: the Spittelhof housing plan and a residential home for the elderly in Switzerland; the Swiss pavilion for Expo 2000, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel the Kolumba Art Museum in Germany; the London Serpentine Gallery; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Steilneset Memorial and the Zinc Mine Museum in Norway.
It is evident from his creations that Zumthor’s major focus is on enhancing the sensuality of spaces, as he feels that sensory experience is what helps you make memories of a place. While materiality and physicality of a space keep the users confined to a worldly experience, it is the senses that fill them with long-lasting impacts and enable them to measure the spaces through their intangibility.
Besides the Pritzker Architecture Prize 2009, Zumthor’s many awards include the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association in 2008; the Carlsberg Architecture Prize in Denmark in 1998; and the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 1999. In 2006, he received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture from the University of Virginia. The American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture in 2008.
Zumthor has taught at various institutions such as: Academy of Architecture, Università della Svizzera Italiana, Mendrisio; University of Southern California Institute of Architecture; Technische Universitat, Munich; and Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.
In his book, Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor talks about his philosophy of architecture: ‘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. I believe that the language of architecture is not a question of a specific style. Every building is built for a specific use in a specific place and for a specific society. My buildings try to answer the questions that emerge from these simple facts as precisely and critically as they can.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect practising and teaching architecture; and co-founder of SIDART Photography and two centers of Globalart.
The views and facts mentioned in the article are that of the author