Who is Peter Zumthor?
Zumthor's handling of materials and details has been compared to that of Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn, but the phenomenological character of his ideas about how architecture is memorable and meaningful, how we interact with it through our bodies in four dimensions, and experience it with all our senses, ties him closer to the architectural ideas of Christopher Alexander, Charles Moore, and Kent Bloomer.
Works of Water and Fire
Two of Zumthor's projects that seem to best capture these architectural ideas are the Therme Vals in Vals, Switzerland, and his little chapel in a remote field in western Germany.
At Vals, the architecture appears to grow from the landscape, a seamless merger of mountain and architecture. Zumthor describes this project as a discovery of the sensory qualities of bodies in water, surrounded by mist and light, reflections of the water's surface on the stones below and the ceiling and walls above, the sounds of water lapping against stone and echoed through the spa's halls of Valser gneiss.
The 60,000 pieces of stone are cut to the thickness of Roman bricks, giving the material an ancient atmosphere, laid up to suggest the striations of an incision through thousands of years of earth strata — as if the spa were chiseled from an antediluvian grotto. Slits in the ceilings appear as crevices in a deep cave, pouring white light down the textured walls. The dominant colors are gray and blue, as if the building were fabricated from the ground below and the sky above.
Similar themes of connecting earth to sky are found in the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, which Zumthor designed for a farmer, who built it with the help of neighbors. The austere, planar concrete exterior surrounds a sensuous, organic interior that wraps around the visitor.
Zumthor achieved the space through an elaborate construction process. A total of 112 sapling trunks from a local forest were cut and arranged in a teepee fashion. Over the course of 24 days, layers of concrete, each approximately 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick, were poured around the outside of the conical structure. Metal sleeves were positioned before the application of the concrete to create pinholes through which light enters.
After the concrete layers were set, a smoldering fire was built inside to smoke the saplings for three weeks, causing them to dry out and loosen from their concrete sheath. When the trunks were removed, what remained were their ghostly outlines, darkened by the fire's soot. Melted lead was then ladled directly onto the ground to create a mottled floor surface. The view straight up into the leaf-shaped oculus is like a perspective through the star-studded heavens toward the incredible light of a galaxy.
Some have questioned why an architect with such a slim portfolio should receive what is considered by many to be architecture's highest international honor. In the case of Peter Zumthor, the Pritzker jury recognized exceptional quality over extensive quantity.
Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, the chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek. More by Michael J. Crosbie
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