Who is Peter Zumthor?
There is little doubt that Zumthor has become in some sense a "starchitect" — the term attached to those major architects who command media acclaim — yet his following is limited mostly to the academy.
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Among those who know of Zumthor, he is hailed for just a handful of buildings. Perhaps his most celebrated is the Therme Vals spa (1996), in his native Switzerland — a congeries of cavelike spaces rendered in steam, shadow, and watery reflections.
Many of his buildings have a spiritual quality, and some of his better-known works have been religious structures: the St. Benedict Chapel in the village of Sumvitg, Switzerland, completed in 1988; and the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel near tiny Wachendorf, Germany, constructed in 2007. Zumthor has even designed a museum built on the ruins of a church: the Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne, Germany.
From Cabinet Maker to Space Maker
The trajectory of Zumthor's career suggests how his interest in materials and their expression developed. He was born in Basel in 1943; his father was a cabinetmaker. The younger Zumthor trained as a cabinetmaker himself for four years, then studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule, an arts and crafts school in Basel, and later at Pratt Institute in New York.
In 1967 he returned to Switzerland, where he worked as a building and planning consultant and preservationist for historic villages. His experience in restoration gave him a knowledge and appreciation of the vernacular construction techniques that builders had used for hundreds of years, and how materials weather and acquire an irreplaceable patina that marks them as timeless. He also taught historic preservation at the University of Zurich.
In 1979 he established his own practice in the small mountain burg of Haldenstein, Switzerland, where he continues to work today, with an office of about 15 employees, including craftspeople as well as architects.
Zumthor has kept his practice small; he is selective about the projects he works on, and devotes his full attention to them. Unlike many high-caliber architects, he has not established offices around the globe, and his projects have mostly been in Switzerland and Germany, although he currently has projects in progress in New York City and Beacon, New York.
But Zumthor has also taught at a number of schools, including stints at Harvard, SCI-Arc, and the Technical University of Munich, and an ongoing professorship at the Università della Svizzera Italiana. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and books — some of which, printed in limited editions, sell for thousands of dollars — and has received more than a dozen awards, including the 2008 Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association.
Existential Architecture of 'Atmosphere'
In writing about architecture and his own work, Zumthor emphasizes its experiential qualities. He draws existential connections between architecture and the life that happens around it, through it, and in it. Materials and how they are rendered and perceived are a major emphasis — not surprising for an architect who spent a decade studying historic structures and how they coexist over centuries with everyday life.
For example, in his book Thinking Architecture, Zumthor writes about the handle on the door to his aunt's garden, which impressed him as a child: "That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase. I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen."
In another book, Atmospheres: Architectural Environments — Surrounding Objects, Zumthor ruminates on a definition of atmosphere: "this singular density and mood, this feeling of presence, well-being, harmony, beauty... under whose spell I experience what I otherwise would not experience in precisely this way."
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