BY Carson Chan in Features | 23 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 15

Labour of Love

With the publication of his recent five-volume catalogue raisonnée, how does architect Peter Zumthor convey a lifetime’s body of work?

BY Carson Chan in Features | 23 MAY 14

Peter Zumthor 1985–2013: Buildings and Projects, 2014, All images: Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner, Haldenstein, except where stated. Photography: © Nadja Vogel, Berlin

Of late, architect Peter Zumthor, now 71, would start lectures by describing a childhood memory: the sensation of running on grass, how the sun felt on his skin, how it released the vegetal aromas from the parkland of his native Switzerland. These sensations are what he thinks of when he thinks about architecture. In one of his key texts, A Way of Looking At Things from 1988, he wrote of the time when he experienced architecture without thinking about it: ‘Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my mind, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I was at my aunt’s garden. 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 the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase.’

Feeling, rather than thinking, is what separates Zumthor from his peers. Of the well-known architects active today, Zumthor alone, it seems, is obstinately committed to the embodied experience of space and materials as the basis for any and all architectural activity. Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid’s sensualism is completely formal. Their buildings are objects conceived like sculptures, intended mainly as visual spectacles rather than responses to the subtleties of daily use. Even an architect like the American Steven Holl, who holds the experienced space in higher esteem than its design, cannot fully neglect the global imperative to build – a lot, and quickly. Holl, who has written extensively about how architecture engages our sensory perception and renders his designs in watercolours, is now one of the architects participating most aggressively in China’s voracious urban build up. Most architects readily acquiesce to any paying client, but almost without fail, Zumthor will mention to journalists that he’s not a ‘service provider’. Rather, he compares himself to an artist, poet or musician; he has lauded Joseph Beuys’s revelatory handling of materials, the linguistic essentialism of William Carlos Williams and the tectonic transparency of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Caplutta Sogn Benedetg Sumvitg, Graubünden, 1988

Since the completion of Therme Vals in the Swiss Alpine canton of Graubünden in 1996 – his most famous project to date – and after the photographs of this monastic stone bathhouse circulated through archi­tecture magazines, books and the media, interest grew in Zumthor’s other built works. Only a handful existed at the time, but even in photographs, these projects from the late ’80s and early ’90s possessed an apparent yet ineffable solemnness, rare at a time when architecture was in the last throes of Postmodernism and still wrestling with De­constructivism. His chapel of Sogn Benedegt (1988, Graubünden), photographed by Hans Danuser, looks like a moored ark – every contour, every opening, every rib of this tiny building seems to have a studied purpose. Kunsthaus Bregenz, completed in 1997, showed Zumthor’s lighter side, though no less arduous in its precision. The building is a series of four concrete trays built one upon another with a clerestory space in between. These stacked galleries are encased in large shingles of clip-mounted frosted glass so light can flood in.

Though born in Basel, and having studied there as well as at Pratt Institute in New York, Zumthor situated his home and office in Haldenstein, a quiet village near Chur in Graubünden. Before long he attained a reputation as the hermit architect, the precise Swiss who made very little, very slowly, but very well. He has won architecture’s highest accolades for his designs, and his idiosyncratic, diaristic recollections have earned him outsized reverence from the global architecture community. Journalists have sanctified him with their language: visitors make ‘pilgrimages’ to his ‘seminal works’, ‘uncompromising’ as they are in their ‘integrity’ and ‘craftsmanship’. (For, Conrad Newel tallied the use of these superlatives in writing about Zumthor, asking journalists to ‘stop worshipping Peter Zumthor!’)

Atelier Zumthor Haldenstein, Graubünden, 1985–86

Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, Peter Zumthor 1985–2013, Buildings and Projects (2014), is a five-volume monographic record of the architect’s complete output from that period. Of the 113 projects he undertook since 1968 – competitions, renovations, restorations and ground-up designs – the catalogue details only 43. All from 1985 or later (‘when I started to trust in my own ideas again’), only 17 of these have made it to built completion. Each volume covers a varying number of years, and Zumthor and long time collaborator Thomas Durisch expand on eight to ten representative projects through text, collages, drawings, model images, and photographs for the rare projects that were built. What is included and excluded, and how it is conveyed, perhaps presents Zumthor’s shrewdness more than anything we can glean from the projects themselves. Zumthor sees the physical reality of architecture as an irreplaceable centre of the human condition, an antidote to the inauthenticity of contemporary life. ‘Everything beyond our own biography seems vague, blurred and somehow unreal’, he wrote in 1998. ‘The world is full of signs and information which stands for things which no-one fully understands because they, too, turn out to be mere signs for other things.’ Yet many of Zumthor’s buildings are in remote places – his fame in no small part is due to media proliferation. He admits to having been ‘difficult’ and ‘reluctant’ in the past towards any documentation of his works, preferring to relay them through his own prose and lectures. With this in mind, this five-volume Werkverzeichnis is not least a late-life acknowledgment that buildings, represented by proxy, are not less experiential, just differently so.

Therme Vals Graubünden, 1996. Photograph: © Hélène Binet, London

Not many architects have deigned to compile their own catalogue raisonné, just as not many of them live in houses of their own design, as Zumthor does. Most release monographs after a dozen or so projects; some make monographs for each building. US architect Louis Sullivan, in his old age, wrote an autobiography that detailed the social and political minutiae of his youth up until the Chicago World Fair of 1893; his student Frank Lloyd Wright wrote his own in seclusion when he was 65. Other than Zumthor, Le Corbusier is perhaps the most noted architect of the last century to compile his own catalogue raisonné. (Incidentally, Zumthor has at times compared himself to Le Corbusier. When writer Francesco Garutti asked him why he troubles himself with full-size models of building details, as if to underscore the commonality of genius, he said that Le Corbusier did so too.)

If the in-person experience of buildings is given to the vagaries of weather and the unforeseeable, one’s experience of a book by comparison is controlled. Each of the catalogue’s five books comprises around 160 pages and is 24 by 30 cm. Projecting oneself through an inventory of one’s life’s work must be both rewarding and sobering – celebrated accomplishments are listed within a roll call of failures. Each of the 43 projects profiled are accompanied by a short text written in the first person by Zumthor, and for the unbuilt projects there is often a tone of resentment and dejection. The summer restaurant that the Einsiedeln Monastery commissioned him to build on Ufenau Island on Lake Zurich in 2003 is a case in point. Recounting the project, he ends by narrating the court cases brought by conservationists, and begrudgingly, after seven years, he concedes: ‘but in the end, the Swiss Federal Court decided that no new freestanding building could be erected on Ufenau, not even if it were to replace an unlovely addition of fairly recent origin.’ In the introduction that opens the first volume, Zumthor wears his trials and tribulations like a badge: ‘I cannot deny a certain bitterness’, he writes in reference to the political turmoil during the building period of Kunsthaus Bregenz, ‘because the prolonged and trying experience […] took its toll on my family. Later, my wife told me that I was so caught up in the situation that I barely took note of her and the children. Now the bitterness is gone. […] Many are pleased with the outcome, including the former worrywarts and skeptics. The completed building is your best argument, a client once said to me.’

Spreads of Peter Zumthor 1985–2013: Buildings and Projects, 2014. Photograph: © Nadja Vogel, Berlin

In 1988, Zumthor commissioned Hans Danuser to photograph his buildings of the previous three years. By this point, Zumthor was already very much concerned with architecture’s ability to invoke memories and instill a situated sense of being. For the Sogn Benedegt chapel in Graubünden, Danuser – known for his expressive photos of industrial interiors – produced six large-format black and white photographs: a detail of the chapel’s vertical wood supports; a view from the entrance; rows of spare, orderly pews; the chapel on the hillside, like a grain silo; the rickety fence of the dirt path next to the building, veiled in fog, and a detail of the wood floor showing its grain and tone. Undeniably, these images produced a cool, subdued radiance. They were atmospheric, yet unlike a built space, they were unchangingly so.

Before co-editing his catalogue raisonné, Thomas Durisch curated Zumthor’s solo exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2007, which occupied the entire building. The ground and top floors exhibited models, sketches and plans; the middle two floors presented video installations of Zumthor’s built works from 1986 to 2007. Video, unlike photographs, allows for the ambient experience of place to enter its representation: sunlight dimming from a passing cloud, traffic sounds and the slow sway of trees all help to create Zumthor’s elusive atmosphere. Artists Nicole Six & Paul Petritsch were commissioned for the task. In 2006 they had exhibited a site-specific video installation at the Kunsthaus, projecting video they had shot of the space onto screens placed at the location of the shooting. Similarly, for Zumthor’s exhibition, they placed six screens on each of the installation’s two floors. On each screen they projected life-size stationary footage from six video cameras placed in the same configuration at each of Zumthor’s buildings. By keeping to this setup, what a particular camera captured could be a detail of a wall or an exterior view. Each building was ‘exhibited’ for about 40 minutes at a time – the videos on one floor starting around 20 minutes after those on the other. Transporting the buildings into the exhibition space in this fashion, museum visitors experienced far-flung places. Life-size video of doors and windows shown with their accompanying acoustic environment gave a sense of what it would be like to actually be on site. As in Heinz Emigholz’s architecture films, sustained shots of buildings show the life that surrounds them. But in reality, no one sits perfectly still watching life pass by. Visitors or occupants of a building touch, walk around, listen to their footfall, pass through and in; they are the source of the structure’s life.

Maquette of Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1997

There is a sense that the five volumes are not meant for the casual reader but for those already familiar with Zumthor’s oeuvre. None of the images, drawings or sketches are captioned; few of the drawings have dimensions, no cardinal directions are marked on plans, and unlike most architecture monographs, no credits are given to the many other architects who must have worked on each project. A small sketch on page 170 of the fourth book is comprised of six circles drawn inside a rectangle, with arrows and scrawled numbers elucidating little. This drawing, like many others in the catalogue, reads like a riddle – significant for those in the know, meaningless for those not. On page 27 of the first volume we see a black and white image of a wall. Light shines on it from the right; a crack runs vertically down the plaster surface next to a strip of shadow. Many of the images in the catalogue are similarly evocative yet unspecific. There is a disconnect between the author’s desire to convey a mood, and for the reader to empathize with it in a relevant way. In fact, many of Zumthor’s most famous public buildings – Therme Vals and Kunsthaus Bregenz – are depicted devoid of people. Photos of the apartments for senior citizens just outside Chur (1993), which Zumthor describes vibrantly in text, appear to be evacuated, haunted – the inhabitants long gone.
This catalogue should be approached as a personal document rather than an academic work. A deep affection is rewarded when we see it as the former, and intellectual disappointment the latter. For Zumthor, there is no separation between life and work. He lives and works in the same compound; his architects, who come from around the world, work in his home. After all, this pre-modern unity, this farmer-like intimacy between labour and leisure, public and private is maybe what many urbanites and other architects secretly fantasize about. As much as it is a compen­dium of an architect’s life’s work, this catalogue is also a family album. Each volume, just so there is no doubt, is dedicated to one of Zumthor’s grandchildren.

Carson Chan is director of the Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and Natural Environment, and a curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.