“If you’re going to write about me you need to know something,” says Peter Zumthor sternly. “My reputation is completely wrong. Everything you think I am, I am not.”
It is early summer and we’re at a press breakfast in a London hotel. The 63-year old Swiss architect is in town to give the annual architecture lecture at the Royal Academy. I’m not sure if any of the journalists at the table, listening in rapt silence, their hands clasped around coffee cups, really believe him.
Zumthor is often described as the “architect’s architect”. His rigorous approach and uncompromising attitude to every aspect of design and construction have resulted in a small number of perfectly formed buildings, the most famous of which are the Thermal Baths in Vals (1996) and the ethereally beautiful, opaque-glass art gallery, Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997). Many of his projects take several years to build, or fail to be built at all. He is best known for contemplative, elemental buildings and a
careful style of working. He describes his method as being like that of US minimalist composer John Cage – an aleatoric process of conversation and reduction. This pragmatic, poetic approach to material and design was outlined in his 1999 book Thinking Architecture – cult reading material for students and architects around the world.
Two months after the London meeting, I find myself at Zumthor’s kitchen table, up in the secluded mountain hamlet of Haldenstein in Switzerland, where his small office of 15 staff is based. We pick up where we left off. How exactly would he like to be known, I wonder? “I like the truth.” He smiles wryly, removing his glasses and eyeing his cat, Mi Mi, with suspicion. “I would like to have a reputation as close to reality as possible. If you have a reputation for quality, people think you’re a tough guy. If you live in the mountains, they think this guy only builds beautiful objects in the landscape. I would like to build in cities!”
As much as he wants to expand his oeuvre to take on London, New York or Paris, a number of upcoming projects will do much to confirm the reputation he struggles against. As well as an art museum on an archaeological site next to Cologne Cathedral, opening in May 2007,there is the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel (icon 039), a concrete chapel on the edge of a field in Mechernich, southern Germany, being built by local farmers in honour of their patron saint, the 15th-century hermit Bruder Klaus. The chapel, to be completed next year, will be made using a technique coined by Zumthor as “rammed concrete”. Farmers will make up the outer walls by pouring 50cm of concrete every day to create 24 layers, varying in texture and colour. Inside, the prayer space will be formed from local tree trunks, creating a teepee-shaped structure that will be slowly burnt out by colliers in the same process used to make charcoal. This will leave a concrete space impressed with the markings of trees, and the floor will be poured lead. The chapel will probably draw far more architectural pilgrims than those coming to pay their respects to the saint.
Zumthor is also designing a summer restaurant on the monastery island of Ufnau in Lake Zurich. “Since 1850, when the steam ships started arriving on the island, it’s not been monks in this place, it’s people like you and me wanting to drink and have French fries and bratwursts. There are a lot of people coming here,” he says. The place relies on the trade from passing steamships, but falls silent in the winter. “The island has to do with soft lines – it’s an incredible silhouette kind of island. Our idea is that the summer restaurant starts with a roof and a roof only. I think there is something beautiful about shelter. Also, it is important that it looks good when nobody is there.” The roof is vast and sweeping, reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, with a light, open glass cafe beneath with a summer garden within. Work began in 2003, but, typically of Zumthor, the completion date is vague – it will befinished when it is finished.
Zumthor’s new home and studio, where we are sitting, was completed in 2004, and it is a masterclass in modern concrete living. The house has a timeless quality and serenity of material and form that is familiar in all his work, from his first wooden chapel in Sogn Benedetg in 1991 to the Thermal Baths in Vals and the Carlsberg Prize-winning Kunsthaus Bregenz. Enormous five-metre-high windows frame a picturesque mountain panorama behind us, and ceilings are clad in a thin layer of warm wood or smoothly polished concrete, punctured with gracefully suspended light fittings of his own design. The external concrete finish is formed using a rubber tile, resulting in a texture that he describes as “warm and soft, like a Rothko painting”. It is modest and unshowy. “This is a house that says, ‘I like my neighbours’,” he smiles.
Born in Basel, Zumthor moved to the Swiss mountains in 1968 following a stint at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he first studiedproduct design, then interior design, before switching to architecture. He returned to Switzerland to work for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments in Chur, and settled down to raise a family. By 1979 he had his own office, and his three children had started speaking in the local dialect. He has never been tempted to leave for the city or expand his practice. “Sometimes,” he muses, “there are things in life you just don’t want to change.”
However, the realities of 21st-century building practices have meant that Zumthor has not built as much as he might have done. He says he would never work for a client who is “shopping for a famous building”, and the way he works can cause problems unless the client is prepared for it. He acts as a master architect, slowly refining and adjusting his designs. But projects on an urban scale are coming, with a learning centre and park for Daniel Vasella, the CEO of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, now underway. The site is in the Swiss town of Risch, and the first phase is complete, with planning permission pending for the construction of 15 buildings linked and integrated into the masterplan. The project is on a scale the office has not yet encountered, involving the planting of 20,000 trees, the re-routing of roads and the remaking of a landscape.
“The guy [Vasella] is completely crazy,” exclaims Zumthor. “It will be like the royal parks in England or the Prussian kings in Berlin. It’s really huge stuff.” But are there moral qualms here? The money came from a global corporation and Zumthor has always turned down corporate clients. “If he was a general, no I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “But he’s an interesting guy. I think it’s bad that the park is private, but maybe I can persuade him to open it up to the public a few times a year…”
The next day I take the 50km trip south west to the Thermal Baths at Vals, to meet with Annalisa Zumthor, the architect’s wife and manager of the spa hotel. Annalisa will also be overseeing the project to extend the hotel, with a new tower beginning construction next year. Zumthor is currently designing a new house for his wife nearby, the sketches and watercolours of which recall his famous Swiss Sound Box pavilion at the Montréal Expo of 2000 – a maze of interlocking perforated spaces built entirely from timber. The House Annalisa Zumthor in Vals Leis will be one of a family of nine wooden buildings to be completed in the next two years in Italy, Norway and Switzerland.
Vals is always full of architectural tourists, running their hands lovingly along the grey stone of the baths, quarried from the very mountain they are standing on. “Vals is a special place,” comments Zumthor. “When you have this wonderful panorama it makes you see you have to do so little as an architect.” But architects are often left wondering at the ageless simplicity that Zumthor achieves, and the timescale in which he is allowed to achieve it. The master knows times are changing. “I have to look at Bregenz, Berlin [the controversial Topography of Terror building, which was finally cancelled in 2004 after high-profile rows about cost and time overruns], Vals and be honest with myself about the way we work,”
he says. “I realise that we are working in a different way and the world around me is changing more. Perhaps the gap between the way I’m working has increased. This is what I want to change, to let people know. I don’t want to find myself having to defend myself from each corner like a goddamn warrior.”
Time is running out, well, for today at least. Zumthor has a tennis appointment to get to. What does he want to do now, in his career? “I feel the need to concentrate,” he sighs, as an eccentric Korean ringtone whistles ironically from his daughter’s mobile phone on the edge of the table, as if to test his resolve. “If I look at what I did in the last eight to ten years, there are too many unrealised great projects. I was too confident in certain situations to do a competition here and do something there. Yes, I want there to be nice projects to publish, nice for the monographs, but now I want to build. Over the next ten to 20 years I really want to build good stuff. I look at the projects I have coming up and I know I can do this. For the first time in my life I don’t want to suffer so much for a project,” he says, almost drifting off. But any misgivings he may have about his reputation or his character are reined in by a positive determination. “I have a feeling that things are getting better.”