Above: Zumthor in Tel Aviv. Image © Yael Engelhart for Ha’aretz
Known for his superior design and unparalleled craftsmanship, the 2009 Pritzker Laureate and 2013 RIBA Gold Medal Award-winner, Peter Zumthor, was recently invited to speak at the School of Architecture in Tel Aviv University. In a lecture titled ‘Presence in Architecture – Seven Personal Observations’, Zumthor shared some of the inspirations behind his greatest projects, giving us insight into his poetic, intelligent (and some may say) ‘nearly divine’ mind.
1: Spring 1951
“[It] was a beautiful day. There was no school. It must have been early spring – I could smell it… I remember myself running as a boy, and I had this lightness and elegance which I don’t have anymore.”
Zumthor, born the son of a cabinet-maker in 1943, began by recounting a seminal experience from his childhood: “I didn’t know it then, but as an old man now, looking back, I realise this was my first experience of presence.” As he defined it: “Presence is like a gap in the flow of history, where all of [a] sudden it is not past and not future.”
Zumthor Studio. Image © Felipe Camus
How can presence be translated or achieved in architecture? This question is a key motive in Zumthor’s atelier in the Swiss region of Graubünden. Founded in 1979, his home-based studio is located in the valley of the Rhein, where many of his seminal works – ranging from small-scale projects, such as home renovations and village chapels, to large-scale, monumental museums – have been built. Zumthor purposefully maintains his atelier in this humble, remote location in order to ensure his experience of ‘presence’. “Every once in a while, I get this feeling of presence. Sometimes in me, but definitely in the mountains. If I look at these rocks, those stones, I get a feeling of presence, of space, of material.”
2: Like a Tree
“I look at a tree and the tree doesn’t tell me anything.” A tree, according to Zumthor, is an object worthy of his fascination and admiration, due to its lack of presumption. “The tree does not have a message; the tree does not want to sell me something. The tree won’t say to me, ‘Look at me, I am so beautiful, I am more beautiful than the other trees.’ It’s just a tree – and it’s beautiful.” To him, a tree is a pure being of obsolete presence; in his simple terms: “Nothing special – incredibly powerful.”
Serpentine Pavilion by Peter Zumthor. Image © John Offenbach
3. Constructing presence in architecture: first attempt – pure construction
Zumthor recalled a 1993 competition to design a museum and documentation centre of the Holocaust, The Topography of Terror Museum, located in the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. He described the difficulties of creating architecture in such a historically charged site. “All that had happened there came into my mind. [It was] a centre for destruction… I can not do anything here… How can you find the form?”
Rather than making a bold, controversial statement, as many of his fellow architects would do, Zumthor instead decided to translate his inability to react to the site by withholding architectural metaphors and symbolism. He decided to design a building with “no meaning, no comment” by inventing a building of pure construction.
Model of Zumthor’s Topography of Terror Museum. Image © Zumthor Tumblr
Although Zumthor’s design was chosen as the winner of the competition, construction was halted in 1994 and the building’s bare, concrete core stood vacant for a decade. When funding was regained, political shifts called for a new architectural competition, which led to the destruction of Zumthor’s unfinished museum. Though the building was demolished, the idea for a construction-inspired memorial site was not.
“Ideas are never lost. In a way, once you have found something, as an architect, you have worked on something, you can always think about it again.”
Steilneset Memorial. Image © Andrew Meredith
The concept was revisited by Zumthor while designing the the Steilneset Memorial in Norway, a memorial for the 17th century Finnmark Witchcraft trials. The Memorial, “a building with no meaning, which made no comment,” was a scaffolding-inspired structure composed of prefabricated wooden frames, constructed as a binary system of “voids and sticks” that encompass a narrow interior walkway.
4. Constructing presence in architecture: second attempt – the epitome of a kitchen
Or: make it typical, then it will become special
“‘It looks beautiful, but it’s hard to use’ – that is a typical architect.”
Zumthor told of a studio he once taught, where the mission was to be un-special. “Let’s set out to be typical,” he told his students. “It proved the fact that when you make something really typical, it becomes special.”
Saint Benedict Chapel. Image © Felipe Camus
5. Constructing presence in architecture: third attempt – form follows anything
Or: the body of architecture
“For me, architecture is not primarily about form, not at all.”
‘Form Follows Anything’ was the title of a symposium Zumthor attended some 20 years ago. “I think that’s a great title… architecture can be used to do anything… The form is open.”
Interior shot of the Therme Vals. Image © Helene Binet
As he presented the next slide, the audience gasped – it was an interior shot of perhaps his most celebrated and praised project to date, the Therme Vals.
“We actually never talk about form in the office. We talk about construction, we can talk about science and we talk about feelings… From the beginning the materials are there, right next to the desk… when we put materials together, a reaction starts… this is about materials, this is about creating an atmosphere, and this is about creating architecture.”
In the case of the Vals, the materials used were a mix of locally quarried stones along with Italian stones. “Trust your materials,” he said. Following the prolonged seven years design process of the Vals, he could gladly say: “I found out that stone and water have a love relationship.”
6. Constructing presence in architecture: fourth attempt – the house without a form
Brauder Klaus Field Chapel. Image © Samuel Ludwig
While teaching at Harvard, Zumthor tasked his students with designing ‘the house without a form’, for someone with whom they shared a close, emotional relationship. They were to present the site with no plans, sections or models. The objective was to inspire a new sort of space, described by sounds, smells and verbal description. “When I look at this kind of house without a form, what interests me the most is emotional space. If a space doesn’t get to me, then I am not interested… I want to create emotional spaces which get to you.”
7. Constructing presence in architecture: fifth attempt – Kim Kashkashian plays the Sonata Number 2 in E flat major for Viola and Piano by Johannes Brahms
“I remember when listening to this piece… after a fragment of a second, I was in it. Music has this capacity to go directly to your heart, much more than architecture. To me music can change the chemistry within you.”
Zumthor ended his lecture with the importance of the “wordless impression” of different encounters with music, art, architecture and people:
“In a fragment of a second you can understand: things you know, things you don’t know, things you don’t know that you don’t know, conscious, unconscious, things which in a fragrant of a second you can react to. We can all imagine why this capacity was given to us as human beings – I guess to survive. Architecture to me has the same kind of capacity. It takes longer to capture, but the essence to me is the same. I call this atmosphere. When you experience a building and it gets to you. It sticks in your memory and your feelings. I guess thats what I am trying to do.”
He paused: “There is something bigger in the world than you are.”
‘Peter Zumthor: Seven Personal Observations on Presence In Architecture’ by Gili Merin was first published at ArchDaily on 3 December 2013.