December 5, 2018 | Author: lucika13 | Category: Emotions, Self-Improvement, Thought, Senses, Truth
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Zumthor Interview...


In Graubünden

A conversation with Peter Zumthor




In Graubünden

A conversation with Peter Zumthor

FEUILLE À FEUILLE Rue Monrose 70 Monrosestraat Bruxelles 1030 Brussel



CONTENTS Conversation between Peter Zumthor and Barbara Stec


Shelters for Roman Archaeological Site


Atelier Zumthor


Zumthor House


Saint Benedict Chapel


Residential home for the elderly


Vals Therme





Shelters for Roman Archaeological Site


Atelier Zumthor



Saint Benedict Chapel

Zumthor House


Residential home for the elderly


Vals Therme


Conversations with Peter Zumthor 5 January ‘03 - at home

We are sitting near the fireplace. The fire has retrieved practically the whole house from the dusk. Just a moment ago, music was reaching us from the entirely-open mezzanine above. It should come from above - Peter Zumthor wants to transfer this feature of the old house in Haldenstein, which he adapted himself, to the new one, designed to be situated right next to this one. There is already a crane standing there and the foundations are being cast. Zumthor likes his old house and its various elements, and he wants to include those that have already been successfully tried here in his new one as well. Sitting right in front of the fireplace, we can see the kitchen, the library, the music parlour which is also a study, and windows on two opposite sides. Those in the kitchen are hugging up to a rock wall so snugly that you get an impression of a house that has been chipped out of the mountain. The ones in the library and the music parlour form a long belt that opens impressively onto a vast panoramic vista of the Alps.


Barbara Stec You explain your architecture gladly and clearly. Your lecture in Krakow in the What is Architecture? cycle fascinated us with its precision and simplicity. But there is still some mystery lingering on. What does Peter Zumthor’s mystery consist in? Peter Zumthor [laughing] In normal things. I think that, when you work, it is useful to keep observing and redefining the theme. The most important is the primary theme: the basis of the design work. I believe that our work consists in acting around this basis. I start with a theme which contains an idea.

BS That base, the idea - is this not the design yet? PZ No. The theme is an idea, a concept (but not a conception), some changes, novelties. When developing a work, I keep asking myself: what is it like - this concept that keeps changing a little; where is the “hot nucleus” of the theme, because I would not like to lose it. I think this is always one thing - the core, the nocciolo, the fruit stone, the nucleus - which should not be lost. It needs to be pampered, handled with care, with tenderness.

BS Is this perhaps that “nocciolo duro della bellezza” [the hard core of beauty] from the title of your text delivered at the Piran symposium in Slovenia? Are you fond of this phrase produced by William Carlos Williams? PZ Beauty comes with time. At first, there’s the process of talking, feeling, evoking images and questions: What emotions are inspired by this image? And that one? What recollections does it call up? It has to be asked over and over again - what emotions are brought about by a specific thing. Forget about intellect. A classic internship in our office starts with a conversation. I ask a question: What do you think about this? A young architect says: According to the conception of... I stop him: No. Not “according to the conception”. Say what you feel when you look at this thing. Is it right? Stimmt es? He says: no... something seems wrong here. The next question is: what? What is the thing that is wrong, that bothers you? The first question pertains to the first emotion, and only the next one to intellectual reflection. The sphere of emotions is much larger, more spacious than intellect.

BS Also quicker, spontaneous... PZ Yes - it is direct, quick, but also vast, spatial, while the intellect is a line to me.

BS Emotions create a space and the intellect - a line? PZ It’s clear. You think and consequently another thought emerges as a logical continuation of the first one, so there’s a linear interdependence of cause and effect, of question and answer. While intuition, feelings, emotions, associations are a huge story, a vast space with a dense cluster of lines, also...




BS ... with memory... PZ ... the memory of the body going back thousands of years, accumulation of things, reactions...

BS ... with what man learnt as civilisation developed, adapting to various living conditions. PZ Yes. Reflection is slow. The intellect needs time, but in the meantime, in order to survive, you need to react immediately. Spontaneous emotion defends life. It tells us for example: No! Run! Fear is fast and this is how it saves. If someone wanted to answer the question why they are afraid of something, they might get killed before trying to answer.

BS Is this spontaneity of emotions more genuine, sincere? PZ Maybe so: all that I have inside me is more important than all that I know. My tennis teacher tells me: “Do not think too much! If you think too much, you destroy your spontaneous reactions, the reflexes of your organism”. I think that it is very important for a design project to be stuck in the emotional space, which is vast and complex. It’s not just thinking! Yes, there is a soul in us: there is the soul, not just the knowledge.

BS Yes, but emotions are sundry. Affects - the basic, reflexive ones that result primarily from the body - include not only the sensing of heat or cold, but also the four elementary ones: expectation/surprise, joy/sadness, attraction/ distaste, fear/anger. Combinations and various shades of these feelings form new ones - still without the intermediation of conscious analyses. But there are also emotions evoked by notion-based valuation. A smell may be merely pleasant, but how much stronger an emotion is when this smell is associated with your mother’s cake. A photograph may be void of any special expression, but when you learn the story of the people in it, it will move you deeply. Jean Piaget writes that “honesty is nothing without intelligence”. A lot of very strong emotions are created by knowledge and reflection. Recently, there’s been much talk about sensual architecture, which you want to touch, which you recognise more clearly with sounds, which catches and leads the eye. Some people are more sensitive to these external stimuli and sense even more impressions. But this may be the first, very physical base, which triggers emotions evoked by the large sphere of emotional intelligence. If my understanding is correct, it’s not only the sensual, affective perception of the world that you mean when you talk about emotions? PZ I agree with you absolutely. The world of emotions is very complex and spread over time. However, a conscious reaction is preceded by sensual, unconscious reflexes, which almost attack. And, right away, intelligence steps in, followed by the intellect. If I feel good, I ask: why am I feeling good? What’s happened?



BS But intelligence not only explains a reflex, and its origins, but also is capable of changing it! For example, of turning distaste into admiration. PZ I think that, in design work, what is important is that original, somewhat naive feeling, but just how big the share in it of emotional intelligence is which accumulates experiences and works a little like memory - 1 do not know. Maybe it participates already in its creation. Subsequently, developing the original idea, you may change it, but more often than not what you need to do is just explain it anew.

BS Maybe, in design, there is too much talk of notions and narration, while this original emotion is ignored or not intercepted. PZ In most cases, architects are used to working on conceptions, forms. They regard a plan as a plan, a drawing as a drawing. I am not interested in paper. I look for architecture. I want to know how to enter the drawing to see the truth. I have to move around within the world of this drawing and forget the drawing as such. To me, a drawing is a space score. Each line is like a note in a music score. It sounds with space. I ask: can you hear the music? That is - can you see this place? This moment in space? This elevation? A young architect often says: yes, I can see it. Then I ask: from where? From what vantage point?

BS So as to catch them “off guard”: can I really see it or do I just think I can? PZ Of course. Because if I can see, I always have a specific vantage point. So I ask: where can you see it from? As a bird’s eye view? From that window on the ground floor? Where can you see it from? This is a very simple translation of a design. Let’s go back to the score. Let’s imagine Mozart. He begins to correct the form of a music notation; he isn’t correcting the contents of the notation, but only the form of the score, but he knows what this change means to the music and to sound because he can hear. At the office, I always translate the line of the drawings into space.

BS Have you always had this ease of translating notation into a spatial image, or did it come with experience? Can this be learned? PZ That I do not know. But, already as a child, I was confronted with designs of furniture which I subsequently made. I worked in my father’s workshop. Those designs were specific production drawings rather than conceptions. A table, a chair, a wardrobe. Hence my treatment of a drawing as information.

BS It seems to me that you combine two abilities that rather seldom occur in conjunction: abstract sensitivity to ambiances and emotions and a skill of precise vision of a specific object, a place in space. Usually, we encounter either great visionaries or perfectionist craftsmen. You find an idea in the vast space of emotion and then you know how to build it based on the available materials. This specific image does not however emerge at the beginning...



PZ No, not at the beginning. It takes a long process. But the idea, which has no shape at first, is very important. Gradually, you need to find some realness for it. At the end and in the end, architecture is a physical body. But the precise design should not be made too early. Sensing the atmosphere is not so easy at all. It often comes with difficulties. And building the atmosphere, the one that we want, is even more difficult, [laughter] I think that this combination of ideas, moods and emotions with the physical properties of materials, their weight, warmth, hardness, softness, humidity, is very important. It is obvious that, when you take two materials and put them together, you create something between them, some energy. You put them close to each other and see that there is an approximation point at which they begin to interact. Beforehand, they are indifferent, then they connect, but tension a-rises between the indifference and the connection. The energy, tension and vibrations, the harmony between materials - this is what architecture is to me.

BS This is standard physics: elements of matter react to one another depending on mass and distance. PZ It’s difficult to talk about these internal, physical tensions, but it’s easy to feel them.

BS My impression is quite contrary: it’s easier to talk about them than to feel them. PZ No. You need to just be confronted with them, look at them rather than imagine them. We always have samples of materials at our office. I can see right away which one go well with each other and which do not. Sometimes, my colleagues do not manage to sense that energy between two elements as soon as I do, but when I tell them how I see them, they admit that I’m right. This is why I think that, individually, feelings that are very much internal are also very, very common.

BS Are they not subjective, unique? PZ No, they’re not that! The more subjective, the more objective. The deeper we immerse ourselves in individuality, the more common, deeply and typically human a sensation becomes. A thing that is situated deeply is shared by all. This is a quite well-known observation.

BS Could you offer advice on how this inner energy of materials, objects can be reached? In your texts, you often write: “things seem to speak” - e.g. “this design seems to say: it will be exactly like this”, or: “this window seems to say: I’m new”; “Edward Hopper’s paintings seem to say: a special force resides in the common things of everyday life”. How should things be understood? I recall that also Le Corbusier was fascinated with something that was emanated by things. PZ Yes? It’s interesting...


ATELIER ZUMTHOR Haldenstein, Graubünden


BS In L’espace indicible (1946), he wrote about radiation of things. You have written: “l need to cling to the thing in itself, get close to the essence of an object that I am to create, trusting the inherent force of the structure which, if devised with sufficient precision in terms of its place and function, is capable of developing without the need of any additional infusion of artistic value”. I can see Zumthor’s interest, so I look up the fragment in Le Corbusier’s text. “A flower, a plant, a mountain exist in a certain environment. If they attract attention with their all-powerful attitude which inspires confidence, it is so because this conspicuous attitude evokes specific radiation, a resonance. Made sensitive to so many natural bonds and moved, we stop to watch the space which is organized with a grand sweep; we then assess the interaction of what we are looking at”. PZ Exactly...

BS To Le Corbusier, the fourth dimension of space was not time but rather that internal radiation of things. He believed that architecture should subject the radiating realness to some processing.

PZ This is a beautiful idea. It refers to the realness of things and consequently a specific building.

BS There is a word that recurs in what you say or write: realness. You have written: “lt is only between the realness of a thing and imagination that a sparkle of art may erupt”. What do you mean when you mention the notion of realness? PZ Wirklichkeit. The realness, significance, reality that produces the effect of existence.

BS How can one “cling to things” and feel the “effect of their existence” so strongly?

PZ This is something normal to me and I don’t think that I’m exceptional. Maybe I have more confidence for myself and patience in watching, without thinking.

BS Can this be called contemplation of things?



PZ Yes, exactly, contemplation rather than meditation. To start with, strive to understand what a place wants from us rather than impose what we want on it. What is needed is confidence in this feeling. By the way, I think that architectural education is a little too academic; it doesn’t touch that point of the physical realness of architecture but rather stays within the sphere of philosophical argument. My students at the Accademia di architettura at Mendrisio know me and know that I hate these discussions. Additionally, when they start talking this way themselves, I interrupt them and ask: tell me about what moves you, what strikes you, where warmth is, the soul, the passion. If there is no passion, I’m not interested in what you think. But if there is passion, words come easily by themselves, and they are simple words.

BS So, with realness we go back to emotions. To grasp that effect of existence, “to design with an intention not so much to provoke emotions, but to receive emotions” - this is your sentence again. PZ And it’s the same thing again - it’s not emotions, soul that you design, that you structure. What you design is a building which leaves space, that void as a receptacle for emotions from things in themselves. To leave that void - but actually more than just leave - you need to create atmosphere for receiving it.

BS You also often use the term “the body of architecture”. Such was the title of your text delivered during the Form Follows Anything Symposium in Stockholm in 1996 and also of your Krakow lecture. Architecture is not like a body, but it has its own body, an architectural one. It’s a term that instantly evokes the subject of life. Because a body is alive. It seems to me that when you talk about the body of architecture, it is this inner life that you want to bring up. It’s not about appearance, but rather about that inner vibration that you often write about. In my opinion, the most beautiful complement for architecture is to say that it has a body, that it lives within its architectural area of life. PZ I am not interested in using a thing as a metaphor, an allegory. The realness of life is primary, while aesthetic and practical merits are secondary. Architecture has a body of its own because its in it that life happens. Emotions.

BS Have you ever encountered a tendency to fold in architecture? It is proposed here to turn the rigid costume of architecture into its ‘flexible’ body. PZ I have heard something...

BS I get the impression that you’re the one who is successful in turning into reality what architects have been theorizing about, being fascinated by the principle of a fold. Or perhaps that you come the closest to the system of Gilles Deleuze himself, as presented in his book Le Pli.



In a nutshell: folding is simply the extremely painstaking work of developing the project from the original seed of the programme - your theme base - through to the final effect, which surprises us with its form. The very form is not being designed here, but rather comes into being due to the influence of internal forces, present mainly in the function, in materials, and of external ones, coming from the place with all its wealth and complexity. You too speak about the importance of the place and function and about inner vibrations in materials. But folding architects use computer methods to prepare the data, e.g. about the place, from geology, climate, history through... the number of passing aeroplanes. They use Rene Thorn’s and Jacques Lacan’s diagrams. Then they map these diagrams on topographic’ grids and transform the seed of the theme. This practice is used, e.g., by Peter Eisenman, Bahram Shirdel... PZ Yes, yes. I think that I talk about similar things in a more normal sort of way. My vision of architecture is more connected with realness rather than with theory. Often, in the final effect of work - in a building - 1 can see the theory that was presented by an architect. I don’t like that. It is different at the beginning of work: then theory is needed, but it rather must turn into reality and vanish. I don’t like it when, in the end, forms are produced that deafen you with their talkativeness. Architecture, in my view, as a notion of the body that we have talked about, is not there to teach us something, to tell a story, but rather for be lived in. Isn’t it so? To be lived in and not to simulate life. This may be why my architecture differs from the one you talked about. Although I have a similar opinion, that the place is very important, always different, unique, one that needs to be understood. But I think that I myself am much, really much better than even the best computer! [laughter]

BS You’re a specialist in sensing places... PZ Every human being is one as long as they open up, enter the place in a true, real manner. Because there’s the place - but there’s also a great world in yourself. All that we have been talking about, what you have and what you know, experiences, awareness. All your worlds juxtaposed to the place that radiates. And you are the most sensitive instrument of cognisance. The things that are in you and which you don’t have to be aware of entirely - this is your reason, your wealth. This is a very deep truth pertaining also to collective memory and we are lucky to have one. When I sense a place, something moves me more, something moves me less or not at all. But if something moves me, I ask right away what it is and I start to analyse whatever it is. The intellect steps in because I have to know how to enclose such a living void. Because, in the end, architecture is an auxiliary art to this mystery. I think that a void is the core of architecture. You cannot design a void, but you can design its boundaries. And this is when a void comes into being.

BS To me, this is still the body of architecture, delimiting the inner life. PZ Of course. To me, the most fascinating thing is this living fragment of space encompassed by boundaries. Also in a city, when I see a public square, unnerving outskirts, everything being more or less traditional, I can feel that living void. Or a house, one, two, three houses in a valley, here nearby, in a gorge with steep slopes


ZUMTHOR HOUSE Haldenstein, Graubünden


[Zumthor uses the word: Schluchf]. This is what I am interested in very much, that void. How do you create it, make it full of atmosphere, adequate to the need (this is important), where nothing is an obstruction, and there’s only that directness. The German language has an adequate word for that: die Stimmung - the mood, ambiance; etwas stimmt - something hits the spot, matches the ambiance, but also: Instrumente werden gestimmt - instruments are being tuned. All this is the base to me, the need. The fold theoreticians talk about the seed, programme, inner code; perhaps I am more pragmatic, closer to physical realness. But perhaps this is almost the same... And then, this base is the starting point for long-term work - still on that first, original theme. There always has to be an image. At first, it is not clear. I can see some things while others are in the mist. And this means that I have not yet worked long enough. During the design process, these things become clearer and clearer. It is also possible to live in this space that is being designed, to move around in it. I am in the spaces that I design when I take a shower, when I wake up; I enter the room that is being designed to see what it’s like and if I like it. And only then do I go to the office and check the models and plans if it really is like I see it in my imagination. Space meaning: void. What I’m interested in is work on the boundaries, the outskirts of this mystery of the void. It’s important how it radiates, how light spreads within it, what it does to it, what it is like on objects. Light is a mystery, too. Isn’t it? So, what are the walls of this void like; do you want to enter it; does it give you warmth, tranquillity... ? All these words are a little traditional...

BS With this strong, personal commitment and sensing of space, what is the process of designing the intimate space of a private house like? You’ve mentioned designing a house for a family with six children. A separate flight of stairs leads to each of the four bedrooms upstairs. This is peculiar routing, with a strong impact on how space, privacy is sensed. You call your new house, which is currently under construction, a “house for walking” because it is designed as an elongated U, encompassing long, narrow spaces. PZ I think that it’s natural to want to get to know the family you make a design for. I quickly sense what they like and what they don’t. I’m very open. But I have a need to be trusted. After all, I am a specialist; maybe I just know better. I think that, if there is this openness between people, it is not difficult to understand this unique couple, marriage, family. Sometimes, the client is a friend. The lady pharmacist that I am designing a house for in Chur, the Haus Schwarz, which looks just like my new house, has a lot of confidence in me. This is a very good client because she asks me what I like, how I would do it for myself. Her house will be different from mine in that inner space that we keep talking about, but with similar, identical details.

BS This confidence is also inspired by your successful built projects. Although, you’ve mentioned the great distrust shown by clients in Bregenz. PZ Yes. But, in Bregenz, we were trusted by the inhabitants of the city.

BS Since we’ve brought up the subject of the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, I’d like to ask about inventiveness. You’ve written that designing means to you an inventiveness which is not to consist in surrealistic inventing but rather in discovering.



PZ Yes. There are houses which are built a bit like aeroplanes - there’s the original beautiful design, and then a whole series is made. I’m not interested in this. I like the process. All our projects are very different from one another as final forms. When you compare, say, the old folks’ home in Chur, St. Benedict’s Chapel, the baths in Vals, the Kunsthaus in Bregenz - each is different. I also like to look at projects in the process of being designed - after a month, a year... when I see that the emerging form talks about the work process. Work, specific work, and things find their places, they enter into their own order. This is a process of looking after something, like after a plant - perhaps this simile is a bit exaggerated, but you know what I mean- you work on something that must develop by itself over time. I think that, in our case, forms come by themselves. And this is what I like. We don’t work on the form, we’re working on...

BS ... on everything else? PZ Exactly, on everything else, but not on the form. The form creates itself because it has to - when you take materials and mark the boundaries of the void that we talked about. It emerges in the end as evidence of the design process.

BS Could you then formulate your design methodology? PZ In architecture, there’s always some content to be grasped in form. I’m most successful with the form, I think, when you can’t sense it in my work, when the form speaks merely about the content. This is when I like the form, and it seems to me then that I experience the content in as simple a manner as never before.

BS And if not? PZ [laughter]... and if not, then we go back. We never change the form itself, but we go back to see again the conditions, the theme, and we find the choice that was an error. Because I am convinced that correcting just the form without going back is artificial and will sound alien.

BS The form emerges on its own, as it were, as a result of the work on other elements of the design and it cannot be changed. PZ Always, in the end, it is evidence of our work, authenticity - a building is created. It is an evaluation of the design process, it testifies to all the work.

BS Yes, but your inventiveness is not just the uniqueness, the exceptionality of each project, but also the inventing of new structures or connections between materials that have not existed before. Admirable is the inventiveness of the Kunsthaus in Bregenz: e.g. the way large glass panels are suspended without any holes being punched through them, or the structure of the curtain wall. You create new tensions between materials that are in common use today. Do you feel that you are a bit of an inventor when you design? The discoverer of the potential hidden in the materials of a structure?




SAINT BENEDICT CHAPEL Sumvitg-Cumpadials, Graubünden


PZ Of course. In the case of the museum in Bregenz, we said to ourselves at the outset: it would be a big mistake if we built a façade that would seem to be saying “I’m high-tech” or “l want to belong in global architecture made of glass”. The work process was similar to the activity of an artist, maybe one like Joseph Beuys, who liked the material. When you like a material and you approach it sincerely because you like it, you treat it adequately well, with tenderness. To us, glass was such a material. And it was for glass that we looked for a masterly, albeit common way of use. Without creating that affected language, but rather decoding the simple principles. It was clear to us that you can’t make holes in glass if you treat it with sincerity, that you always see all the rims, that it should not be stressed or pressed on. This is an example. With this intention comes inventiveness. Then you say to yourself: this is possible! There has never been a glass elevation without punching holes in glass, but this must be possible because it seems natural! There’s never been a glass ceiling without a metal grillwork of frames, but it should be possible to freely suspend panels that do not touch one another, so that they show their rims and air can flow through between them. Rims are important in glass. So a number of elements in the Kunsthaus were designed as an invention, but it was not inventiveness in itself, resulting from curiosity and strive for originality. It was born as a natural process of solving the structure in accordance with our intention to treat well the material that we liked. Architects often ask me how it was possible to make terraces without expansion joints. Anyone who has had some contact with the building practice will know that there must be expansion joints every four metres. There are none at the museum in Bregenz: neither at the gallery levels nor on the stairs. We worked on this - like on an invention - for a very long time. I think that my primary background is very important. I was brought up in an environment where people worked with materials. My father always designed some structures; he built a house by himself; experimenting was something obvious. That practice gave me a sort of confidence that, when I wanted to achieve something, it would be possible. I am also an architect who listens, with great attention and sincerity, to specialists, contractors, builders, engineers who help me erect a building. A lot of discussion, work, exchange without end - this ping-pong: they-us, we-them, they-us - all of that in order to understand what is possible and what is not. In a production process, you always need to know what the best machines are today, the best tools to process materials. We enter the design process together. Difficult does not necessarily mean impossible. I think that contractors trust me or begin to trust me after some time and they know that I can feel the material and I don’t want anything impossible, even when it seems so at the beginning. Besides, from the outset, I explain my idea to contractors in such a way as to make them feel that they are co-designers in the project. Then they begin to work with the same passion as everyone else at our office. I like to talk to craftsmen. And they become proud that we, architects, talk to them like to partners, ask for their advice, treat them seriously. But when a thing in the design is not practicable, I change it. Because, when something is impossible, then it is impossible. When a specialist explains to me that there’s a specific device which just cannot cut a specific curve in glass, then I admit that he is right. But in numerous cases I begin to wonder if that long glass panel could not be positioned differently, or the disc changed in the machine. .. and my specialist is infected by me with this strive for inventiveness. But this takes time and conversation.

BS To you, change does not at all mean the necessity of compromise. In Krakow, you seemed indignant when I told you that my teacher had called architecture an art of compromise. In Peter Zumthor’s architecture, compromise does not exist, but still, when developing an idea in an elongated work process, you do change the design.



PZ I keep changing the design, but it’s for the better. Exactly in order to avoid changing the idea. A compromise is a change for the worse, meaning a change of what we like the most, the hot nucleus of the theme. And you mustn’t do that.

BS In each of your projects, there is some craftsman-like perfection, something unique. When I found myself in the stony world of the baths in Vals, I understood what rock mass meant. You achieved the homogeneity of rock by cutting it into narrow strips, almost incredibly thin compared to a block of stone. One can clearly sense the pressure of these horizontal elements and, on the scale of the whole wall, this produces the coherence of tension, like in solid rock. PZ Yes. [laughter] But the story is quite the other way round. Cutting the rock into strips was the simplest thing. At the very beginning, I was told that there was a machine which could cut rock automatically, day and night, into narrow strips as long as one metre. But I had a different idea. As it can be seen in the model made of pieces of stone, I wanted to build walls of huge, solid blocks. People started asking me questions: where are you going to get these big chunks of rock; how are you going to transport them here? For two years, I didn’t know the answer. I don’t know, [laughter]. Dio mi aiutera! [God will help me!]. Then came the moment when I went to a quarry, met the boss there and asked him to prepare me the largest blocks of rock they have, for the following day. What I saw next day just terrified me. I had imagined powerful rocks, and then even the largest ones turned out to be very small! I was absolutely disappointed. But walking around the quarry, I noticed stacks of thin slabs, trimmed for flooring. The quarry was full of such thin panels. I saw that such treatment of rock is the simplest and the easiest. I understood that, out of the thinnest elements possible, I needed to build the massiveness and homogeneity of a block of rock. Like in woven fabric: the thinner the thread you use and the more densely you press them together, the more solid, smoother fabric you get. I asked Pius, the boss at the quarry, how I could get two, three different thicknesses. He said this was no problem. I asked what made that type of rock different. He said that you could make very long and narrow slabs by cutting it.

BS Hence the unusual structure of the walls in the baths? PZ [laughter] You see, what seems to be somewhat unique here was actually the simplest and most practical thing. It resulted from the quality of the rock and the quality of the cutting machine.

BS It’s sufficient to be open at the right moment, to change a two-year-old vision of the project and make the right decision. [laughter] PZ Isn’t it simple?




We take a short break. There are books on the mantelpiece: Keeping a Rendevous by John Berger; a thick volume of Architekturtheorie im 20. Jahrhundert; a photocopy of L’uomo delta folia by Edgar Allan Poe; Goethe’s Werke, Kommentare und Register, Band 11, Autobiographische Schriften III. Zumthor takes the anthology of 20th century architectural theory and, with embarrassment, tells me that his text is included in it as well. I ask if he feels like reading those various theories. He laughs. Puts the thick volume back and takes a small, black book.


PZ This is wonderful! I prefer Goethe. Let me read you some fragments. This is much profounder, touches the core of things that I’m interested in. For example, the question: how do you build an idea which is not standard and develop things in such a way as to make each of them find their origin... Or this, Philipe Jaccottet’s thoughts about Magritte’s work. He can see a painting which contains of course a lot of mystery, poetry. But a disappointment arises in him. This painstaking effort to present a secret, to show how big a poet I am, how well I sense the mysticism of the world - this bothers him. Exactly. Mysteries should be left covered. This is my theory. [laughter]

BS Also in architecture, that “hard core of beauty” must be inside, and then it will become manifest on the outside in its own way. Without an opening, a wound... PZ ... like in the body that we keep going back to. It is not known where that fascinating life is. You know the anatomy and the complicated life processes, but life remains a hidden nucleus. Still, you recognise infallibly a living body among beautiful dummies. You do not need to cut a body to see that it is alive. Actually, you mustn’t do it, or life will evaporate!

BS The skin, the shell is very important. Grown into the interior and still receiving external bodies... PZ The skin, the organs are very important to an organism: you need to get to know them better and better and work on them. The same way, in the body of architecture, there are organs, skin - and at the end there’s architecture - the ambience. The soul of that architecture appears only when we are not painstakingly trying to show it, I think. Well, maybe its there at the very beginning and all you need to do is to take care of it... Many have talked about that: Le Corbusier, Goethe, Handke, Bergman. This is a different idea of creating things than the formal one. Form, whether beautiful or ugly, is a totally different matter. A house may have the same ambience as, for example, a tree. No one asks the questions whether it is beautiful or ugly and how it is shaped formally. It is natural within its own order which is sufficient.

BS By this approach, every plant or animal is beautiful. PZ Exactly. Nature is always beautiful. Whether in nice or in bad weather. But buildings - not always. Some lose a lot when it rains. I want to build buildings that are not ugly when the sun ceases to shine.

BS And what does an ugly place mean to you? In Krakow, I asked if you had built anything at an ugly place, because what I know grows out of a beautiful landscape or at least a pretty context. Then you replied: find me the ugliest place in Krakow. So I’m asking: if a place is ruined, soulless, how do you collaborate with it, imbibe this identity? PZ Yes, there are such places, often the outskirts of a large city, for example. So, my answer would depend on the assignment. If the devastation were significant, I would have to be allowed to build something big, which would be capable




of changing the depressing ambience. To “charge” e.g. an estate of blocks of flats with atmosphere, a square would be needed, a street, say, two kilometres long. But there are also lots of small things to be either improved or removed. Details begin to work slowly in a given space. Let me go back to saying that nature is always beautiful and when you cast away what man does, you will restore the beauty and harmony of the landscape. Unfortunately, more often than not, people - we - litter the physiognomy of the earth. Cast away man’s structures and see how beautiful nature is.

BS So architecture that grows harmoniously out of the natural crust of the Earth is closer to you? In your texts, you emphasise the importance of clinging to a place, to its physiognomy. But you’re not entirely a believer in tradition. You have written that if a building merely continues what is local and reiterates what the place already has, there is no confrontation with the world and no presence of the contemporary. At the same time, you write about your disappointment when a window tells you: I’m new. PZ I’m a traditionalist in the sense that what is important to me is history, the memory coming from a place. A cityscape, for example, is studded with people’s stories, good and bad, and this is its wealth. It isn’t tradition that I’m interested in, but rather culture, memory, continuity meaning history, the present and the past. But this continuity is not linear to me - it doesn’t run from the past to the future like a train. Development happens by leaps, it makes loops, circles... Time is not a straight line; perhaps its route is a circle...

BS Or a fold - falda? PZ Ha! “Falda”. “Falda”? [He laughs trying to pronounce it in Polish] But certainly, time has its cycles, periods to which it goes back, as in life functions. During a cycle, things change. I think that you need to be aware that there is the place and a whole world in you that do not stop. There’s always my choice which creates an interaction with a place. And only with that realness comes imagination, inspiration.

BS So Wirklichkeit to you is not just a specific place, but the whole realness of a human being at that place. PZ This adds up to a whole.

Zumthor reaches for Goethe again. PZ La Zisa... it’s a Norman building above Palermo. I know it. It’s full of atmosphere that is Norman and Mediterranean at the same time. Odd, standing next to Greek temples. Some of them moved me. There is serenity in them. Or here, further on... Andrea Palladio.

BS Is he your favourite architect? PZ One of my favourites. I mean there is a group of architects in whose works I sense something special, for example in Le Corbusier’s works. I’m interested in



the same thing as them. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Palladio, Goethe... Please, listen to this, Goethe writes about Palladio’s Carita abbey in Venice here, built merely in ten percent. Only ten percent, but you can feel the genius, the completeness, the complexity. “Such a work should be studied for years” says Goethe. Further on, about Vicenza, Goethe writes: “My favourite Palladian building was allegedly the house in which the artist lived”. And finally the Rotonda, absolutely stunning... Or this - during a meeting of the Olympic Academy, discussion on whether innovation or emulation is more useful to fine arts? Splendid! This is what I like. More than that thing.

He points to the anthology of architectural theory. BS Do you prefer to look outside strict theory of architecture, in Handke’s, Williams’s poetry, Goethe’s commentaries? PZ Yes. They leave more space.

BS There’s no such thing as Peter Zumthor’s style, but still one thing recurs: high quality, masterliness always in a different form. You’re a professor at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio. You create a special bond with your students. How does one teach students this high quality, mastery which has no constant form, but is always manifested in a different one? How does one teach that the only rule is: be always open, ask questions anew, look with your eyes wide open? PZ Exactly like this. You’ve said it all. Eyes open, and so forth. I want to give a student confidence in himself or herself. Be open, look at things, look for a theme, a strong idea that fascinates you, follow that theme! General education is one thing, when you get knowledge and create a base, for example in high school. But the other thing is: trust your truth. I want to cooperate, based on this rule: I’m the same as you - to make them realise that this older architect does not know everything, and sometimes knows nothing. I get pleasure out of being just as naive, joyous and void of knowledge as they are. This is nothing bad! These are the moments when dialogue starts, light, simple. After our meeting during the holiday season, my colleagues, architects, told me: “You were a bit like Plato with his disciples - a half was made by your introduction, the other half was created by the students themselves”. I like it when young people open up and speak their minds. For example, a girl told me then: “No, this is not true what you’re saying; it’s not like this, that we all have some place of our own, a collection of things that we identify with. After all, there are the nomads”. She herself had lived with the nomads, lived in tents, wandered.

BS She had a place that wandered. PZ ...that wandered but still was a place.

BS And what does identity mean to you? PZ Personally, I think that a place is an identity.


VALS THERME Vals, Graubünden


BS A point on earth, physical, specific? PZ Yes. Maybe this is my weakness, but this is how I feel about it.

BS And, having such a strong identity of your place, one that you identify with, you can understand places that are absolutely alien. You have been invited to work on a project in Norway because you have a reputation of an architect who can recognise places ... despite this strong Swiss identity. PZ I’m designing a modest architectural intervention into an old zinc mine in the village of Sauda. It is still this openness. And time.

BS “Slow process”? PZ Yes.

BS This slowness that you also talked about in Krakow reminds me of quickness in Italo Calvino’s perfidious approach. The association occurred to me while I was reading your commentary on his term vago (nondescript, vague, nice, pleasant). You wondered how to turn this pleasant ineffability into reality in architecture. And, after Calvino, you answer perfidiously: in precision. PZ Ah, yes, The American Lectures.

BS I found a thought about spectacularity in your book. I sense that you are annoyed by “architecture for the stage”, “its gestures want to be as effective as possible and want to be looked at. There is little space left for me”. So, stage-set architecture that wants to be looked at is not your favourite? PZ It’s not like this all the way. Please, imagine a large room or a house that are supposed to be the setting for various situations. An ambiance that is too specific, a stage set for just one show would reduce the content volume, the absorptiveness of the void that we’ve talked about. But it’s something different when we make an installation setting for a jazz festival. Then, creating an appropriate atmosphere through the stage set is very important. Architects can learn a lot of things from stage setting. Primarily, to leave space for ambience. I’m not against stage setting in architecture. A stage set artist currently works at my office.

BS Oh! This is a surprise. Although, I’m probably beginning to understand. You treat the art of stage setting with awareness - rare among architects - of what it is: creation of a framing scenery for a performance. Putting boundaries around this void for the ambience that you have talked so much about. PZ I like it very much. Of course, not metaphors, and so on, but atmosphere.



BS But still, although you talk about atmosphere and emotions, you do not strive for them as much as it is done in a short, intensive stage performance. The time of architecture is different from the time of looking at a stage set, and therefore probably emotions are distributed differently in this living void? Your architecture is to me more selfrestrained and it doesn’t say “I want to be looked at”. PZ No? Oh... then I’m very disappointed.

BS The way I feel about it, there are no short-lived effects here; they are protracted in time. I enter the baths and the longer I stay at this place, the more I like it. PZ It doesn’t matter that much: short-lived or long-lasting... If the effect lasts for a short time, it is important too. It can last just a moment! You didn’t see our Expo pavilion in Hanover. It was a stage set. Especially, when musicians, barmen, visitors appeared on it. The pavilion was built with stage-set effect in mind, seductive with views, elements of light, movement, overlapping plans, the lively action of the show. It was a stage set. Also the evening in Basel that we are preparing with the students at our academy... is going to be a stage set. At the museum, at dusk, we’re going to start a public meeting entitled: Ambience in Architecture. I have selected exactly that moment at dusk when the light is the most appropriate to me. I like the idea of the students creating a 1:1 stage set in a large room, because that room itself has to speak about atmosphere. Otherwise, my arguments will not be credible, they may sound false.

BS Thank you very much for this reflection, but I thought somewhat differently, that you preferred elegance, selfrestraint, minimalism, purity of space, truth... PZ Big words! [laughter]

BS Is there anything in architecture that could be called a lie? PZ This word is too strong. True is the clarity that I ask new questions on each occasion, and then over again. This is what I like. The place, the time, the need - are different.

BS Taking on new situations without cliches can be seen in your practice. Each project, building is different. PZ This is how I understand the truth. I am the only element that remains the same, but not identical all the time, because I keep changing.

BS Are you the only continuity? PZ Yes. I’ve noticed that people like to say “Oh! Zumthor is a minimalist architect...”, “Oh! Zumthor is an architect of wood...”, or now: “Oh! Zumthor is an architect of beautiful things!”. Wait a little! [laughter]




CREDITS Text taken from Casabella #719, February 2004. Conversation between Barbara Stec and Peter Zumthor.

PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS Cover - Daniel La France

p.4-5 Daniel La France

p.10 Daniel La France

On the way to Vals

View from Haldenstein

Interior of Shelters for Roman Archaeological site

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p.12 Daniel La France

p.13 Casabella #719

Exterior of Zumthor’s atelier

Interior of St Benedict Chapel

Exterior of Zumthor’s house

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p.15 Casabella #719

p.18-19 Daniel La France

Exterior of Residential

Exterior of Vals Therme

Exterior of Shelters for Roman Archaeological site

home for the elderly

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Detail drawing of Shelters for

Interior of Shelters for

Interior of Shelters for

Roman Archaeological site

Roman Archaeological site

Roman Archaeological site


p.26-27 Daniel La France

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Exterior of Zumthor’s atelier

Elevation drawings

Interior of Zumthor’s atelier

of Zumthor’s atelier

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p.34-35 Casabella #719

p.36 Casabella #719

Interior of Zumthor’s atelier

Exterior of Zumthor’s house

Exterior of Zumthor’s house

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p.41 Casabella #719

Interior of Zumthor’s house

Exterior of Zumthor’s house

Interior of Zumthor’s house

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p.42-43 Daniel La France

p.44 Casabella #719

Interior of Zumthor’s house

Exterior of St Benedict Chapel

Detail drawing of St Benedict Chapel

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Exterior of St Benedict Chapel

Section drawing of

Interior of St Benedict Chapel

St Benedict Chapel


p.52-53 Daniel La France

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Exterior of Residential

Window detail of Residential

Interior of Residential

home for the elderly

home for the elderly

home for the elderly

p.58-59 Daniel La France

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Exterior of Vals Therme

Schematic plan of Vals Therme

Interior of Vals Therme

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p.64 Casabella #719

p.65 Casabella #719

Exterior of Vals Therme

Exterior of Vals Therme

Interior of Vals Therme

p.70-71 Daniel La France On the way to Vals





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