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Place of Grace

The uncanny beauty of Peter Zumthor’s out-of-the-way buildings.

Over a decade ago, I trundled my good-natured family across miles of southern Switzerland to see every building I could by Peter Zumthor, who is this year's winner of the Pritzker Prize. Then as now, most of Zumthor's work was off the beaten track, not only literally but metaphorically, little known to the general public although admired by professionals. What drew me to make the trek to his work was what, from pictures, appeared to be its conceptual rigor, its unabashed monumentality, and an attention to detail so fanatical that every threshold, corner, and joint seemed to become an opportunity to rethink the way hands make buildings.

I bought a detailed map of Switzerland, on which I drew bright red circles around the names of obscure places: Haldenstein, the hillside enclave outside Chur where Zumthor lives and works; Sumvitg, the remote farming village where he built his first church, the Chapel of St. Benedict; Vals, the high-altitude hiking resort of his Thermal Baths. On our way back home we stopped in Paris, where we chanced upon a lovely American woman of wealth who was scouring Europe in search of an architect for a museum her family planned to build. We spoke about Zumthor's buildings with such earnest admiration that she determined to visit them herself. Across the café table went my map.

Ten days later, immersed again in the daily routines of our lives, we returned one afternoon to a message on our answering machine. "It's me," said a somewhat ethereal voice, the distance between us evident in the faintness of the predigital connection. "I'm at the Baths. I've been here for two days. I called because you're the only people I know who could possibly understand what I'm experiencing…." Our new friend's friends, like most people, had likely never heard of Zumthor. During her time at the Baths she came to appreciate why we had insisted upon the importance of this work. Even more than is the case with any building, comprehending one by Zumthor requires you to be there. Worlds unto themselves, Zumthor's buildings change your world. Pictures cannot show that. This man understands the difference between a building and a photograph, and he designs the former, not the latter.

Zumthor is known to be uncompromising when it comes to his designs, and he exhibits his work rarely. He also tries to maintain an ethical orientation to design and practice, working mainly on public and institutional projects, and repeatedly turning down lucrative offers from developers and private clients. This reluctance to engage in many of the profession's customary practices and established rituals of self-promotion, combined with his contemplative and exacting approach to design and construction (which takes time and money), explains the lamentable scarcity of his realized projects, and why his work is not better known. Unlike most Pritzker winners, the list of Zumthor's completed buildings is short, and the list of his unbuilt projects is long.

Many of Zumthor's projects, from his Protective Housing for Roman Archaeological Ruins in Chur in 1986 to his recent Art Museum Kolumba in Cologne in 2007, reconsider the relationship of contemporary experience to historically rich and complicated events or institutions. In Chur, a complex of crate-like boxes woven from interlaced timber slats rest so lightly on the ground that the structures seem cast like nets atop a large excavated site of Roman ruins, conveying the ineffable fragility of present moments, as if all could be washed or bulldozed away before tomorrow morning. In Cologne, Zumthor constructed a museum for the Archdiocese around the remains of the gothic St. Kolumba Church, which, after its destruction in World War II, had become a large archaeological excavation site with ruins dating back to the seventh century, and was capped by a memorial chapel built in 1949 by the eminent German architect Gottfried Böhm. The dusty-brick museum wraps around and re-colonizing this historically laden site, creating from it an elegant exhibition space for artworks ranging from Romanesque sculpture to twentieth-century objects of daily use.

Zumthor's propensity to engage the past extends to one of architecture's most fraught challenges: honoring tragedy and loss through building, which is an essentially optimistic act. Such efforts include two projects in Norway, the museum of a long defunct zinc mine and a memorial to a seventeenth-century witch-burning (a collaboration with Louise Bourgeois), as well as the better-known Topography of Terror in Berlin, a documentation center on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters, near the Potsdamer Platz. This last project became an eleven-year-long, almost Nordic saga: its spectacular design of thin, closely spaced concrete bars and glass panels was well under construction when the German federal government, which took over the project from the city of Berlin, balked--stories vary as to who was to blame for the escalating costs of construction and growing doubts about its desirability--and canceled the project, eventually razing the site.

All this hints at the character of Zumthor's work, but reveals nearly nothing of why it is so extraordinary. For that, a more analytical approach is needed, which must begin with his intellectual background. Zumthor, sixty-six years old, was born in Basel. The son of a furniture maker, he prepared to enter into the family profession. His early training was at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Basel, where a curriculum based on the Bauhaus' famous Vorkurs (which had been developed largely by the Hungarian sculptor László Moholy-Nagy) eschewed traditional methods of artistic composition to promote abstract experimentation with colors, materials, and forms. After Zumthor earned his degree from the ETH, he decided, in the mid-1960s, to spend time abroad, enrolling in the Pratt Institute in New York City to study industrial and interior design. "That nearly killed everything," he told me, explaining his dislike of how his chosen disciplines were taught, with an unreflective orientation toward commerce.

Salvation came in the person of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (the widow of László, who had died in 1946), who was then teaching Pratt's courses in architectural history. At the time Moholy-Nagy was developing a hard-hitting critique of the Gropiusinspired strain of second-generation modernism, which was then American democracy's state style. Nearly a decade before her more celebrated colleague Bernard Rudofsky published the widely acclaimedArchitecture Without Architects (1964), Moholy-Nagy ventured out in the field to study and photograph vernacular architecture in North America, Central America, and South America. Her Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture, which appeared in 1957, sang the architectural praises of so-called primitive and vernacular buildings, analyzing how they attended to dimensions of architectural experience that contemporary practitioners, she maintained, often neglected: the particularities of site and climate; the cultural resonance of local traditions; the associative and experiential power of materiality and traditional methods of construction.

Some of the buildings published in Native Genius share formal attributes with minimalist sculpture and land art, which Zumthor also came to appreciate during his time in New York. He was drawn to the works of Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, and later Robert Irwin. Different as these artists' works are, they exude a visceral monumentality not unlike what Moholy-Nagy promoted for architecture. Minimalist sculpture and land art also require a conceptually and physically active viewer: to understand these works, you must move around, considering their changeable and various aspects over time and space and culture. For Zumthor, contemporary art offered relief from the reification of technology into the quintessential symbol of modernity. His thinking ran counter to that of a heavily populated retinue of prominent modernists, led by their voluble mouthpiece, the Swiss-born critic Sigfried Giedion--postwar architecture's Clement Greenberg, and similarly monomaniacal.

Zumthor began to imagine art and spaces built up from everyday materials into a rigorously conceived universe of shifting scales and prospects, ensnaring the viewer into looking and thinking, looking and walking, looking and seeing, looking and touching, smelling, hearing, sensing. Back in Switzerland, he took a post in 1968 as the architect for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments in Graubünden, a canton in the eastern Alps, where he settled and has remained ever since. The rough equivalent of a position at the U.S. Historic American Buildings Survey, his job entailed researching and documenting the forms and the histories of vernacular buildings in exacting, even numbing detail. From this came one of his earliest commissions, St. Benedict in Sumvitg, a tiny high-altitude farming village whose inhabitants Zumthor met while working on some local structures.

St. Benedict, a church seating maybe twenty people, is a wooden sliver of a shiplike building, its prow pointing toward a postcard-ready snow-topped alpine landscape. Outside and in, the details of the building's construction--materials, joinery, structure--become the moments of its design. At ground level only a projecting door interrupts the wooden shingles of its exterior walls. Inside, a methodically articulated structural web is set in front, and independent of enclosing walls: the slightly pitched ceiling's unfinished wood beams land on exposed timber posts, which line the walls in tight succession; these land on exposed floor joists, which disappear under the exposed wooden planks of the floor. And the splendid, snow-capped peaks and shadowed valleys beyond? St. Benedict's parishioners see that view every day. Zumthor shuts it out, leaving only the majesty of daylight, which streams in from the clerestory directly below the ceiling. Here, this building whispers, in the passage of time marked by fallen light, in every material element and its joining, in all real human making, lies grace.

St. Benedict reveals Zumthor's sources of inspiration and prefigures themes that two decades hence he continues to explore. The stark, singular volume of the exterior recalls the planar expanses of Moholy-Nagy's Haitian forts and Serra's mute steel sculptures. St. Benedict's familiar and restricted array of materials operates on multiple levels, intimating Zumthor's subsequent compression of ever more layers of meaning into ostensibly simple forms. The wooden shingles operate on three levels. Functionally, they constitute a practical choice for exterior sheathing in a land of harsh winters, because they are inexpensive and can be replaced individually without disturbing the overall surface. Experientially, these shingles confer a palpable sense of a building's scale and means of construction: since they are so small--smaller than those on a typical shingled house--that the user can imagine grasping one in her hand. Visually and associatively, this sheathing integrates St. Benedict's unfamiliar form into Graubünden's picturesque but slightly ramshackle landscape of farmhouses and chicken coops, a respectful reference to the locale that bypasses mimicry and nostalgia. 

The thoroughly astonishing Thermal Baths in Vals is Zumthor's most famous and most revered building. Equaling St. Benedict in its stark monumentality, the Baths differs from its predecessor in almost every other dimension: scale (it is much larger), composition, organization, materials, construction methods, and relationship to site. Zumthor's buildings bear no signature style. In Vals, rising out of a steep, wildflower-covered slope is a rectangular stacked-granite monolith, punctuated by three differently sized square apertures arranged in a contrapuntal rhythm and variously open and glazed. The aesthetic, materials, and construction methods of the Thermal Baths are, as in St. Benedict, drawn from the building's surroundings, but in this case the referent is not architecture but nature. Interior and exterior walls, which sheath the building's concrete core, are stacked into place with elongated, thinly sliced slabs of volcanic granite gneiss quarried from a cliff less than a kilometer away. The elements of his architecture--strong forms, rigorous compositions, layered fluid spaces, a tightly controlled palette of materials, and explicit details--are orchestrated only in situ, with the particularities of the commission, the building's projected use, its role in the cityscape or landscape, and the historical and contemporary character of its site.

Entrance to the baths is by way of a subterranean corridor, accessed through the small 1960s-vintage hotel to which the monumental Baths is, technically speaking, an addition. This shadow-filled corridor leads into granite-clad locker rooms--nice, but unexceptional--and it is from these locker rooms that one passes into the thermae, a moment that steals breath away. Standing on top of the ramp leading to the water immerses you in pools of space and light of shimmering grandeur. The layered rock walls that outside rise from unmowed fields stretch here, uninterrupted, from floor to ceiling, containing the bluish-green rectangles and square fields of water spreading below, arranged with the same musical sense of complex rhythm that activates the facade. Narrow granite slabs seemingly extracted from the walls at regular intervals form steps leading into the mineral-rich waters. Floating here you catch occasional glimpses, through enormous square floor-to-ceiling windows, of the steep mountain slope across the narrow valley that uncannily seems to have cooperated with Zumthor's artistic sense of composition by laying out a picturesque scene of artemisia, narrow footpaths, and hand-built shepherd's huts. Aqua-stained light streams through tinted glass blocks, arranged in a grid pattern and set into the concrete ceiling. An otherworldly wash of daylight spills down the granite walls, emitted from glazed horizontal slats set into the edges of the ceiling.

The Thermal Baths are by turns austere, sublime, and playful. The glazed slats in the concrete ceiling make a mystery of what supports its large span; the answer is that not all the building's walls are load-bearing, and its ceilings are cantilevered off and anchored into supporting walls. The pools, each a different temperature, are lit from below; the warmest, secreted away, is also the smallest--barely larger than a California hot tub--and seemingly on fire, bathed in hot red light. Adjacent to the resting areas, are two little rooms of mindfulness, one devoted to sound, another to smell. In the Baths' largest pool, you enter indoors and end up outside, where you paddle about, taking in framed views of the hillside, listening to the underground spring water gushing in through three carefully placed spouts. Quietude reigns.

This taut, polyphonic symphony of stone, shadow, water, and light equals architecture's greatest places--take your pick: the Pantheon in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Alhambra in Granada, Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, Louis Kahn's Parliament Building in Dhaka. Zumthor's Thermal Baths, like these other buildings, alter your understanding of what architecture can be while at the same time changing you. Kahn, justifying the vast expanses that he projected for his unbuilt Meeting Hall for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, once described the transformative power of great monumental buildings and spaces thus: "If you look at the Baths of Caracalla … we know that we can bathe just as well under an 8-foot ceiling as we can under a 150-foot ceiling, but I believe there's something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man." Woman or man, at the Thermal Baths, you do not simply take the waters. You engage in a profound ritual of cleansing and purification practiced by multitudes, in divergent cultures, over thousands of years, a ritual imbued with hosts of symbolic associations, contemplative transformations, and spiritual dimensions. Here moments and spaces lodge into your being, lasting memories of those scarce moments of beauty made by man.

The Thermal Baths, like St. Benedict, draws materials, forms, and methods of construction from its locale's built traditions and the site's topography, geography, and climate. Yet neither building melts into its surroundings, because the design of both, like all of Zumthor's projects, is guided by a rigorous, painstakingly formulated set of rules. "I like to believe," Zumthor explains, "there is an inner order to a well-made thing." His is an aesthetic that seeks internal formal unity. Rules underlie projects from their overall aspect to their smallest detail; rules direct the structure and the means of construction; rules govern the choice of materials, their relationship to one another, and their role in the overall composition. Yet never are these buildings arid, pedantic, or complacent. Once the rules for a project's design are settled--in the lumberyard-like maze of the Swiss pavilion for the Hannover Expo in 2000, the number of rules climbed to twenty-two--Zumthor loosens up. "My happiest moments," he jokes, "are when I can violate my own rules." Compositional surprises are many.

These buildings never feel formulaic, because, as in the minimalist sculpture that Zumthor appreciates, they become comprehensible only through motion and use. The brief for the Swiss pavilion, for example, in addition to the usual mandate of trade expositions to represent its commissioning country, specified a sustainable design. Zumthor's solution came when he remembered shopping for wood with his furniture-making father: "Let's build a lumberyard!" The precise lumberyard-like design of the "Swiss Sound Box," fresh-cut timber assembled with pressure springs instead of nails (dismantled at the end of the Expo, materials were returned to suppliers' retail shelves for sale), makes little sense from the exterior. The project unfolds slowly, as visitors ambulate through it as a maze, happening upon little bits of Swiss culture tucked away in its spaces: live music and dance performances, waiters offering fondue and bürli.

Zumthor's work addresses cultural debates that include but are not limited to architecture. Proponents of postmodernism who embrace différence, hybridity, liquidity, and other empirically suspect concepts of disjuncture and power imbalances are unmoved by Zumthor's rigor: to them, the search for an "inner order" or formal unity guided by rules reveals nostalgia, for the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment perhaps, or the hegemonic power of Western logocentrism. The Thermal Baths and other projects have been portrayed as one man's anachronistic, Lear-like railings against the world, soggy with yearning and standing in useless protest against contemporary life. It is true: other notable architects grapple more directly with the social and political issues that currently preoccupy us--global warming, globalization and cultural identity, the impact of digital and other kinds of imagery on our understanding of the world. Yet nothing in Zumthor's work is retrogressive or irrelevant. His architecture simply addresses something different, the actually existing moments of everyday life. He does not deny or reject the fast-paced and damaged world in which we live, and which we are attempting to better. Instead he celebrates the occasional human capacity in precisely such a world to make objects of exceptional clarity and rigor, and to create atmospheres and environments that can clarify, sharpen, and expand human consciousness.

Zumthor's thoroughly contemporary, urbane Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, which was finished one year after the Thermal Baths, in 1997, lays to rest, or should, suspicions of anachronism or nostalgia. His office won the city's competition for a new museum of contemporary art because it alone offered a design solution that went beyond the object-in-a-field approach often used in contemporary museum architecture. The site's western perimeter fronts onto the boulevard edging Lake Constance, but its opposite elevation faces one of the city's busy downtown streets. Zumthor's design broke the program into two buildings in a functional composition that at the same time enhances the urbanity of the site. Art is exhibited in an ethereal, vitrine-clad, cubic, four-story structure. The museum's administrative offices, library, gift shop, and restaurant are housed in a two-story, dark-toned rectangular block.

It is a simple site plan, but it accomplishes much. Aggregating administrative offices, commercial displays, and café-laced areas of recuperation, and segregating them from the exhibition spaces, establishes for art a distinct domain. Placing the administrative block perpendicular to, and off to one side of, the museum, and designing it as a dark low-slung rectilinear block, establishes it as secondary to the spaces showing art, while at the same time using it to guide the viewer's eye toward the site's compositional climax. The city of Bregenz gained not only an art museum, but also a sensitively proportioned and now much-used plaza in a densely built and crowded part of the city.

It is partly owing to the influence of Zumthor's buildings and ideas that a younger generation of architects is reinvigorating modernism. Even within this context, however, Zumthor's approach is distinctive. Comparing his Kunsthaus exterior to ostensibly similar projects such as Herzog & de Meuron's de Young Museum in San Francisco and SANAA's New Museum in New York City makes this clear. All three buildings draw aesthetic punch from heightening the viewer's awareness of the thin line between inside and out. All three do so by employing skins that flirt with transparency and that highlight the materiality of their respective materials. Herzog & de Meuron, in the de Young, perforate copper with variable patterns to create surfaces which range from the nearly opaque, as in parts of the museum proper, to the eerily diaphanous, as in the museum's torqued tower. SANAA's New Museum is also wrapped in perforated metal, a light-gray anodized aluminum mesh, that reveals only the barest hint of the building's structure.

The Kunsthaus prefigures these highly acclaimed successors in that it, too, is entirely wrapped in a single material and permits no windowed apertures. Yet compressed into its translucent skin is layer upon layer of meaning and experience. This begins with its material, which is not a single perforated surface but frosted glass panels arranged in overlapping layers. These panels are multiply arresting. Cool, frosted glass is typically used in interiors, so its appearance on a multi-story public building sparks the viewer's curiosity and unexpectedly suggests a sense of domestic intimacy. And this glass comes not in large-scale plates, as one might expect in a glazed façade, but in torso-sized panels fastened to one another with metal clips, further establishing an immediate sense of bodily connection with the viewer. The effect is similar to the shingles of the much smaller St. Benedict: the panels confer upon the four-story building a human scale; their fastenings inspire the viewer to imagine how it was constructed. Finally, behind the Kunsthaus's exterior skin is more than just the foot-shuffling apparitions of restless users, as in the dramatically torqued tower of the de Young, and also more than stacked floorplates, as in the de Young and the New Museum. An interior staircase sits directly behind the Kunsthaus' main glass façade, and so veiled views are offered of the building's floor plates, of the connections between the floors, and of users' movements between floors as they make their way to and from the exhibition spaces within.

The Kunsthaus exterior sparks the viewer's associative experience of other interior and exterior spaces, as well as his or her phenomenological experience of putting together and using other objects and buildings. And yet the viewer also sees in the Kunsthaus an abstract, rigorously controlled composition, a dense rhythm of jagged breaks of stepping risers playing off overlapping edges of layered glass panels. Zumthor's aesthetic may have been in part inspired by minimalism, but this architecture is anything but minimalist, conceptually or aesthetically. Simple volumes and familiar materials are packed into compositions thick with meanings. How many contemporary buildings provoke one to ponder human movement as it marks the passing of time, the elements of nature and human fabrication that constitute the materials and craft of building, the construction of objects by hand and by machine, and, at last, the fragile and enduring value of human culture?

Poets, artists, writers, and filmmakers--the more honored shapers of our culture--sometimes evince a genuine interest in architecture; but its sequestering from the other arts, its functional and real-world dimensions, and the journeys required to see its most basic works discourage many from seeking out and exploring and pondering contemporary buildings as they would works in the other arts. Zumthor's buildings may be few, and some of them are tricky to get to. But you must go, go to see some of the great artworks of our time.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.

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