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Behind the scenes with Peter Zumthor

A rare peek behind the scenes at Zumthor’s studio reveals a rigorous work ethic, says Christine Murray

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend in Switzerland, where I visited the offices of Peter Zumthor on a trip arranged by the Serpentine Gallery. His much-anticipated Serpentine Pavilion will open in Kensington Gardens on 1 July, and the visit was an opportunity to interview him about his design – the hortus conclusus – a black box with a contemplative garden at its heart.

It was a privilege to sit down with Zumthor (after donning the requisite office slippers) in the timber-lined living room of his home, situated across a courtyard garden from his office, connected by a private corridor. The discussion ranged from the role of the architect to the design of a holiday home in Devon for Living Architecture, which goes to committee this week. Zumthor speaks in a quiet voice, his answers delivered in precise, if accented, English.

What is absent from the transcript, however, are the voices of his staff; a small office of around 30 hardworking young people who made us lunch, and showed us around the two studio buildings that make up the Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partner offices in the village of Haldenstein – a maze of working models, with drawings and materials pinned to every wall (even the cloakroom).

The oldest architect I met on the day was in her very early thirties, among the international, overwhelmingly female, members of staff. I ask Zumthor about this, and he replies with a nonchalance that reveals an exemplary lack of sexism. This majority of women is a recent, gradual shift that happened by chance over the past five years, he says – his office used to be male-dominated, like everywhere else.

Even though most are freshly out of school, the young architects who work there are generously called ‘collaborators’ by Zumthor. They are named project architect on a single scheme, which they work on, with Zumthor, from concept to delivery. I was told there is a high turnover, staff stay for five years or less, suggesting a demanding office culture. Interns are paid around CHF2,000 per month (just over £1,400), and are vetted from hundreds of applications.

There are more projects on the books (nearly 40) than this size of office could ever deliver. There seemed to be an acceptance that projects go over budget, and run late. But there is also a tremendous amount of care taken over the execution of each project, and the faithful delivery of Zumthor’s vision.

The process of design relies heavily on model-making – huge, 1:1 mock-ups built in-house are routine. Projects begin with a sketch, a concept model and photographs of the model which capture an ‘atmosphere’. These are referred back to throughout the project to ensure nothing of the original concept is lost. His employees speak about how easily the essence of a project can be squeezed out by accident when detailing a design, so a lot of time is spent perfecting these mood boards, which use photographs of the model to simulate the experience of walking through the building.

I relate these details not to idealise this way of working, but because I was intrigued by Zumthor’s respect for the purity of the initial concept, and how he ensures that this vision is not diluted.

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