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Peter Zumthor speaks to the Architects' Journal

Full transcript of an interview with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor following his RIBA lecture

The Durrant Hotel, Central London
1 April 2009

Patrick Lynch:You must do a lot of this now, celebrating?

Peter Zumthor: This is great, [gesturing at the tea set] in England you order a cup of tea and all of this comes! It’s better to wait a little?

Patrick Lynch: You started your talk last night showing your house and studio. Did you grow up where you live? Your wife is from the mountains, right?

Peter Zumthor: No, I grew up in Basel, but we’ve lived in the Graubünden since 1971.

Patrick Lynch: You said last night that the world comes to you now, but you must do a lot of travelling with projects in Norway, Austria and England?

Peter Zumthor: Yes, about 1/3 of the time I am travelling. The ideal is no more than 20-25 per cent out of the office. I have to travel now because the commissions are no longer outside my front door. If I travel more than 50 per cent of the time I get sick.

Patrick Lynch: The last time you were at the RIBA [2000] your talk was entitled ‘Does Beauty have a Form?’, and you spoke about life, love, sex, clothes, food, more than simply buildings. What do you think now?

Peter Zumthor: The same thesis; I have the same feeling. Once you start a phenomenological pursuit of beauty, of moments, you look at your personal life: “When do I experience beauty? When do I have these moments of sensation of beauty? When do I feel this beauty?”

Patrick Lynch: “In Search of a Lost Architecture” begins: ‘When I think of architecture,  images come into my mind… Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon …. When I went into my aunt’s garden… I remember the sound of the ravel under my feet… memories like thes contain the deepest architectural experience that I know.

They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images that I explore in my work as an architect’. [Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser 1998]. Last night you spoke about your grandfather’s house, about the shallow steps between spaces there as an inspiration for the floors of St Kolomba Museum being “not like those flat supermarket floors everywhere”. Are these memories personal, or part of the phenomenal world of images?

Peter Zumthor: Basically I’ve come to think that I work like an author. There was a time when I thought that all architects work like authors, but when I looked around I saw that they were implementers and service providers. This is not my world. So I work like a composer writes his music, a writer writes his book and a painter… and so on.  I try to do buildings and spaces. And what I have to do for the plans and the function, and what I can try to do is the basic stuff that I can deal with. In your case and in any other case it is a matter of “what we know” and what is inside us. Most things that are inside us we don’t know!

So, we have all these many sayings of artists, like Picasso, who said that: “art is not about inventing, art is about discovering”. This is nothing new. Everybody says this in different fields. It’s obvious that what is inside you is the only guarantee – no, not guarantee – this is the stuff that you are working with as an author if you “create”. A stupid word heh?. If you make something new, this is where everything comes from. It does not come from following ideologies. It is great if you become part of the church, Modernism or whatever, then of course it consoles you and it supports you and makes part of a group. You are a Chelsea fan….

Patrick Lynch: Or a Zumthor fan….

Peter Zumthor: Ha Ha! Yeah, true. This is also human. But in order to create something this is not a good thing. Better to be yourself.

Patrick Lynch: Last night, talking about drawing, in particular early design section sketches in pencil and wash, “this drawing already knows what it wants to be’. And I got a strong sense of otherness that I recognise too. Somehow you are doing it but, you’re not quite sure what is going to happen yet but that you know at a certain point that a good beginning has been made. You also said that you are fast, but that what takes time is to find out the mistakes. This seems perfectly reasonable.

Peter Zumthor: Yeah, anybody is like this I think. It is a legend that I am slow; I’m just honest! I don’t want to build mistakes under time pressure… I like slow food, but I am incredibly fast. I get nervous if people are not so fast in understanding and seeing. I cut my collaborators off. I say “don’t explain, I see it.” From the universities the young guys learn that they have to explain everything but I say “just give me a hint. You’re working in an imaginative architect’s office, so just assume that I will see everything. Just go on.” If you do things too quick sometimes you don’t know if something is right, if something is good. If I look at a drawing done at a certain time in the process or in five years time, I can see that the drawing knows something we built. And at another time a drawing is completely helpless. But at other times I know that this looks secure and this was insecure. If you had asked me in the moment I was drawing there was no way would I know.

It is a legend that I am slow; I’m just honest!

Patrick Lynch: Is that why you think that we are creatures of habit as architects? I don’t like the word methodology or process because that sounds artificial as if you could make a goal happen in football or make someone fall in love with you. But there is a need for place that makes you lucky. If you are going to be lucky, then you need to make your own luck. When you are travelling is that difficult, or is it exhilarating? Do you find that you can work in a hotel room or in an aeroplane?

Peter Zumthor: This depends. I think that I feel that the people around me abroad are interested in a way in what I am doing, this is good. From this comes discourse and this is like working and living and learning. So if I go somewhere, and I like talking to you like now obviously, this is great. Sometimes you go somewhere and you think this is a mistake, that someone has bought me to go somewhere and I deliver something and they are not interested. This is very simple. Good hosts…. [laughs]

Patrick Lynch: Is this how decide to take projects on or not?

Peter Zumthor: Yeah. I need a genuine interest in the project. So if a rich guy comes to me and says “I would like a nice house on a ski resort, and money is not a problem, I’d like a nice place for me and my friends to come to stay, could you think about something?” even though he might be a nice guy or is a nice guy I say No. For me it would mean four years out of my life and for you it is just another weekend house somewhere, so this doesn’t go together.

Patrick Lynch: My favourite building of yours that I visited eleven years ago is the old people’s home at Chur (1995?).

Peter Zumthor: You’ve seen that? Nice building heh?

Patrick Lynch: It’s wonderful. It was lovely to see the way it was loved in use.

Peter Zumthor: Lots of people like it. The institution that own this building hate it. This is crazy. It is good for the user, for the old people. But for the owner he thinks there are too many visitors, that the floor is difficult to clean… solid wood floors. But the people really like it.

Patrick Lynch: They seem like a good client though. You seem to have had a relationship with them and understood the questions of the need for belonging and the need for privacy, of the individual and the group. I love the way that the kitchen walls step out and make a space for the door mat that of course everybody uses to place an umbrella….

Peter Zumthor: It’s nice isn’t it? Now the loggia, the verandah is full of their furniture.

Patrick Lynch: It seems that part of the otherness of what you do is that it is always open and needs to be understood in order to be completed. Is there any architect today whose work you look forward to seeing?

Peter Zumthor: I am interested in the work of Tony Fretton and Caruso St John, but I don’t read magazines so I don’t know everybody in Britain. It is unjust to mention anybody because I am ignorant.

Patrick Lynch: Have you ever been to see Alvaro Siza’s work?

Peter Zumthor: I know him personally. He is a great of course. I admire a lot what he does. And Eduardo Souta da Moura I admire too. In the “ star system” Siza is trying to do his personal thing, not selling out. Everything today is often just images…

Patrick Lynch:Rafael Moneo said that the Porto school of architecture is like a stage set, and that Siza is like an author, placing the different characters on it, like protagonists.

Peter Zumthor: Mmmm…

Patrick Lynch: It seems just that you are working in Norway and this seems to be sympathetic. There are some good young Norwegian architects.

Peter Zumthor: Yeah…. There is a young generation coming taught by Sverre Fehn…

Patrick Lynch: and Christain Norberg Schulz…

Both: … a good combination.

Patrick Lynch:There are two more things that I’d like to ask you. Firstly, I saw last night the house built for your wife Anne Liese out of engineered timber. I feel obliged to ask if you feel an ethical commitment to sustainability? You were talking about the sound of the wood, but I wonder if there is something ethical to this too?

Peter Zumthor: It’s not ethical only. But somehow nothing beats the atmosphere inside a solid timber house. I love concrete and I love Romanesque churches made out of Limestone, but there is something amazing about solid timber. Not panels like this (hits wood). I share this feeling with her and everybody says the same who has been there. What was missing in these traditional solid timber houses was light. Now in these new houses there is a lot of light, with huge windows framing the views. It is like a combination now of modernism, with flowing floor plans, and this old material. This has nothing to do for me with ecology. We are trying to be sensible. But I am not an ecological architect; I’m an architect.

nothing beats the atmosphere inside a solid timber house

 

Patrick Lynch: When Alvar Aalto was a professor at MIT funded by the Finnish timber industry he once gave a lecture about timber products. And someone asked him “why do you always make your rooms out of wood?” and Alto replied: “the origin of the word material is mater… and a wooden building is the closest to human skin”. The closest you will ever feel to your mother…

Peter Zumthor: This sounds a bit mythical or mythological, but there is the feeling that the space from this material is different from that material on your skin. Some materials take off more energy… wood doesn’t need any energy from your skin. Whether it is cold or hot it doesn’t matter. You could be in a wooden building and the felt temperature is always closer to what you want. If it is too hot it is always 2-3 degrees colder and the other way around. I made this huge timber lump of a lumberyard for the Hannover Expo (2000) and even though it was completely open it was cool inside, like going into a forest. And in the winter it worked the other way around. Wood doesn’t need you: It stays there. I never read anything but there must be research on this; it has this quality.

Patrick Lynch: It absorbs all of us, it absorbs sound and moisture, it’s resilient but also kind of vulnerable. You have to be careful, but you don’t have to polish it or be obsessive or neurotic. It’s just there, in the world.

Peter Zumthor: In these two houses everything is out of wood. The shower is wood, the basin is wood, all is wood. You shower in wood and you take a bath in wood!

Patrick Lynch: The one other thing I wanted to talk to you about is that it is clear that as a modern person - as you were saying last night - you feel ambivalent or ambiguous about working on religious buildings. Thy Catholic church seems historically to have been and in the last century for Le Corbusier also, a good patron of architecture. But also you said that Bruder Klaus was you mother’s favourite saint…

Peter Zumthor: One of two

Patrick Lynch: That must be a very strange thing to do, to make religious spaces. Or does it feel natural as an architect to do this?

Peter Zumthor: Bruder Klaus is everybody’s favourite saint in Switzerland. Half of the population is Catholic. He only became a saint in the 1940s, 400 years after his death. For me he represents an upright figure who does not make any wrong compromises; any compromise. And also he is staying himself. He is a positive figure for me also in his opposition to the church at that time. The other thing is the emotional thing. My mother visits him in a church in Basel. There is a copy of the statue that I showed you last night in a nice modern church by an architect that I do not know in Basel. She took me and like in Italy she goes and strokes him. A little shy she says, “he has always helped me”. I said “Mother, I know the original of this sculpture”. And then I could see that for her “original” didn’t interest her at all. There are a lot of copies of this original late gothic sculptures in the churches and it is like this “iconistic” thing that I thought you only have in Eastern religions, where have the icon is never an original. This is something very emotional that I like: this figure is so important to her and to others.

The main thing was that there is no altar [in the Bruder Klaus chapel], so it is not a space for the church. To seek to make a new, a tiny little space in a field that in the end expresses hopes about human existence. Sorry, this is a little bit pathetic. Can you do this? I asked that this should be completely contemporary, so at the beginning there was all sorts of stuff about solar cells [PVs] and stuff like that. And it boiled down over the years to the pure essential. All of these things fell off. At the end it was the chapel and the material and the rain and the water and whatever… it doesn’t matter [laughs]. I wanted to take this commission to make something really contemporary. It has this abstract goal, which obviously a very stupid goal. I knew I had a good client though.

Patrick Lynch: It seems to be really successful.

Peter Zumthor: People go there and are deeply moved. I get books of poems from all levels of people, intellectual and academics, ordinary people, farmers….

Patrick Lynch: At the end of Tarkovsky’s film about the Russian Icon painter the medieval monk Andrei Rubliev, there is a moment when he sees that a boy has made the bell for the tyrant even though he didn’t know how to make a bell; and Andrei sees that he has to keep making work even though there is bad stuff everywhere all the time. That he has a responsibility and a gift. That seems to be….

Peter Zumthor: This kind of thinking is very close to my heart. I’m a great fan of Tarkovsky of course. I like his book ‘Sculpting In Time’ very much.

Patrick Lynch: Thank you very much, that was a great honour. Have you got many more of these to do?

Peter Zumthor: Now I’ve got to talk to a guy who wants a whisky distillery on the Outer Hebrides….Ha!

Readers' comments (1)

  • Thanks for this. This is a nice interview. I was also at that lecture, and I would like to qualify the greatness of this architect with one observation - that compromise is as old as architecture itself.

    I went to see Alvaro Siza a few weeks before, one of the chief beaties about Siza for me is his ability to adapt in this regard. On the one hand, there is his Ibere in Brazil: the best client, craftsman, promoter possible. Then you have public buildings like his sports complex in Barcelona and in Gondomar Portugal.

    Because Zumthor does not engage with this world (the real world for most of us) he will never be as significant to me as Siza. He'll always be a bit of a luxury. Having said that, it is important that there are people like him, but we can't all be like that.

    Perhaps the greatest architect who ever lived, Michelangelo, had a career dogged and enhanced by compromise.

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