Architecture that awakens the senses
Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings and Projects 1979-1997 Lars Muller Publishers, 1998. 312pp. £50 Peter Zumthor: Thinking Architecture Lars Muller Publishers, 1998. 64pp. £14.95 (Both distributed by Booth-Clibborn Editions 0171 637 4255)
The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, now in his mid-fifties, has had a growing reputation for some years; The Architectural Review featured his leaf-plan, larch-shingled Saint Benedict Chapel back in January 1991, while magazines such as a+u have devoted special issues to him. But it was the completion and publication last year of two longstanding projects - the Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland, and the Kunsthaus on the shore of Lake Constance at Bregenz, Austria (see opposite) - that brought him international prominence. Now comes a substantial book on his activity since 1979 and a slim companion volume of essays. The former, Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings and Projects 1979-1997, is particularly elegant in production and design, but it is the quality of the work (and thought) it contains that makes it one of the most significant architectural books of the 1990s.
Eight buildings are featured in depth: protective housing for some Roman remains, Zumthor's studio, the leaf-plan chapel, a home for senior citizens, an addition to an old timber farmhouse, a small housing estate, the baths, the Kunsthaus. A dozen additional projects, unexecuted or in progress, and ranging from a church to a casino, are appended.
This isn't a critical study but Zumthor's own preferred presentation of his oeuvre, devised with two collaborators - publisher Lars Muller and photographer Helene Binet. Each of the eight buildings is shown primarily through Binet's black-and-white photographs, which open and close each segment; sandwiched in between are a few small, square colour photographs, some drawings, plans and sections, and a verbal description by Zumthor.
Electing for this duotone version of his world may seem like deliberate restraint on Zumthor's part; he is far from oblivious to colour, as is evident in images of the thermal baths in the August 1997 ar (the red mahogany changing rooms and pervasive blue light), or his project for the Lindau casino: 'In the glistening deep blue stucco lustro room, there is already a hint of the Pompeian red or matt silver of the next one . . . ' But, in Binet's highly-skilled hands, the black-and-white gives both gravitas and glamour. Many of the photographs are full-page bleeds, though not monotonously so; when a single image occupies a spread, its composition isn't sabotaged by the gutter. Occasionally (for instance, with the Spittelhof estate) one might question the weight given to one image rather than another, but on the whole the sequences are beautifully judged. Invariably, the building is shown firmly in its particular landscape as well as in its detail.
Zumthor hasn't cultivated a stylistic signature; nor does he resort to magpie raids on history. But, while the sense of response to specificities of brief and site is strong, certain tactics and themes recur. One is his conception of material - whether wood or stone - as a solid block that can be carved and hollowed out, becoming sculptural. This is seen par excellence at Vals, where the quasi-labyrinthine baths recall an archaeological excavation - but a geometrically precise one, as sharp and polished as the interlocking alabaster chambers of an Eduardo Chillida sculpture.
These object-like blocks with their nuanced blank walls welcome the camera: the sheer planes of layered gneiss at Vals, flecked with mica and quartz; the shingles of Saint Benedict Chapel and the vertical larch slats that encase the Zumthor studio, their tonal variation accentuated by weathering. There is a momentary reminder of J M Richards' classic, The Functional Tradition, where Eric de Mare's black-and-white photographs convey a similar material presence. This kinship extends in the way that Zumthor's buildings are put together, their straightforwardness: 'Good architecture should receive the human visitor, should enable him to experience it and live in it, but it should not constantly talk at him,' he says. The distinction from Richards' inclusions lies in the conscious refinement of Zumthor's work - seen (citing one of many possible examples) in the simple steel staircase that leads up to the drafting room of his studio.
Another constant in the book is a concern with the manipulation of light, of which Zumthor is a master: the fissured roof at Vals admitting shafts of sun; the etched glass ceilings of the Kunsthaus galleries, their plates suspended from the concrete floor slabs 2m above and filtering the light from the intervening void. As Binet's photographs make clear, Zumthor thinks also of the way that a building appears from the outside when illuminated within. They show too the effects of changing weather, of clouds descending on the mountainside; this isn't one of those architectural books where the sun always shines.
Informing these collected works is the priority that Zumthor gives to the occupants of his buildings, and to awakening their senses with his emphasis on sound and touch and smell. This is explicit in the essays collected in Thinking Architecture, which are as direct and matter-of- fact as an anecdote but sometimes have the resonance of a parable. In the first, 'A way of looking at things', he remembers childhood visits to his aunt where taking hold of the front door handle was the prelude to a singular world: 'I remember the sound of gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor . . . ' So, in his home for senior citizens, incorporating elements familiar from their earlier lives in nearby villages, 'the timber flooring sounds hollow when you walk on it'. Binet's photographs, however, leave us to infer this habitation - people are rarely glimpsed. One photograph from Vals shows wet footprints fading on the bath's stone floor, a perfect image of human transience. The implication, intentional or not, is that Zumthor takes the long view; these buildings are containers for successive generations.
The poetic quality of Zumthor's work isn't at the expense of the practical: note, for instance, the ingenious system of environmental control at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. Zumthor reconciles opposites: this is an architecture where sobriety and sensuousness, lucidity and mystery, can coexist.