REVIEW - BOOKS
Thinking Architecture By Peter Zumthor.Birkhäuser, 2006.96pp £23
Atmospheres By Peter Zumthor.Birkhäuser, 2006, 76pp. £23
For those who missed the -rst appearance of Peter Zumthor's Thinking Architecture (1998), Birkhäuser now offers a new edition with three added essays.
With it comes Atmospheres, another volume in the same vein - slim, canvas bound, graphically laconic - with the transcript of a lecture given in 2004. In fact, all nine essays contained in Atmospheres and Thinking Architecture are adapted from talks given over the last 18 years which, in sum, reiterate Zumthor's poetic approach to architecture.
There is little detail in either volume about the works themselves. Instead there are elliptical, personal accounts - memories, travel impressions, descriptions of rooms, art, or music - which build up to a set of unequivocal beliefs and help define the sensibility behind Zumthor's architecture. The accompanying photographs are likewise more atmospheric than informative, awakening the memory of the senses and presenting details or settings that are both dreamlike and deeply familiar.
While the avoidance of particulars is sometimes laboured (referring to Vals as 'some thermal baths we built'), this elusive style has a very specific aim. It creates a distance from the precision of pure theory, making reason secondary to experience, and so seeks to reveal the transcendent dimensions of the seemingly ordinary moments or objects that Zumthor describes. His writing is like his architecture in that it builds upon the simple and seemingly obvious to invoke the universal essence of real things in real settings.
'There are no ideas except in things.' Acknowledging his debts to Heidegger, Zumthor sees the act of 'dwelling' or 'living among things' as the basis of human life - over and above the capacity for abstract thought. As such, he is involved in creating objects that are less about historical reference and the manipulation of form, and more about an emphatic, self-referential materiality that addresses all the senses. For him, beauty is less an aesthetic category than an intrinsic quality in things that are wellmade and well-used, with a kind of luminous self-evidence similar to that found in nature.
If Zumthor advocates the beauty of old utilitarian objects, admiring the lustre of longterm use, I can't help admiring the patina that his older essays have acquired over almost two decades. The difficulty in formulating, in words, Zumthor's search for essence, is that the possibilities of developing the argument much further are limited. The more recent offerings mostly reprise the earlier themes, though preserving a pensive aura.
While Atmospheres retains too many of the lecture's colloquialisms to read as smoothly as the better-edited essays in Thinking Architecture, it's the more elegant (if less substantial) volume of the two.
Its illustrations, as significant as the text, are a mix of evocative quotation and alluring glimpses into Zumthor's more recent architecture - signalling further uncompromising explorations into the nature of the real.
Irina Davidovici is an architect and writer in London