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Interview with Royal Gold Medallist Peter Zumthor

AJ exclusive: James Pallister spoke with Swiss starchitect Peter Zumthor on the eve of his RIBA Gold Medal lecture

This week Peter Zumthor was awarded the RIBA’s highest honour – the Royal Gold Medal, adding to the 69-year-old’s haul of plaudits, which includes the Pritzker Prize, The Praemium Imperiale and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture. 

Many details that make your work so rich seem to come from very close observation of daily life. Do you think architects’ work would be better if they learnt to relax and play a little more?
I know exactly what you mean but it gives the wrong impression of how I work. I try to create emotional spaces that feel right for the purpose and the place. So I try to go into the use of the building very deeply and see what could be beautiful and comfortable. 

Sometimes it’s hard to get there. If I can tell something is missing, or I’m not quite there yet, I must be honest with myself. I must tell the client: ‘Please be patient for another month or two, or a year. You will have the rewards for that if you are patient now’. 

This is not easy sometimes. In judging what I am doing I have to be playful and serene and open and emotional because that – as we know – is how architecture is perceived, and not in abstract. I want to please people with my buildings unconsciously, emotionally. That’s all. I don’t want to lecture them. But it’s hard labour to get there. 

Developing the sensibility for minutiae your work shows – how thin a rail should be, how it should feel – seems to be at odds with spendingall hours working in a practice, as many architects must in the UK. Is it?
I customised my practice in the way I wanted to work. I think everybody can do that. You can always say ‘this is how I want to live, this is how I want to work’ and go from there.

You’ve alluded to a ‘slow architecture’. That goes against a lot of the demands of contemporary life and business: of doing more for less. How do you convince clients that it’s worth taking the extra time to develop something good?
By quality. One client once said, at a time when things were difficult: ‘Your best argument is the finished building.’ So I have to persevere to get there. Now I have more finished buildings it becomes easier for clients to trust. It was much more of a challenge for my clients to trust me 20 years ago.
If you were to talk to my clients, they would say: ‘We could see he was always sincere.’ They could see I was trying to do the best.

Even if you annoyed them?
Exactly! 

In the UK there is a caricature of architects that they are all egomaniacs, waste money and have no idea of what ‘real people’ like. Do you recognise this or do you think it’s an irrelevance?
For our society it’s very relevant. I think that’s what this prize is about. There are still some people left who believe in architecture not as a money-making machine but in architecture as an art. 

And yes, there are certain architects who are making fancy forms, but – big deal, so what! But architects who don’t know what people want, that’s a serious problem. It would hurt me if someone said ‘you did a thermal bath or an art museum which looks beautiful but cannot be used’. So architectural education should try to always focus on the ‘use’ – in the broadest sense of the word. Not function, use. I always think that there is something very noble to this. It is a noble thing to think how a building is used, because it has to do with how people’s lives are staged and how they are loved.

Do you revisit buildings to see how they work?
I don’t have to do this. I get this right away. I get the reactions straight away.

In the UK we have a housing shortage: Do you have any advice for architects doing housing projects?
I would like to do housing but I have never had a chance. I am trying to convince some people in Switzerland – a major insurance company – [I should] work for them. I told them if they had the opportunity I would be really interested in doing something for them – not high end. For normal people. Affordable housing. I will also do something in Holland, in Leiden.  

Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor, ARCAID

Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor, ARCAID

Do people enjoy working for you?
When people work with me they are normally happy. I asked this young girl from Holland how she liked working as an intern in the practice and she said ‘It’s great! Now I believe in architecture again. I can see it still exists.’

In contrast to architecture school?
I have had the experience before that, when people go and study architecture at architecture school  and they learn all these theories and the assistants are more clever than the professor and there’s all these talking heads, there is a gap between that and the real thing, which is the building. If architecture education does not focus on constructing, it becomes irrelevant for the building industry.

What would your advice be to a young architect starting now?
Select your school carefully. Select your professors carefully. Try and go to a place where architecture is taught as a whole thing – not only as a theory, but also as a way of living. 
Don’t let any kind of gap come up between your architectural concept and living architecture. 

What do you mean by ‘a gap’?
In architecture schools there is too much emphasis on the abstract: on the correct theory, idea or concept. Sometimes that stays very abstract and has nothing to do with real life.
I remember when I taught a semester in Harvard we assigned the students a house without a form. They could select a place they knew well and the research task was to represent a house with everything but drawings. This worked wonderfully. 

Renzo Piano, who was teaching nearby, by chance walked in and said ‘Oh! You are working on beauty’. In a sense he was right. We were working on emotional spaces connected to the biography of each of these 12 students. I told them: ‘Don’t give me any abstract “because of this and because of that”. As soon as you start to talk about your feelings you are competent.’ And that’s a beautiful competence!

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