The Peter principle
Pritzker Prize-winner Peter Zumthor is the antithesis of the megastar architect, says Kieran Long
Peter Zumthor’s Pritzker Prize win is a timely reminder of why we are all involved in this profession. If people as well-educated as you lot really want to earn loads of money, architecture is clearly a poor choice. Something much more than money drives architects, and the Swiss embodies those things.
Zumthor is the antidote to the megastar tendency of 21st-century international architecture. Like RIBA Gold Medallist Álvaro Siza, he has never grown his practice beyond a dozen or so employees, and turns away far more work than he will build in his career. But this is not arrogance. His life is not about business success, but about working in the most pleasurable and productive way possible.
Beyond his beautiful buildings, one of Zumthor’s most important polemics is that he rejects the idea of architect as service provider. Although we must all outwardly profess faith to the idea that architects provide services that can be billed by the hour and ‘add value’, the reality is that architects provide something far less tangible. Those who carp about the loss of the architect’s influence in the construction industry in the UK should realise that what has really been lost is the conviction that architecture provides things no other profession can: understanding, authorship and the cultural and intellectual leadership in how we make the city.
It would be easy to say that Zumthor has great clients. But, in architecture, you get the clients you deserve. To employ Zumthor is not to employ a prima donna; it is to make a commitment to an uncompromising figure. When you commission him, you delegate the responsibility of how the building should deal with the brief to him. This is the ‘service’ architects should provide: they make decisions on behalf of clients that derive from experience and design skill.
Our interview shows that while some perceive his life in the Alps to be a little ascetic, he is aware of his lapses into self-parody. That is certainly more than can be said about more fashionable cultural figures like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. Zumthor gives us all hope that a sensible, careful way of working, coupled with skill and creativity, can still have a central relevance.