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Match report: Gold Medallist Peter Zumthor lectures at the RIBA

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James Pallister reports from a rammed RIBA HQ to hear the Swiss master give his much-anticipated RIBA Gold Medal lecture

A polite note on the RIBA website stated that unfortunately there were no more tickets for The Royal Gold Medal lecture — it sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. The medieval knight of Swiss architecture was in town, playing to a packed house: from clear-eyed students to the rheumy Grande dames of London practice, everyone wanted a piece of Peter Zumthor.

He structured his lecture around seven themes, each starting with a short title piece – white monospace type on black — and one or two photographs to follow.

1951: his first memory of the smell of wet concrete

He recalled the Spring of 1951: his first memory of the smell of wet concrete, a moment where he remembers the temporary oblivion and exhilaration of running in the way small children do, with the abandon he now sees his grandkids enjoy.

‘Like a Tree’ was the next phrase up for discussion, in a little meditation on phenomenology. Not that he would call it as such — for all the verbal hocus pocus his work generates, he’s a straightforward fellow who wants his architecture to be easy to ‘get’: abstraction isn’t really his style.  

‘Is it possible to construct a presence in architecture which is silent and self-evident? Something which glows for the outside? That’s the challenge, Zumthor said. He wants an architecture ‘not of meaning but of being. It’s just there like a tree. It doesn’t need a goddamn explanation!’

So far, so straightforward (ish). Soon we were on more familiar ground. Building stuff. Or not. One of Zumthor’s early projects was for the Stahlberg in Berlin, the former Gestapo HQ. whose only material existence was the piles of rubble left from its demolition.

Zumthor designed a long building made from two elements: a beam and a screw which cut through these two hills. The charged, emotional and raw history of the site as a challenge:  no existing typology would do, said Zumthor, and — with a little dig at Peter Eisenmann — ‘I certainly didn’t want to fall into the trap of trying to symbolize it! Does Peter Eisenmann create symbolic architecture?’. No one answered. Point taken. So, Zumthor created a void. To which ‘meaning leapt in’.

The project was never built. But , as his mother once told him, ideas never go to waste. He was able to adapt that design 20 years hence for his monument for the 31 Witches[project name] in Norway, which we later learnt  was part of a the Norwegian Tourist Board’s initiative to spruce up a major highway project.

In a student research project to design a kitchen, he asked his charges to ‘make it typical and then it will become special’. Like him, they should think of all the best kitchens they have ever seen, and then have a typical, ideal kitchen in mind when designing kitchens specifically for them. That way the ‘highly personal can become the highly objective’. This architecture of everyday use is a noble objective, he reminded us, illustrating the point with a pleasant-but-dull looking S-Bahn station.

And onto the project for which he is best known for: that unremarkable facade in the hillside that hides the luxuriant elemental world within: the Thermal Baths at Vals. Here, he ‘would like to make one point: it’s not so much about the form’.  Form, he said, is the easy thing to crack. More difficult is the alchemy of materials and shadows. Zumthor was initially skeptical about using all that stone at Vals. ‘It took us a while to trust the stone and water in the alps’ but, ‘they are like a loving couple. They work together, and the water will change the stone’.

As for the shadows: he had to remind his assistants that it wasn’t a discotheque they were designing: keep the lighting low, ‘old people with wrinkles’ have to look good in here too!   So more shadows please. One old lady asked whether he  had ‘done this on purpose — where even old people look good?’. But of course.

Describing a student workshop in Harvard (link) brought Zumthor to a discussion of beauty: ‘It’s about creating a space which is perfect for a place – that is what I am aiming for. I’m not saying I am there but that is what I am trying to do’. His penultimate slide mentioned a piece of music: Sonata no2 in E-flat Major played by Kim Kashkashian (not Kim Kardashian…) Beauty, he said, ‘is in the eyes of the beholder. Yes, that is true. But there are objects which evoke that feeling. And that’s what architects should make’. Skipping to a moody b/w picture of an atmospheric room, he ended his lecture with a well-put encapsulation of what architecture can do at its best: ‘You have a feeling that you are both in and of this world and that there is something bigger than you’.

All very spiritual. It wouldn’t have felt out of place for the room to be suddenly filled with light and the cheery monk elevated off into the heavens. Protocol, however, requires these events to be rounded off with some questions from the audience. SO that is what happened. Zumthor, in good humour thus far, raised a concern that these may keep him from a drink, but ploughed on.

‘Did his love of materials come from his training as a carpenter?’, Angela Brady wondered. No. Awkward silence. He hated working for his father and spent years trying to escape.  It was probably because he came from a poor family (‘I never thought we were poor, but my sisters tell me we were’) and spent a lot of time making things, and had access to his father’s workshop. Though those days were ‘the most terrible years’ in his life, he learnt a lot of useful things.

What does it mean to be an architect in the 21st century? What is our role? Zumthor wasn’t too hot on the Big Questions.’ Being an architect I can do a little. I have obsession, passion and some skills. When I compare this to the whole world it is nothing. From the point of view of my professional life, I can’t answer these questions: I’m too hesitant or too old to give you an answer.

One audience member tried to probe Zumthor’s approach to the architectural canon: is he influenced by other architects? Not really, I start from scratch. ‘It’s my idea’. Why is it important it’s your idea? ‘I don’t know. This is where it is – this is me’. Later, in an answer to a job-fishing question (what do you look for in an employee), we saw a bit more of this: ‘ I say to people who work for me. You are helping me. If you want to help me, you’ll learn a lot. It’s not about your buildings, it’s about my buildings. But I can only do my buildings with you.’

In a discussion of his work at Leiden, which is unfolding slowly and looks like it will do so for years to come, he mentioned that his client was in the room. Angela Brady swooped on him. Why, she asked, did he choose Zumthor as his architect? ‘We all make mistakes’.

Finally, Zumthor could go and get a drink. The crowd filed out into the lobby, bleary-eyed and replete. Outside, a very dapperly dressed David Chipperfield was standing, just having finished a telephone call. How did he enjoy it? ‘Very much. A difficult job to do. He did very well’.

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