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The architect and the alchemist by Jessica E. Cullen

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Peter Zumthor’s Brother Klaus Field Chapel

alchemy (noun) - a power or process of transforming something common into something special.

Its sweeping interior volume not only defines and envelopes space, but dissolves into it.

Standing in Peter Zumthor’s Brother Klaus Field Chapel, my gaze is drawn to the tear-like oculus casting the bright light of late afternoon down its charred interior. Its raked walls wear the ghosted shapes of trees that stood, and were later burned, to give form to this quiet field refuge, commissioned by Germany’s rural Catholic community in tribute to their 15th century patron-saint, the mystic Nicholas von Flue (Bruder Klaus).

Its stoic volume sits solid in the field, robust and angular with an earthy materiality; inside, rugged walls dissolve into another world. Glass orbs are fixed like stars in its sooty reach, creating a galaxy of glinting lights.

Inside, I am at once sheltered by the chapel’s damp, cave-like volume and exposed. The field lies just beyond the threshold, yet here it is gathered around beneath the chapel’s starry night.

The form presents a subtle paradox: its sweeping interior volume not only defines and envelopes space, but dissolves into it - the walls are carved concrete but sometimes give way to a feeling that we are in the midst of a watery abyss swirling toward the sun. This ephemeral affect is achieved through the delicate coalescence of materiality and formmaking, and imbued with a mysticism that breathes life into Zumthor’s finely crafted gesture. The collusion of these forces results in the transformation of modest field chapel into pantheon - lending a transcendental quality to both its form and experience. It is a humble structure transcending itself to facilitate a connection to the intangible; all of this at the edge of a farmer’s field.

If I seek to understand the chapel by parsing it, its material inventory includes: twenty four layers of rammed concrete form work, constructed around a 112 trunk-frame (in absentia); a molten metal floor upon which water pools, having collected rain falling through the chapel’s oculus; and glass orbs embedded in its walls.

Each in their part lends a modest, earth-bound and elemental quality; however, in the active collusion of this material simplicity, a profound serenity is evoked. This might be attributed to the traces of Brother Klaus’ lean existence echoed in its tilled-earth tactility and exterior earth tones, but also resonates in the alchemical techne brought to bear in its ‘making’.

Integral to this is the consumption of the wooden structure erected in support of the concrete encasement. This is a fundamental feat in the ‘making’ of its temporal experience. Earth encloses the space in a concrete encasement; rain falls through its oculus; air fills it; and soot bears shadows of a fire that gives way to occupation. In a breathtaking architectonic gesture, the wood and its subsequent sacrificial consumption resonates both with the symbolism of the Christian faith of the chapel’s benefactors, as well as the life and experiences of Brother Klaus, as one marked not only by service and self-sacrifice (he was a vessel of peace in his time) but curious cosmological encounters.

The architectonic collision of making, form, material and elemental experience which we encounter in the chapel, represents the climax of the narrative that begins in the approach to it. Upon departure from the visitor’s gravel car park, a pilgrimage along the perimeter of the field is undertaken.

First, the chapel is a rectilinear volume in the distance, reminiscent of the hay stacks passed on the drive through the rolling hills outside Cologne. Moving closer, it is a multifaceted form with a triangular entrance directed to its processional. Turning right for the final advance, we walk a path that wears the ragged edges of informality - as if leading to a barn or shed - which deposits us at the threshold. There, a robust metallic chamber door with the gravitas of a mausoleum portal marks the entry.

We are here and upon opening, there; at once in the field amidst the waving grasses, and then in the midst of the profound. Throughout this journey, we are pilgrims seeking out Brother Klaus in his hermitage with two windows (one for God and one for the people ) and Brother Klaus himself on his own ‘dark night’.

Positioned on the edge of farmers Hermann-Josef and Trudel Scheidtweiler’s property, its location perhaps refers to Brother Klaus’ own spiritual retreat whereupon leaving his family to go in search of solace to contemplate the sickness of the world, he is struck by lightning whilst passing the night in a field. He then has a vision illustrating the location of his hermitage, and sets off in search of it only to discover that the site lay but few hundred meters from the family life he was compelled to suspend in its service. This narrative is traced in the chapel’s soot-lined walls, and serendipitously reinforced by the chapel’s location, perhaps reminding us, as it did Brother Klaus, that retreat need not be sought too far afield.

Even with its camouflage, and outer visage of humility, the chapel is decidedly expressive, existing both in contrast with the horizontality of its surroundings, and in harmony with its tones and Mechernich-Wachendorf’s hay stack vernacular. This is the poetic duality it presents. Outside, the chapel is angular and static; inside, organic and tactile; outside, extroverted; inside, introverted; outside, solid and resolved; inside, dreamily sensuous; outside, earthy, grounded and at one with its surroundings; inside, profound and otherworldly.
The tension and paradox inherent in its being - both in its creation from destruction, as well as its earthy materiality and ephemeral experience - is precisely the gift it affords. With it, Zumthor masterfully draws together material and narrative - often so tectonically elusive - in an architectural and alchemical feat that outlasts its making. It is an intimate and emotional response to its brief, drawing the intangible ever closer, and, like Brother Klaus, the world in mystical union with its maker.

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