Q&A: Swiss Master Peter Zumthor on the Importance of Beauty and Relying on Intuition

The Swiss master on teaching architecture, the mystique of religion, and the importance of beauty

Peter Zumthor addresses associates in the courtyard of his office in Haldenstein, Switzerland.

Courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partners

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has achieved a difficult thing in the high-ego world of professional architecture. Beyond all the accolades, including the Japan’s Premium Imperiale, the Pritzker prize, and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal, he has earned near-unanimous respect from his colleagues. That reverent respect, combined with the serene zen-like quality of his buildings, such as the Therme Vals and the Kunsthaus Bregenz, has given Zumthor a perceived aura that made the prospect of visiting his office daunting. I was there on the occasion of meeting Zumthor and the Paraguayan architect Gloria Cabral, his apprentice in the 2015 Rolex Mentors & Protégés initiative. Once I arrived, however, the informal workplace atmosphere and Zumthor’s low-key manner was a welcome surprise. Most certainly his presence commands respect, but not in an overbearing way.

Situated in the small town of Haldenstein, Switzerland, the offices are located right next door to the architect’s house, lending a familial air to the workplace. Even as we talked, Zumthor’s granddaughter came by to say hello (the office’s courtyard is full of her toys). It was in this relaxed and unpretentious setting, amid birds chirping and with the mountains looming in the distance, that we sat down to have a candid chat about teaching architecture, the importance of beauty, the mystique of religion, and the primacy of Zumthor’s first architectural experience.

Paul Clemence: Your have achieved a level in your career where many professionals would have chosen to set up their practice in a bigger city that offered many more opportunities. Why stay in Haldenstein?

Peter Zumthor: I am here by chance, but I like it. I found my wife here, and all of a sudden our children were talking in the local dialect. I feel well here, and, after 30 years, I think I have been accepted. But, in just over an hour I am at Zurich Airport, and I am connected to the rest of the world.

PC: Your work incorporates both the vernacular and the modern, resulting in something quite timeless that is very contemporary. How do you balance these two impulses?

PZ: I was trained in the school of Modernism. But now, what I am trying to do is good buildings, and when I try to do a good building, I try to think of the place, and if you think of the place the vernacular plays a role. At the same time, when you think of a place, the whole world then also plays a role, so there is always both—the local and the world. A few decades ago, pretty early in my professional life, I lost this idea of innovation being a goal in itself. For me the most important thing is to feel that I am connected to the history stored in places. I have a big passion for the power of what’s around me. I don’t have a feeling for the future—the future is such an abstract idea while history is very central and very present. But I should add that I always want to find a new correct form for what I am doing. So all of a sudden I am doing something which is not yet here, meaning that I can’t look into history and there it is. It needs a new form, whether a school, a house, a tea chapel. Just to make it clear: I come out of history, like we all come, but then I have to look for a new form.

The offices of Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partners are tucked away among the mountains in the small Swiss town of Haldenstein.

Courtesy Paul Clemence

PC: Materials also play a key role in your buildings, and they seem as intrinsic to the design concept as the spaces themselves. What criteria do you work with when choosing a material?

PZ: When I am trying to find this new form I’m speaking about, I start to “compose” an idea, and sometimes I need a clarinet and two horns and sometimes I need something else. And only with the actual project—and the place—in mind I can find out what the materials will be.

PC: Architecture is a tough profession, full of uncertainties, long hours, lengthy building times, and very susceptible to any fluctuation in the economy. Yet, you’ve also said that architecture is a beautiful profession. What makes it so?

PZ: I hope I said that “for me it’s a beautiful profession” [laughs]. I don’t know, I just love to do things, I love to do buildings, create spaces.

PC: You have taught first-year architecture students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and now you have mentored Gloria [Cabral] throughout the Rolex Mentors & Protégés program. With this experience in mind, what can be taught and what can’t be taught about architecture?

PZ: Everything can be taught, and nothing can be taught. I share with students a certain feeling of beauty, a sense of social responsibility, and the passion to do a house, to create a space. But at a certain point it is no longer about learning, it is about themselves, the students. It’s about them, how they see the world, how they look at things.

PC: What would be your advice to a young architect starting today?

PZ: Start a project from the basics, not from theory.

PC: Why don’t you have a website?

PZ: I thought about this. Everybody in the world can go to the internet and find out what I am doing—either about the buildings or the books [Atmospheres, Thinking Architecture, and the monographs Peter Zumthor Works and Peter Zumthor: Buildings and Projects, 1985–2013], so I don’t have to tell them anything else from what they can already find. So I thought, “Should I tell people on a page, on a few lines, ‘this is me, this is our work and this is what I want to do?’” In the end I decided it was unnecessary.

PC: Would you advise younger architects to do the same?

PZ: They should go by their own rule.

The St. Benedikt Chapel in Sumvitg, Switzerland

Courtesy Paul Clemence

PC: How important are theory and the conceptual part of architecture for you?

PZ: Conceptual ideas are very important but my experience is to not start out with them. My intuition knows more than my brain, so the brain has to wait—first comes intuition. Intuition knows more than our conscious realm.

PC: What was your starting point for the tea chapel project you are designing for the religiously themed Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Namyang in South Korea?

PZ: The place is quite saturated with religious images, of different artistic levels, but there is something very warm-hearted about it. So I wanted to give this a different dimension, one that is not constrained or restricted to a certain religion.

PC: Was the experience of the Kolumba Museum—an art museum belonging to an institution that is also connected to an unusual Christian religious organization—helpful in approaching this project?

PZ: I know what you mean, but I think this has more to do with my position toward religion. I was brought up Catholic, in Basel, by the border of Germany and France, after the war, when we just didn’t believe the priests anymore. Don’t ask me why, we just didn’t. It didn’t reach my heart. For me, it felt hypocritical, I remember the feeling. But certain parts did reach my heart. There was something atmospherically strong. My first architectural memory or experience that I had is a place called Maria Stein Cloister. There, there is a dark underground chapel, amid the rocks, and you have to go down, and it’s completely black, and there, in this beautiful small chapel, you find Mother Mary. And when I look back at my life to think what was my first architecture experience—even before I knew what that was—this was it. More than even my parents’ house or the kitchen at my Grandfather’s, this was it.

PC: With all that said, what then was the goal, or aim, of the tea chapel project?

PZ: This should be a peaceful place when you are there. I never liked that religion strictly tells you what to do. This would be more open.

PC: In the book Atmospheres, you write how an “architectural atmosphere” is tied to “this singular density and mood, this feeling of presence, well-being, harmony, beauty.” What is your definition of beauty?

PZ: I experience moments of beauty when I am in the landscape, so maybe nature is the ultimate beauty, which I find intellectually interesting, since we ourselves come from nature. Of course, some man-made objects can provoke the sensation of beauty, in very different moments, maybe shorter moments. [Pauses] Something that touches me can provoke that sensation of beauty. Beauty is like a chemical reaction to a subjective experience, between an object or place and myself. It would be nice if my buildings every once in awhile provokes feelings of beauty [laughs].

Courtesy Paul Clemence

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