Lynch Architects

'An interview with Peter Zumthor by Patrick Lynch' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

01 Apr 2009

Originally published on Architects Journal online on 14 April 2009

Introducing him, RIBA president Sunan Prassad noted that Peter Zumthor’s talk was sold out 4 times over. Charles Jenks spoke next attempting to link Zumthor to the ETH Zurich and Aldo Rossi. Zumthor studied in New York and his English is strong and colloquial, if a little mannered. He talked from the floor, refusing the lectern podium. Swaying like a Shakespearian actor of the grand style, he crushed falsehood in his arms, wresting from the contradictions of practice the poetic paradoxes that sustain him. Eight recent projects were presented, mostly visitor’s centres, places for pilgrimage and villas, five of which are built. After almost two hours of passionate talk he received a long ovation. Amongst those that I talked with afterwards there was a sense of frustration at the lack of major public buildings. Meeting him the next day in the Dickensian luxury of Durrant’s Hotel, Zumthor looked as if he’d enjoyed the reception at the Swiss Embassy after his talk. He seemed happy and relaxed, ready to declaim and sure of his position. I can’t help thinking that Zumthor fulfils Roberstson Davies’ description in ‘The Deptford Trilogy’ of an egoist. Unlike an egotist – who always assumes that they are right – the egoist stands for the best values of their art form and aspires to do what is right. Davies declares, ‘The egotist’ is ‘all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess of self-doubt’. In contrast, ‘an egoist… is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, yearnings and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world truly is his creation’. Zumthor is an exemplary image of the architect as a self-made man. But a man made of the world, like his buildings.

Patrick Lynch: You said last night that the world comes to you now, but you must do a lot of travelling with projects in Norway, Austria and England?

Peter Zumthor: Yes, about 1/3 of the time I am travelling. The ideal is no more than 20-25% out of the office. I have to travel now because the commissions are no longer outside my front door. If I travel more than 50% of the time I get sick.

PL: The last time you were at the RIBA (2000) your talk was entitled ‘Does Beauty have a Form?’, and you spoke about life, about love, clothes, food. What do you think now?

P.Z: The same thesis; I have the same feeling. Once you start a phenomenological pursuit of beauty, of moments, you look at your personal life: “When do I experience beauty? When do I have these moments of sensation of beauty? When do I feel this beauty?”

PL: “In Search of a Lost Architecture” begins: ‘When I think of architecture, images come into my mind…memories…contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images that I explore in my work as an architect’. (Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser 1998). Last night you spoke about your grandfather’s house, about the shallow steps between spaces acted as an inspiration for the floors of St Kolomba Museum at Cologne (2008) being “not like those flat supermarket floors everywhere”. Are these memories personal, or part of the phenomenal world of images?

P.Z: Basically I’ve come to think that I work like an author. There was a time when I thought that all architects work like authors, but when I looked around I saw that they were implementers and service providers. This is not my world. So I work like a composer writes his music, a writer writes his book and a painter… and so on. I try to do buildings and spaces. And what I have to do for the plans and the function, and what I can try to do is the basic stuff that I can deal with. In your case and in any other case it is a matter of “what we know” and what is inside us. Most things that are inside us we don’t know! So, we have all these many sayings of artists, like Picasso, who said that: “art is not about inventing, art is about discovering”. This is nothing new. Everybody says this in different fields. It does not come from following ideologies. It is great if you become part of the church, Modernism or whatever, then of course it consoles you and it supports you and makes part of a group. This is human. But in order to create something this is not a good thing. Better to be yourself.

PL: Last night you said, “this drawing already knows what it wants to be, and I got a strong sense of otherness. You also said that you are fast, but that what takes time is to find out the mistakes. This seems perfectly reasonable.

PZ: Yeah, anybody is like this I think. It is a myth that I am slow; I’m just honest! I don’t want to build mistakes under time pressure. I am incredibly fast and I get nervous if people are not so fast in understanding and seeing. I cut my collaborators off: I say, “don’t explain, I see it.” From the universities the young guys learn that they have to explain everything, but I say “just give me a hint. You’re working in an imaginative architect’s office, so just assume that I will see everything. Just go on.” If you do things too quick sometimes you don’t know if something is right, if something is good.

PL: Do you find that you can work in a hotel room or in an aeroplane?

PZ: This depends. If the people around me abroad are interested in a way in what I am doing, this is good. From this comes discourse; working and living and learning. If I go somewhere, and I like talking to you - like now obviously - this is great. Sometimes you think: “this is a mistake. I deliver something and they are not interested”. It’s very simple: Good hosts…. (laughs) I need to have a genuine interest in the project. So if a rich guy comes to me and says “I would like a nice house on a ski resort, and money is not a problem, I’d like a nice place for me and my friends to come to stay, could you think about something?” even though he is a nice guy I say “No”. It would mean four years out of my life and for him it is just another weekend house somewhere. This doesn’t go together.

PL: My favourite building of yours is the old people’s home at Chur (1993). It was lovely to see the way it was loved in use.

PZ: Lots of people like it. The organization that owns this building hate it.. It is good for the user, for the old people. But for the owner he thinks there are too many visitors, that the floor is difficult to clean… solid wood floors. But the people really like it. The loggia, the verandah is full of their furniture.

PL: It seems that part of the otherness of what you do is that it is always open, but it needs to be understood and used by others in order to be completed. You also showed us the mountain house built for your wife Anne Liese out of engineered timber (2008). I feel obliged to ask if you feel an ethical commitment to sustainability?

PZ: It’s not ethical only. But somehow nothing beats the atmosphere inside a solid timber house. I love concrete and I love Romanesque churches made out of Limestone, but there is something amazing about solid timber. What was missing in these traditional solid timber houses was light. Now in these new houses there is a lot of light, with huge windows framing the views. It is like a combination now of modernism, with flowing floor plans, and this old material. This has nothing to do for me with ecology. We are trying to be sensible. But I am not an “ecological architect”; I’m an architect. This sounds a bit mythical or mythological, but there is the feeling that the space from this material is different from that material on your skin. Wood doesn’t need any energy from your skin. Whether it is cold or hot outside it doesn’t matter. In a wooden building the felt temperature is always closer to what you want. If it is too hot it is always 2-3 degrees colder and the other way around. I made this huge timber lump of a lumberyard for the Hannover Expo (2000) and even though it was completely open it was cool inside, like going into a forest. And in the winter it worked the other way around. Wood doesn’t need you: It stays there. In these two houses everything is out of wood. You shower in wood and you take a bath in wood!

PL: The one other thing I wanted to talk to you about is that it is clear that as a modern person - as you were saying last night - you feel ambivalent or ambiguous about working on religious buildings. The Catholic church seems historically to have been and in the last century for Le Corbusier also, a good patron of architecture. But also you said that Bruder Klaus was you mother’s favourite saint…

PZ: One of two.

PL: That must be a very strange thing to do, to make religious spaces. Or does it feel natural as an architect to do this?

PZ: Bruder Klaus is everybody’s favourite saint in Switzerland. Half of the population is Catholic. He only became a saint in the 1940s, 400 years after his death. For me he represents an upright figure who does not make any wrong compromises; any compromise. And also he is staying himself. He is a positive figure for me also in his opposition to the church at that time. The other thing is the emotional thing. My mother visits him in a church in Basle. There is a copy of the statue that I showed you last night in a nice modern church by an architect that I do not know in Basle. She took me and like they do in Italy she strokes him. A little shy she says, “he has always helped me”. I said, “Mother, I know the original of this sculpture”. I could see “original” didn’t interest her at all. There are a lot of copies of this original late gothic sculptures in the churches and it is like this “iconistic” thing that I thought you only have in Eastern religions, where have the icon is never an original. This is something very emotional that I like: this figure is so important to her and to others.

The main thing was that there is no altar (in the Bruder Klaus chapel), so it is not a space for the church. To seek to make a new, a tiny little space in a field that in the end expresses hopes about human existence. Sorry, this is a little bit pathetic. Can you do this? I asked that this should be completely contemporary, so at the beginning there was all sorts of stuff about solar cells (PVs) and stuff like that. And it boiled down over the years to the pure essential. All of these things fell off. At the end it was the chapel and the material and the rain and the water and whatever… it doesn’t matter (laughs). I wanted to take this commission to make something really contemporary. It has this abstract goal, which obviously a very stupid goal. I knew I had a good client though.

PL: It seems to be really successful.

PZ: People go there and are deeply moved. I get books of poems from all levels of people, intellectual and academics, ordinary people, farmers….

PL: At the end of Tarkovsky’s film about the Russian Icon painter the medieval monk Andrei Rubliev, there is a moment when he sees that a boy has made the bell for the tyrant even though he didn’t know how to make a bell; and Andrei sees that he has to keep making work even though there is bad stuff everywhere all the time. That he has a responsibility and a gift. That seems to be….

PZ: This kind of thinking is very close to my heart. I’m a great fan of Tarkovsky of course. I like his book ‘Sculpting In Time’ very much. Now I’ve got to talk to a guy who wants a whisky distillery on the Outer Hebrides…. Ha!