In hopes of getting myself writing more often on current affairs, here is a new feature to this blog… something on the lines of the daily quiz on architecture. Here it goes… As you may know already, Peter Zumthor was  announced the Pritzker Prize Winner 2009 on April 13th. Yet, I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t heard his name before. Hence this post is dedicated to him. Zumthor at 65, is not a stararchitect, he doesn’t have towering skyscrapers or curving metallic buildings to his name. He is a modest and relatively obscure architect, who works out of a small studio in Switzerland. His works are characterised by its small scale and a rustic, minimalistic feel. The spaces he creates reflect the tactile and sensory qualities of space, created with the most modest of material, such as stone. What needs to be appreciated about his work is the quality of spaces he creates, taking as much time as needed to finish it from beginning to end and even rejecting projects. Quoting Zumthor from his book ‘Thinking architecture” –

I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being. The sense that I try to instill into materials is beyond all rules of composition, and their tangibility, smell, and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language we are obliged to use. Sense emerges when I succeed in bringing out the specific meanings of certain materials in my buildings, meanings that can only be perceived in just this way in this one building.

There haven’t been too many publications on Zumthor, as he believes architecture is to be experience first hand, not viewed through books. Nevertheless here are some of his works mentioned by the Pritzker Jury.

  • Brother Klaus Field Chapel Wachendorf, Eifel, Germany (2007)

The field chapel dedicated to Swiss Saint Nicholas von der Flüe (1417–1487), known as Brother Klaus, was commissioned by farmer Hermann-Josef Scheidtweiler and his wife Trudel and largely constructed by them, with the help of friends, acquaintances and craftsmen on one of their fields above the village.

Brother Klaus Field Chapel Photo by Walter Mair.

The interior of the chapel room was formed out of 112 tree trunks, which were configured like a tent. In twenty four working days, layer after layer of concrete, each layer 50 cm thick, was poured and rammed around the tent like structure.

Brother Klaus Field Chapel Photos by Pietro Savorelli.

In the autumn of 2006, a special smouldering fire was kept burning for three weeks inside the log tent, after which time the tree trunks were dry and could easily be removed from the concrete shell. Brother Klaus Field Chapel The chapel floor was covered with lead, which was melted on site in a crucible and manually ladled onto the floor. The bronze relief figure in the chapel is by sculptor Hans Josephsohn. Brother Klaus Field Chapel

  • Swiss Sound Box, Swiss Pavilion, Expo 2000, Hanover, Germany (2000)

Swiss Pavillion

Photo by Walter Mair

We called the Swiss Pavilion for the 2000 Hanover Expo “Klangkörper Schweiz”. Instead of showing theoretical or virtual information to promote Switzerland, our basic idea was to offer something concrete to Expo visitors, who would be tired from studying all the messages in the other national pavilions: a welcoming place to rest, a place to just be, a place offering a tasty little something from Switzerland for thirsty or peckish visitors, and live music “unplugged”, moving and changing throughout the space, a relaxed atmosphere as well as beautifully dressed attendants.

Swiss PavillionPhotos by Thomas Flechtner

The idea of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk had fired our imagination. Dramatic music played by musicians moving around, culinary offers, fashion and key words about Switzerland written in light on the eams and with a light hand: all this was designed to merge with the architecture, a spatial structure of wooden beams.

Swiss Pavillion

Taking the Expo theme of sustainability seriously, we constructed the pavilion out of 144 km of lumber with a cross-section of 20 x 10 cm, totalling 2,800 cubic metres of larch and Douglas pine from Swiss forests, assembled without glue, bolts or nails, only braced with steel cables, and with each beam being pressed down on the one below. After the closure of the Expo, the building was dismantled and the beams sold as seasoned timber.

Swiss Pavillion

  • Luzi House, Jenaz, Graubünden, Switzerland (2002) Photos by Walter Mair

Private residence with a separate granny flat or a “Stoeckli” as it is called in Switzerland. The clients: a local couple with six small children in the centre of Jenaz.

Luzi House

“A spacious, expansive house with lightfilled rooms, everything constructed of solid wood; a further development of the blockhouses typical of this village, without any extra frills, with large windows and large balconies full of flowers” – as the couple specified in the brief.

Luzi House

  • Spittelhof Estate, Biel-Benken, Baselland, Switzerland (1996)Photos by Helene Binet

The town of Biel-Benken near the Alsace border is a desirable residential area near Basel. People work in the city and live in the country, in a house with a garden. Building a small residential estate here, in a prime location at the upper edge of the village and below the historic Spittelhof farm, required special permission from the village council. The semi-private Basellandschaftliche Beamtenversicherungskasse (an organisation that insures civil servants) acted as developer/investor; their brief called for rental flats and terraced houses at a ratio of roughly 1:1. We built two rows of terraced housing with gardens on the south side and a building with rental units (which at the time we called “Kulm” Summit) at the upper edge of the central green courtyard.

Spittelhof Estate

The bedrooms face east towards the nearby forest, while the living rooms have a wide view to the west and the hills of the Sundgau region. The “Kulm” contains five ground-floor flats for elderly people and on the two upper floors ten lats of different sizes, all with separate access stairs and entrances from the canopied forecourt on the east side. The floor plans of all three buildings were designed to provide light-filled living roomsand bedrooms lined up – porch-like – along the facades.

Spittelhof Estate

  • Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vorarlberger Landesgalerie Museum and Administration Buildings, Bregenz, Austria (1997)Photos by Helene Binet

The competition brief of 1989 called for a conventional provincial gallery. Step by step, the special format of the house as a Kunsthalle evolved into a four-storey building. Administration, café and museum shop were relocated to a separate structure in front of the museum proper.

Kunsthaus Bregenz

Initially we planned to direct daylight into the building through obliquely placed facade slats. Tested on models, this solution proved unsatisfactory. The best results were obtained by using etched glass shingles that refract the light before it enters the building.

Kunsthaus Bregenz<

No matter what direction the light is coming from, it is always transmitted horizontally into the interior. Therefore, we placed a cavity above every floor to catch the light coming in from all four sides.

Kunsthaus Bregenz

And now, once again, we exploited the ability of the etched glass to diffuse the light; it strikes the glass ceiling and is deflected down into each exhibition gallery. To encourage a special form of concentration on the four stacked exhibition floors, the building was designed without windows. And yet daylight is everywhere.

Kunsthaus Bregenz

  • Thermal Bath Vals, Graubünden, Switzerland (1996)Photos by Helene Binet.

Thermal Bath Vals

In 1983 the commune of Vals acquired the bankrupt hotel complex, built in the 1960s, for very little money, but without much enthusiasm. But something had to be done in order to rescue existing jobs. When a larger new building with integrated thermal baths and new guest rooms proved too costly, the authorities opted for the thermal baths as a first step.

Terms Vals

We were told it should be something special, unique. It should fit in with Vals and attract new guests. In 1991 the project was presented at a village meeting with a water-filled stone model. Construction started in 1994, and the thermal baths were opened in 1996. Since then, over 40,000 people have visited them every year. Since completion, the overnight stays in the village and in the Hotel Therme have increased by about 45 per cent.

Terms Vals The load-bearing composite structure of the baths consists of solid walls of concrete and thin slabs of Vals gneiss broken and cut to size in the quarry just behind the village. Terms Vals

The thermal water which comes from the mountain just behind the baths has a temperature of 30°C.

Terms Vals

  • Truog House, Gugalun, Versam Graubünden, Switzerland (extension and renovation) (1994)Photo by Helene Binet

Relatives of the present owner lived in and ran the small Gugalun farm in Arezen at the entrance to the Safien Valley. The small manor house looks north, facing the moon (luna), as the name of the estate indicates.

Truog House

To make the simple wooden house habitable in future, an extension was built. It contains a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and a modern hypocaust heating system.  To create the space for the annex, the late 19th-century kitchen at the back of the house, on the side of the mountain slope, was demolished, while the entire 17th-century living-room section was preserved. A new roof connects the old and the new.

Truog House

  • Homes for Senior Citizens, Chur, Masans, Graubünden, Switzerland (1993)Photo by Helene Binet
  • The twenty-two flats of the residential development for the elderly in Masans near Chur are occupied by senior citizens still able to run their own households, but happy to use the services offered by the nursing home behind their own building.

    Homes for Senior Citizens

    Many of the residents grew up in mountain villages around the area. They have always lived in the country and feel at home with the traditional building materials used here – tuff, larch, pine, maple, solid wood flooring and wooden panelling.

    Homes for Senior Citizens

    The residents are welcome to furnish as they please their section of the large entrance porch to the east, which they overlook from their kitchen windows, and they make ample use of this opportunity. The sheltered balcony niches and the living room bow (bay) windows on the other side face west, up the valley, towards the setting sun.

    Homes for Senior Citizens

  • Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg, Graubünden, Switzerland (1988)Photo by Helene Binet
  • In 1984 an avalanche destroyed the baroque chapel in front of the village of Sogn Benedetg (St. Benedict). A recently built parking lot had acted like a ramp pushing the snow from the avalanche up against the chapel. Photo by Helene Binet.

    Saint Benedict Chape

    The new site on the original path to the Alp above the small village is protected from avalanches by a forest. The new wooden chapel, faced with larch wood shingles, was inaugurated in 1988.

    Saint Benedict Chapel

    The village authorities sent us the building permit with the comment “senza perschuasiun” (without conviction). Yet the abbot and monks of the Disentis Monastery and the then village priest Bearth wanted to build something new and contemporary for future generations.

    Saint Benedict Chapel

    • Protective Housing for Roman Excavations, Chur, Graubünden, Switzerland (1986)Photo by Helene Binet

    In the 4th century AD, Chur was the Roman capital of the province of Curia – hence the name “Chur”. The Romans inhabited the area now called the “Welschdörfli” (French-speaking Swiss village), Chur’s small amusement strip just off the historic town centre, where, it is said, people still spoke “Churerwelsch” though the people in town were already speaking German.

    Protective Housing for Roman Excavations

    Archaeological excavations in this area have uncovered a complete Roman quarter. The protective structures – wind-permeable wooden enclosures – follow the outer walls of three adjacent Roman buildings (only a small part of one of these was excavated). The site’s display cases along the street skirt the protruding foundations of the former house entrances.

    Protective Housing for Roman Excavations

    A wall painting was found lying on the floor of the larger building. Restored and returned to its original position, it gives an impression of the probable height of the single-storey houses. The charred remains of a wooden floor at the back of the larger building are from Roman times.

    • Zumthor Studio, Haldenstein, Graubünden, Switzerland (1986)Photo by Helene Binet

    Zumthor Studio

    In the early 1980s we were able to buy an old farmhouse with some land right next to the farmhouse in the Süsswinkel in Haldenstein which we had converted in 1971 into our family home. Unfortunately the newly acquired house received very little sunlight, having been built onto the north side of a neighbouring house. We drew up many conversion plans in order to lure the sun into the house, without much success.

    Zumthor Studio

    Finally we decided to take the leap: we pulled down the old house and replaced it with a new studio house and garden.  The new wooden building – a reference to the barns, stables and workshops in the village, and a salute to the few fellow architects in the Vorarlberg region who had begun building good new houses of wood – now occupies the northern, and the garden the southern section of the site, as is proper. The studio contains two south-facing rooms: the upper one for working, the ground-floor one with a fireplace, a view of the garden and a small kitchen for entertaining.

    Zumthor Studio

    For a long time a concert piano stood there under a wall painting by Matias Spescha and, in front of the fireplace, a group of easy chairs with the sofa that Alvar Aalto designed for Wohnbedarf in Zurich. Today the room is used as a drawing studio.

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