The Zeitgeist of Zumthor

The Zeitgeist of Zumthor

by Dwight Long, June 7, 2016

Recently we discovered that a number of us at Pfau Long Architecture share an affinity for the work of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, winner of the 2009 Pritzker Prize and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 2013 Royal Gold Medal. We asked three of our architects, Ariane Fehrenkamp, Evan Jacob, and Mattison Ly, to talk about what draws them to Zumthor, who said in his book Thinking Architecture, “In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language.”


Therme Vals Sketch by Peter Zumthor

How did you come to love Zumthor’s work?

Evan Jacob: I don’t know, really. I just came across it. When I was going to school in the late 1990s, deconstructivism was burning out, and at my school postmodernism still kind of had some life. But afterward, I went to school in Denmark, where they embraced simplicity and minimalism in their work. Zumthor had emerged as the top person who captured that way of thinking and practicing. His portfolio wasn’t all that big, but with everything he did, you could tell there was a lot of care put into it. It was worth looking at.


Saint Benedict Chapel

Ariane Fehrenkamp: When I first came across images of Zumthor’s Therme Vals spa/baths. I remember being struck by how timeless the building seemed to be—decisively modern and strangely primordial at the same time. This, I think, is a credit to his choice of materials and rigorous attention to craft. The building is located in the Vals Valley of Switzerland. This valley was shaped by the forces of water over the course of time into today’s dramatic and diverse landscape. In his design, Zumthor cleverly references and subverts these regional geological workings by using locally quarried, carefully carved and layered stone as the perfect building material and vessel for the thermal spring bath water. This intensity of purpose and consideration of materials is evident in much of Zumthor’s work and is what first captured my imagination.


Therme Vals

Mattison Ly: The summer after I graduated from architectural grad school, two of my good buddies and I went on an architecture tour of Europe. We decided to focus on just a few architects, and Peter Zumthor was definitely a dominant part of the trip. We went to see many of Zumthor’s projects but the Therme Vals stood out as being very memorable; mainly because he was able to create a variety of spaces using the same materials in each of those spaces but designing them in a way that made them each unique and full of discoveries. Zumthors’ work has always focused on the quality of craftsmanship and in many of his projects, it’s evident the thoughtfulness and care that went into making the architecture; something I admire about his work.

What are the qualities you love about his work?

Ly: He really captures the experience of materials, the sensory qualities—he taps into all the senses. At Therme Vals, as you enter, the hallway is dark. Then you enter different little chambers—they are small, probably big enough to fit five or six people comfortably, but they are very tall. Each chamber offers a different spa experience—ice-cold water, or hot water, or steam—the effect is to open your senses to all these different experiences. In one part of the building, daylight comes through a slit from the ceiling, so that it washes the wall. But most of the chambers are dark. The interior of the building is intimately focused while the exterior areas offer vast views beyond to the beautiful Swiss mountains.


Therme Vals pool nestled into Swiss Alps

Fehrenkamp: As Mattison said, Zumthor carefully choreographs, not just a person’s movement through his buildings, but also their sensory experience of the space.  He crafts environments where feel, texture, color, smell and sound are all carefully considered and sculpted components of the design. Take for example, one of my favorite Zumthor buildings, the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel outside of Cologne, Germany. This small building is made of concrete, which was poured layer-after-layer around an interior frame of large tree trunks assembled around an organically shaped plan. After the concrete cured, the interior framework was then burned away, leaving concrete walls that are charred and rough, which contrast with the regular and rectilinear form of the exterior. The effect, I think, would be quite striking as one approaches the bright and comprehensible exterior that then gives way to the dark and mysterious interior.


Bruder Klaus Field Chapel

Jacob: I like his work because it’s so quiet and distilled and simple. It makes fussy, loud, attention-grabbing architecture look a little silly. He’s a great reminder that you really don’t need to do so much. And his buildings look that way. It’s great to see someone who’s perfectly content with just a box, with a simple object, while focusing on material detail. It’s so simple, and yet there is so much substance there. Zumthor’s work reminds me of Louis Kahn’s. After you walk out of the Salk Institute, if you look at another work of architecture, you would still call it architecture, but you think, “Wow, it’s embarrassing how much this building is just flailing about.” And Kahn is like, “Oh, you just need to set up the view.” His work goes right to the idea.


Salk Institute

Do you think it would be possible in the United States to practice architecture like he does?

Fehrenkamp: I do think it is possible to practice architecture like this in the U.S. The appeal of powerful and beautiful architecture is not the purview of any particular place, nor is it held by national borders. The key is really that the entire project team, owner, engineers, designers, and contractors are all aligned around the same goals. So, yes. It is possible. It will be interesting to see how Zumthor’s redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art progresses. I can’t wait to plan a trip to Los Angeles once it opens!

Jacob: I do. There are many high-quality architects who aren’t out there chasing the job, and they have repeat or word-of-mouth clients. You have to dig, but you could find a whole bunch of small offices doing amazing work that no one knows about, because they aren’t out there on the lecture circuit or giving interviews. They just do the work, and it’s good work. Of course, not all clients would appreciate the rigor of his work. An office developer would say, “How come your building has no windows?” That would be a really tough sell.

Ly: I also agree that we can. Like Evan said, there are many small offices doing really great work and it’s exciting to see clients appreciate good design. Getting everyone on board from the beginning and setting the goals is the first major step to accomplishing a high standard of craft and good design that is possible.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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