I am very excited to share a treat with you this week. He is the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. If you are already familiar with him, please forgive me for arriving late to the party. I can’t believe I haven’t found him before now. He was born in1943 as the son of a cabinet maker. He apprenticed under a carpenter and eventually found his way through art school and on to architecture. I write all of this because his background in cabinetry and art is truly evident in the materiality of his work. We talk a lot about honesty of materials and application here and Zumthor’s work is a real inspiration. I found a slide show on time.com that showed a great selection of his work and I was blown away. His work has a materiality and visceral nature that surpasses so much of what we see today. It is more than beautiful, it is more than functional. I am hesitant to call it sublime, but I’ll let you decide about that. His work is human scaled in the sense that they do as much for the human spirit as they function as a structure. When an artist, craftsmen, or designer starts to delve into effecting the human spirit words often fail. That is where I find myself now. I feel inadequate in writing about Zumthor’s work. But I really want To tell you about him. He received the 2009 Pritzker Award and the 2013 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Many felt that it was about time. There are many interviews and videos of him online and I will share some at the end of this post. I will just run down some of his ideas I found most intriguing.
The first of these is that architecture is not about form. When I first read this I was intrigued but not totally on board. How can a built structure that has mass, weight and volume not be about form. But his work speaks for itself and it is obvious he has figured something wonderful out so I pressed on. As it turns out, this statement is more of a working model than a conclusive principle. He feels that most architects (and I would argue designers in general) focus almost too on the form of a project and neglect or even ignore other great aspects. He often considers light, physical, mental and emotional uses, materials, construction, structure, environment, shadow, smell, etc. These things are a part of every project to be sure, but form usually dictates the solution of these aspects. I think he is proposing flipping these roles. What if light or smell became the dictating element in a project? How would the form be determined? He says that form is the easiest to control and that is why it can be saved until the end. I think this is a little inkling into his genius. This subjugation of form to more esoteric ideas creates wholly new experiences in his work. He approaches every project from scratch. No predetermined visuals, materials, techniques. He fully lets the process of discovery lead to the solution. This method is much more like a fine artist rather than a designer. This is why I think his works resonate so deeply with me in particular, but seemly everyone.
He also talks about giving architecture presence. Again, this was a bit abstract for me at first, but slowly it started to make sense. Let’s start by defining presence; he defines presence as being without meaning. So often when we work we try to give a project some innate meaning or narrative from the beginning. I do this, I think most creatives do. I feel that it helps cut through confusion and gets to the real communication quicker, but we also cut through a lot of valuable process. I believe that there are times that this is appropriate, but it can also lead to stagnant or referential work. Both of which should be avoided at all cost. However, the idea of creating something that is completely self referential and without implicit meaning allows that thing to take on the meaning natural to its state of being. I know this is starting to get kind of out there in a meta-physical hocus-pocus sort of way, but please bear with me. If something is created in a particular time and place (whether it be tableware or a bus station) and is not referential or symbolic in anyway, its meaning will be given to it out of the reality of its context. Through use and experience meaning is given. This dove-tails with Zumthor’s idea of making it typical and it will become special. If it is useful, pleasant and appropriate, it will be used and through this use will come to be special (aka gain meaning). He is really dealing with ideas beyond plans and spreadsheets. This is working in the murky water of human nature and emotion. Not really a very secure or comfortable place, but so much more exciting.
For the 2013 Royal Gold Medal Lecture at the RIBA he describes a project he used in a class at Harvard. In this class he told his architecture students to pick a plot of land they knew intimately and had some sort of emotional attachment to. During this project they were to design a structure appropriate for place and emotion. Through out the process they could not draw any designs, elevations or sections. They could not concern themselves with form. But they could use anything else they wanted to convey how this structure would feel; what its presence would be like. This story brought so many of his ideas to light for me I could hardly keep up with my thoughts. This is exciting to me. Rather than this just being school project, what if this became a viable means to explore; a respectable way to approach a problem. Solutions would have to be different because the starting point and process is so different. I think these solutions would be much more sensitive to what it is to be human, rather than just functional living machine.
“To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that 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. When I concentrate on a specific site or place for which I am going to design a building, when I try to plumb its depths, its form, its history, and its sensuous qualities, images of other places start to invade this process of precise observation: images of places I know and that once impressed me, images of ordinary or special places places that I carry with me as inner visions of specific moods and qualities; images of architectural situations, which emanate from the world of art, or films, theater or literature.”