RIBA Gold Medal winner Peter Zumthor talks about the ‘relaxed concentration’ from which good design can originate
Peter Zumthor is talking about sport. Probably tennis. Not that the type of sport particularly matters (though he does regularly take to the court to keep fit; you can imagine him in whites, crouched and rocking, waiting for the next serve to come). What he’s getting at is a type of focus sportsmen develop, a ‘relaxed feeling of concentrating, but not concentrating …’ analogous to the relaxed concentration from which good design can originate.
Interviewed at the RIBA on the occasion of being awarded the Royal Gold Medal, Zumthor elaborates on keeping his approach to architecture simple: ‘I want to please people with my buildings unconsciously, emotionally. That’s all. I don’t want to lecture them.’ But this requires an openness. That’s where the sportsman’s focus comes in, says Zumthor: ‘In judging what I am doing I have to be playful and serene and open and emotional because that − as we all know − is how architecture is perceived, not in an abstract.’
Bregenz Museum, Austria, 1997
He’s not afraid to take his time: ‘Sometimes it’s hard to get there because I can tell something is missing. I have to be honest with myself. I have to tell the client maybe I am not yet ready, please be patient for another one month or two or year, then you will have the rewards’. How do you convince clients that it’s worth taking the extra time? ‘By quality. One client once said, at a time when things were difficult: “Your best argument is the finished building”.’
At his lecture later that evening he was asked how his buildings relate to the architectural canon? He doesn’t really care, after all, he isn’t ‘a typological architect’. It can all seem counter to how many architects exist. Surely developing the focus, the patience and the sensibility to minutiae, his work comes from a slower pace, an appreciation for the finer, slower things in life: knowing the importance of sitting down for a nice cup of coffee, a meal which has been prepared with care on a favourite plate, that sort of thing. How can architects develop that when their professional lives require them, in London at least, to spend all hours working?
For Zumthor it’s up to the individual: ‘I customised my practice in the way I wanted to work. I think everybody can do that. You can always say “This is how I want to work” and let’s go from this. This is my approach.’ Getting away from it all has worked for him. His studio is in Haldenstein − a village on the outskirts of Chur. Not a lot happens in Chur. One visit, I was eating an illicit sandwich in the town square on a Sunday, the first reaction which dawned on me is that Swiss etiquette meant I shouldn’t be doing this. The second was that it may be the most illicit thing that has happened in the town all year. With its town square, cake shops, churches, and Valerio Olgiati-designed entrance ramp to the small but grandly-named Graubünden Parliament, Chur is but a buzzing metropolis compared with Haldenstein, where Zumthor lives, has his studio and has produced the work that won him the Pritzker.
Diocesan Museum, Cologne, 2011
Zumthor worked for the preservation of monuments trust for over a decade. Mindful of his long tutelage, I tell him about a novelist friend, who went off to writing school as an eager graduate and was told to go away. Live life, fall in love, have your heart broken, sleep with some men, she was advised. Then come back. Was there an equivalent for architects? Zumthor laughs. Not quite, though many of the students who pass through his studio could do with loosening up, he says. ‘In the training to become an architect there is certainly too much emphasis on the abstract: on the correct theory, on the correct idea or the correct concept and sometimes that stays very abstract and has nothing to do with real life.’
He echoed this concern the day after, when he was guest of honour at the President’s Medals crit. After a particularly obtuse project was presented, he commended the drawing skills but noted: ‘The tendency to become a little too abstract and theoretical leads to a situation where no one can use these guys to build buildings’. Fair point. But ever amiable, he pointed out ‘…but you can also be a professor or a philosopher − these are also good professions!’