Paired with a client who indulged his investigations into context, culture and materials, Zumthor has brought new life to a once-dead landscape
In winter, with snow clogging precipitous granite cliffs and skeletal trees, the soaring chasm of Allmannajuvet gorge feels as though it has sprung from the melancholic imagination of Caspar David Friedrich. Sublime in its truest sense of making the human visitor feel unnerved and impotent in their presumption to intrude upon it, this starkly beautiful landscape in south-west Norway is the backdrop to Peter Zumthor’s much-heralded revitalisation of the site of a former zinc mine.
A set of simple orthogonal structures are positioned in the terrain like watch towers or giant chess pieces. Supported on timber frames with walls of smooth black pitch, their intense, light-sucking blackness against the snow has a curiously concentrated visual potency. And despite their laconic formal spirit, recalling the industrial structures that used to occupy the site, the forensic precision of their making stands out against the wildness of nature, marking the return of human concern with the long-extinct lives of mineworkers in the harsh world of 19th-century industry.
The site is remote, over two hours by ferry from Stavanger and a 20-minute drive up twisting roads to the gorge. The nearest civilisation is Sauda, a steel-making town at the head of a fjord, its twee timber houses huddled around a processing plant belching flame into leaden skies. Both now and historically, industry haunts this bleak idyll. Between 1881 and 1898 speculators sought to extract zinc from Allmannajuvet, a grindingly labour-intensive process that involved hewing out ore from a network of tunnels and throwing it off a cliff face. The shattered chunks were transported out of the gorge to Sauda by teams of packhorses and miners, and then shipped down the fjord by steamboat to the coast. From there it was exported to Swansea in south Wales to be processed.
At its height, 170 people were engaged in a grubby orgy of blasting and excavating, but falling commodity prices and declining ore deposits ultimately made the mine unviable. The site was abandoned and nature gradually encroached on and engulfed the makeshift industrial structures with their roofs of birch bark and turf.
The project is one of Zumthor’s two contributions to Norway’s National Tourist Routes, an initiative begun in 1994 to build infrastructure and installations along specially marked tourist driving routes. Meandering along the country’s fragmented coastline and through its interior there are now 18 routes in all, enhanced by a programme of modest yet highly considered architecture that encompasses viewing platforms, picnic stops, lavatories and bridges executed by a roster of different designers. Allmannajuvet is part of the Ryfylke route, which runs from Stavanger on the coast up to the ski resort of Røldal.
Events relating to specific sites are also commemorated. In 2011 the Steilneset Memorial was opened in Vardø at the very northern tip of Norway where it meets Finland. Commemorating 91 victims of especially zealous state persecution for witchcraft during the 17th century, it was a collaboration between Zumthor, artist Louise Bourgeois and historian Liv Helene Willumsen. A flat, treeless site overlooking the sea is inscribed with an elongated timber bar recalling traditional racks for drying fish; the context could not be more different from Allmannajuvet with its dank and deserted mine workings. Yet the intention of both schemes is to memorialise and contextualise the vanished lives of those on society’s margins.
Initially conceived in 2002, the £9.5 million Allmannajuvet project aims to increase visitor numbers to the region by illuminating its old mining history. The scheme called for a museum building, a café, lavatories and parking linked by a network of paths and stairs. Visitors can also explore the old mine workings to get a sense of the privations of 19th-century industrial life in this isolated corner of Norway. Intense manual labour in an unforgiving terrain and climate was a gruelling existence. ‘You cannot even stand upright in the mine tunnels’, says Zumthor. ‘It gave us the idea to be modest in everything we did. Not poor, but modest.’
That it has taken so long to realise is partly down to Zumthor’s legendarily exacting approach – ‘sometimes it takes time to find out what the building wants to be’, he has said – and also to do with the need to stabilise the extensively excavated site to prevent landslides. Zumthor’s Norwegian client appeared content to indulge his protracted investigations into context, culture and materials, presumably aware of what was involved when the invitation was extended in the first place. ‘Nature has a different sense of time’, says Zumthor. ‘Time is big in the landscape while in the city it is condensed, just like the city’s space.’
Linked by narrow paths that traverse the site choreographing a changing sequence of views, each structure has its own distinctive identity. The café and micro-museum are freestanding pavilions in the landscape, the museum overlooking the cliff face down which the zinc ore was originally thrown. The low-slung lavatory block is clamped to the side of an existing stone bridge like a cuboid parasite on a battlement. All, however, share a common language of creosote-coated laminated pine frames and plywood walls coated with jute burlap and black tar – the same technique that was used for Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion. Dark, seamless walls contrive a sensuous intimation of physical mass, giving the structures an introverted quality interrupted by strategic slashes of glazing. Zumthor toyed with the idea of staining the plywood cobalt blue, but became convinced the walls should be black after appraising the textural and visual impact of the pitch walls at the Serpentine.
‘The development of the zinc door handles, for instance, apparently took two years. “This is not slowness”, Zumthor has said. “This is just working like an artist-architect.”’
Symbolically connecting zinc back to its geological and geographic origins, various forms of it were chosen for the roof and doors. Sheets of corrugated zinc clad the roof, echoing the functional ethos of the original mine buildings, and the doors are faced in heavy zinc panels. Handles of rough forged zinc are the first things visitors touch as they enter each structure, a reminder of the utility, beauty and tactile power of this often disregarded metal. ‘The physical substance of what is built has to resonate with the physical substance of the area’, says Zumthor.
Prefabrication played a key role, with construction initially taking place in a series of temporary tents erected on Sauda’s waterfront. Full-scale mock-ups were made to convey exactly what was required, then finished elements were transported by lorry up to Allmannajuvet and craned into place. Everything was designed to be slotted together on site with minute precision and all the furniture, fittings and detailing are bespoke – the outcome of Zumthor’s constant scheme of experiment and thought about what was right for this particular project. The development of the zinc door handles, for instance, apparently took two years. ‘This is not slowness’, Zumthor has said. ‘This is just working like an artist-architect. What I try to install into materials is beyond all rules of composition. Their tangibility, smell and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language we are obliged to use.’
In many ways this is the perfect Zumthor programme, touching deeply on his obsessive concern for materials, making and crafting. ‘I feel respect for the art of joining, the ability of craftsmen and engineers’, he says. ‘I am impressed by the art of knowledge, which lies at the bottom of human skill.’ It also allowed him to luxuriate in his familiar role of architectural archaeologist, mentally mining history and topography to recover and express a sense of place. Finally, there are obvious resonances between the alpine landscapes of Zumthor’s native Graubünden in Switzerland and the granite gulch of Allmannajuvet, its rocky contours softened by birch, pine and moss. Whether Switzerland or Norway, you sense Zumthor is extremely at ease in a snow-muffled ravine. But come the Scandinavian summer of mad white nights, Allmannajuvet’s frozen gorge will be transformed, erupting into an abundant gash of green, with visitors to the reanimated site adding further life to a once-dead landscape.