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'The Architecture Of Northern Switzerland' by Peter Zumthor

Sogn Benedetg chapel and archaeological protective pavilions

Though originally from Basle and still very aware of what is happening there, Peter Zumthor now lives and works in the very different environment of Haldenstein, a small village close to Chur at the foot of the Engadin Alps. Turning to conventional architectural practice late in life, his career is now, in his late 40s, taking off with the completion of three fine wooden buildings and a clutch of commissions at design stage.

Zumthor is pivotal to this section because he combines the poles of artist and Baumeister. More than that though, his approach to both poles is not just intellectual and visual but also clearly draws on a honed instinct and a strong literary sensibility that gives a further completeness to his architecture. To the strengths of conceptual and art-orientated architects like Herzog & de Meuron (whom he readily acknowledges as an influence) he brings those of a Baumeister, having learnt cabinetry from his cabinet maker father and traditional craft and history from a decade surveying and restoring vernacular buildings.

But his work is more free,less restrictingly didactic and dogmatic than Michael Alder’s both in the inspiration it draws from the past and in being rooted in a much deeper understanding of building craft. It also tempers the intellectual toughness of Herzog & de Meuron with a delicacy of touch (that draws on this craft-base too) and a more consistent concern with interiors and the life within, within building and self. In contrast to both Basle practices then he seems to draw more on feelings, feeling for tradition and craft and feelings from his personal and the collective past. He is the one architect in Switzerland whose work seems rooted in soil and soul ofthe land aswell as his own Soul.

Some of his colleagues seem embarrassed, even resentful about these qualities. After school (and cabinet-making with his father) Zumthor studied design in Basle and later went to the US and studied, each very briefly, interior design, architecture and urban design. He is, then, another of Switzerland’s untrained architects. Returning to Switzerland in the post-‘68 era when architecture was considered an irredeemably arrogant and egotistical profession, he joined an agency in Chur responsible for historic buildings.

Only in the early ’80s did reading and looking at entries in design competitions rekindle an interest in design. Entering competitions himself he soon won the commission for a new chapel for the hamlet of Sogn Benedetg high up in the Alps to replace the old Baroque one swept away in an avalanche.

Free to select his own site for the chapel, Zumthor chose the edge of a meadow just where a rock-lined path climbing up from the village meets a steeply curving mountain track. Towards this track the tear drop form of the chapel now points its tail, from one side of which pops the entrance. From the hamlet below, the shingle-clad building looks tower-like and agricultural, maybe a silo.

The bell tower beside it looks equally functional, maybe an electricity pylon. Seen obliquely and side on the stream-form shape of the chapel reveals itself-and with this come rather unfortunate associations with the slightly flash and vulgar, almost UFO-like, forms of the houses by such West Coast followers of Frank Lloyd Wright as John Lautner. And the bell tower now looks as if it must be a sculpture by David Nash, combining as it does, his favourite motifs of tripod and ladder.

Though clearly revealed, the lack of emphasis given to the bells, which are after all semi-sacred objects rather than mere forest-fire alarms, seems somewhat inadequate. Closer to, the craft of the building becomes apparent. Simple but beautifully refined hand-rails guide visitors up the rather narrow steep stairs to the finely slatted entrance door with its handsome handmade lock and door handle. Inside is a small gently fanning space that is still outside the nave from which it is separated by columns.

Passing between these, into the nave, confirms that it is indeed the columns that together with the roof they support define the inner sanctum, and with their baldacchino like presence help suggest its sanctity. The floor is like the deck of a boat set within the inner edge of the columns. Beyond this is a dark sunken gap all the way to the wall which in turn is held away from the columns by thin steel rods. Painted silver the outer wall is a cyclorama-like skin that both encloses the space and yet recedes from it, sometimes like a retreating mountain mist and, occasionally,seemingly almost to the infinity of the source of the silvery light flooding through the clerestories.

So in this tiny space (the regular congregation is only 20) there is also some sense of the infinite. This is onIy one of some equaIly complementary contradictions. Though of great simplicity, the space is richly nuanced, both by the play of shifting light and by the refinement of detail. And though as drawn in plan, the space looks narrow and elongated, as experienced (when looking towards the altar especially) it is surprisingly and generously rotund.
Even the point behind the entry does not feel unduly constricted or gratuitous, but a necessary orientation and overflow space inside the columns but still behind the seats.

Study reveals the pews too to be both simple yet extraordinarily precise and subtle in their refinements. In accordance with their position each is a different length, but the width is adjusted so that none seems stubby or too elongated. And the cantilevered ends of seats and pew rails are almost imperceptibly tapered.
Combined with the very white wood and the arris corners that soften their presence, these refinements give the seats a floating almost springy grace and poise-the sort of effects associated with similar refinements on Greek temples.

Sight of the church and the sound of its bell engage attention from a distance and then bring you in through progressive degrees of contact and insideness. From below, the stern tower draws you up to pass by the long flank and bell tower, up the steps, into the cramped hall, through the columns to the swelling nave and then into the pews and congregation. Sitting here, within and under the baldacchino of roof and columns, that as always seems to both protect and yet expose to the misty cyclorama beyond, is not like being in the belly of the fish that the plan suggests, but being in a space that breathes, that seems almost imperceptibly to swell and contract.

Listening to the service, the gap around the seemingly floating floor draws attention to something else. Because of the way the church is set on the steep slope, there is also a large enclosed volume under the floor, secret and inaccessible, yet hinted at by the gap and tangibly present in its acoustic resonance. Again what seems like a small building is experienced as a much larger one.

Like a traditional church this is not just a receptacle of light that gathers a congregation within its structural embrace, but is an acoustic, even musical instrument too. Impressive as all this may be it provokes certain questions-two in particular. First, how did the architect arrive atthis design?

Especially curious is the ambiguously suggestive shape that in plan suggests both leaf and fish (the latter apt enough for a Christian chapel), yet, despite its shaggy shingle coat, has streamlined and space-agey overtones that are less apt; and is seen from the hamlet below as a silo or tower (does this account for playing down the bell tower?). Also, rising sheer from the steep slope allows for no such thing as a churchyard or even some outdoor space to pause and gather in, prior to entry.

And second, how did the architect get such a strange and uncompromisingly contemporary design approved and paid for by a tiny conservative rural congregation? It is easier to answer the second question first. To the villagers the only acceptable style for a chapel in the Alps was white stuccoed Baroque-the style that though sharing nothing with the traditional architecture, now seems an integral ingredient in any archetypal Alpine view.

The congregation would have preferred the old chapel to be rebuilt, or else its remains removed and a similar chapel built on a less exposed site. Instead Zumthor persuaded them to leave the ruins of the old chapel as a monument and explained that in their day the Baroque chapels had been an intrusive and unfamiliar imposition. Built during the Counter Reformation at the instigation of the central church, they were in the most modern International Style of their times.

Both their imposition and incompatibility with the vernacular seem to have been recognised in their isolation: outside the village, plonked on meadow and mountainside. Zumthor intended to continue tradition with a contemporary equivalent. In his arguments he was backed by the local priest who recognised them as true to Church traditions.

Aiding its acceptance the chapel was built by the congregation with the help of local craftsmen. The resulting identification with the building is constantly reinforced by the laudatory comments on the workmanship by visitors from around the world. Increasingly, the community is coming to accept and like its church.

Continuing tradition in a contemporary manner meant for Zumthor a simple geometric form, that could be clearly and immediately apprehended, isolated in a meadow. But the basic geometric forms were all unsuitable. The square is too rigidly masculine for what he sees as the ‘mother’ church, the circle with its central focus too restrictive, and the triangle, unless very large, an awkward interior. The present form, though, was not arrived at rationally, but recognised as right when it arose-from the unconscious rather than trial and error.

For Zumthor this resonance with something in the psyche is crucial: a building in its form and atmosphere, in its presence, must strike a chord and chime with something in personal experience or imagination and so hopefully with that of the collective. Cherishing the atmosphere and associations stirred by old artefacts, buildings and settlements, he wants to make buildings that cannot only accumulate such things for themselves (too many contemporary buildings defy this) but which in the reveries they provoke will render more pungent the genius loci. This is to be done not by mimicry, but by adding new ingredients that change and intensify the mystery of a place; nor by sign, symbol or any appendage but by the tectonic presence of the building itself.

Zumthor sees his chapel on a mountain track as a contemporary equivalent of a wayside chapel. But in suggesting this he provokes serious reservations. Wayside chapels typically have a porch to offer shelter, rest and succour without needing to enter the chapel proper. Indeed they- or even just a niche and its contents-symbolise that to the passer-by, who need not enter the porch either to draw some spiritual sustenance. The new chapel offers no equivalent.
Its closed aloofness, with only high-level windows, is intensified by the small entry and narrow steps that spill tentatively down to earth from it. There is no welcome for the wayfarer, nor even some place for the congregation to wait before and after services outside the church but still in contact with it. May be this merely recognises that in a secular age it would be inappropriate for a chapel to welcome just anybody.

Yet it may also be that such a lack of welcome is inadequate not just to a wayside chapel but even for one intended only for a tiny select congregation. On the edge of Chur, the ruins of the Roman houses were found and two and a bit of them excavated. (The rest of the third remains under an existing building.) Zumthor was commissioned to build a protective covering so that the whole would serve as a museum.

He has created a set of timber sheds that almost like giant tea cosies completely cover each house and take on the non orthogonal geometry of each. Unlike tea cosies though they are not soft and insulated but rigid and allow the breeze between the louvre-like wood slats of their walls.These also allow through a dim warm light, but most of the light floods down from the rooflights that crown each roof. Big windows, right on the street like shop windows, admit views of the interiors with their grey gravel-paved floors, orange-glowing slatted walls and seemingly hovering rooflight, the black inner rim of which shines very blue when there is a cloudless sky above.

Entry and visitor circulation is by a raised walkway that connects the shed like a kebab skewer. The entry steps are like those to an aircraft and are connected by bellows that combine this allusion with that of a camera. Together these suggest that the visitor is entering a time and illusion machine, though they are also devices rather close to the appended signs and symbols the architect scorns. As with everything else by Zumthor, the whole is simply but beautifully detailed and proportioned. It also has a magnificently mysterious air, within which it is so much easier to conjure the past than it ever is when looking at bright lit excavations or ruins emerging from grass.

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