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Peter Zumthor: The Swiss Shaman

A monolithic monograph of Peter Zumthor’s works tracks his ever more direct striving for a connection to place

Peter Zumthor was once described as ‘The Shaman’, which I thought slightly preposterous at the time. His undoubtedly amazing buildings have nearly all been conceived and constructed in the wildernesses of Switzerland and Protestant Northern Europe, where the builders have PhDs (well, not really, but you get my meaning) and where nothing can fail to look good in those picturesque landscapes, located off the beaten track of conventional practice.

The buildings are mostly inaccessible to all but the most dedicated and well-heeled travellers and, to top it off, the only monograph on his work available until now was wildly out of date, incredibly rare and as a consequence, ridiculously priced. At £175 this eagerly-awaited update isn’t cheap, but it’s certainly comprehensive.

A few years ago, during the course of a fairly gruff and anodyne RIBA Gold Medal lecture (after which no questions were permitted), Zumthor more than once alluded to a barely concealed disdain he seems to bear for ‘theory’. It’s an attitude reminiscent of that of the great Islamic scholar Imam Malik, who unlike the other Sunni Imams, practised directly from the place where Muhammad and his companions had lived. Imam Malik didn’t theorise and he didn’t debate.

Zumthor’s analogous preoccupation with direct experience, his reluctance to prioritise discussion over action, combined with that familiar brand of detail-driven delight allied to a practical bent, is what comes through in the new monograph. The five exquisite but workmanlike cloth-bound volumes convey with minimum fuss − much like the man himself − a Spartan mantra of place, matter, human labour and nothing else. The very first project, his studio in the farming village of Haldenstein, is a case in point; a shed, elegant, refined in its detail but otherwise unremarkable, except for the sense of serenity that Zumthor has managed to imbue this simple building with. Hand drawings show an affinity with traditional construction, adjusted to suit the atmosphere Zumthor intends to create; modulating the extent to which nature and building interpenetrate. All of Zumthor’s skill is focused on managing the interface between necessary built enclosure and primordial ‘place’; it’s an approach from which he has never wavered. As architect, he is every bit the cabinet-maker he started out as.

Bruderklaus2

Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus chapel in Mechernich, Germany, was formed by setting a wigwam of rough hewn trunks within a concrete block. The wood was then burned out

Each volume of the monograph covers a period of roughly five years (give or take) with projects laid out in strict chronological order. The effect of this simple conventional device is to give you a sense of the professional life of this man; the tone is faintly confessional, and for that, slightly touching.

The expected continuum of well-known works is repeatedly interspersed by various ‘lost’ or unrealised schemes that often have a special poignancy. Take for instance the project for the Herz Jesu Church in Munich, 1996. A brick box, a night-blue interior, stalactites, infinity and a smashed model that never made it to the competition jury. Zumthor’s career, it turns out, really hasn’t been a case of one victory after another. Well-known works such as the Thermal Baths at Vals are concisely and evocatively conveyed in a sparse collection of well-chosen photos, generous detailed drawings and discursive open texts on the schemes and the processes that led to their realisation. A lot of work has gone into getting the balance of photographs, text, drawings and blank space to convey just the ‘right’ experience; image-porn and opaque verbosity are eschewed. We’re talking muesli and yoghurt rather than beef foie-gras.

The parts of the book that appeal most are those that describe the late unbuilt works. They reveal a man trying to go beyond the self-imposed strictures of form and language, to get an ever more direct connection to place. Some of these schemes border on wacky in terms of form, resembling sponges at the bottom of the ocean, rock formations or microscopic organisms. They remind me of Ruskin’s love of geology and nature; the apparent experienced beauty of it, as opposed to its dissected aspect. Ruskin preferred the unpretentious constructed, polychromatic charm of Byzantine and Venetian Gothic to the ‘academic’ Renaissance, and I think he would have appreciated Zumthor, particularly his sylvan coarseness; as Ruskin wrote of his favourite Giotto: ‘I said that the Power of human mind had its growth in the Wilderness … Not within the walls of Florence but among the far away fields of her lilies, was the child trained who was to raise that headstone of Beauty above the towers of watch and war.’

Peter Zumthor 1985-2013: Buildings and Projects

Edited by: Thomas Durisch

Publisher: Scheidegger & Spiess

Price: £175

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