About Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor

(b. 1943)

older white man with thin white beard speaking in front of an audience
Architect Peter Zumthor in 2017. Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Surface

Peter Zumthor (born on April 26, 1943 in Basel, Switzerland) won architecture's top prizes, the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize from the Hyatt Foundation and the esteemed Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2013. The son of a cabinet maker, the Swiss architect is often praised for the detailed and careful craftsmanship of his designs. Zumthor works with a range of materials, from cedar shingles to sandblasted glass, to create inviting textures. "I work a little bit like a sculptor,” Zumthor told the New York Times. "When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It's not about paper, it's not about forms. It's about space and material."

The architecture shown here is representative of the work that the Pritzker jury called "focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined."

1986: Protective Housing for Roman Excavations, Chur, Graubünden, Switzerland

inside a structure of horizontal wooden slats, hanging lights from beams over ancient stone wall
Shelter for Roman Archeological Site in Chur, Switzerland, 1986. Timothy Brown via flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), cropped

About 140 miles north of Milan, Italy, is one of the oldest towns in Swizerland. For centuries, from BC to AD, the territories today known as Switzerland were either controlled or influenced by the ancient Western Roman Empire, immense in size and power. Architectural remnants of ancient Rome are found throughout Europe. Chur, Switzerland is no exception.

After finishing his studies at Pratt Institute in New York in 1967, Peter Zumthor returned to Switzerland to work for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments in Graubünden before founding his own firm in 1979. One of his first commissions was to create structures to protect the ancient Roman ruins excavated in Chur. The architect chose open wooden slats to create walls along the original outer walls of a complete Roman quarter. After dark, simple inside lighting glows from the simple wooden box-like architecture, making the interior spaces the constant focus of ancient architecture. The Danish Architecture Centre's arcspace calls it "the interior of a time machine."  They say

"Walking around inside these protective shelters, in the presence of exhibited ancient Roman remains, one gets the impression that time is a bit more relative than usual. Magically, rather than in the late eighties, it feels that Peter Zumthor’s intervention was designed today."

1988: Saint Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, Graubünden, Switzerland

close-up low angle view of wood shingled chapel near simple bell tower
Saint Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, Switzerland, 1985-88. Vincent Neyroud via flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0), sized

After an avalanche destroyed the chapel in the village of Sogn Benedetg (St. Benedict), the town and the clergy enlisted the local master architect to create a contemporary replacement. Peter Zumthor chose to also respect the community's values and architecture, showing the world that modernity can fit into anyone's culture.

Dr. Philip Ursprung describes the experience of entering the building as if one were putting on a coat, not an awe-inspiring experience but something transformational. The "teardrop-shaped floor plan directed my movement into a loop, or spiral, until I eventually sat down on one of the massive wooden benches," Ursprung writes. "For believers, this was certainly the moment for prayer."

A theme that runs through Zumthor's architecture is the "now-ness" of his work. Like the protective housing for the Roman ruins in Chur, the Saint Benedict Chapel seems like it was just built — as comfortable as an old friend, as current as a new song.

1993: Homes for Senior Citizens in Masans, Graubünden, Switzerland

low-rise, two-story horizontal building with awned porches on each unit
Wohnhaus für Betagte in Switzerland. fcamusd via flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Peter Zumthor designed 22 apartments for independent-minded senior citizens to live near a continuing care facility. With entrance porches to the east and sheltered balconies to the west, each unit takes advantage of the site's mountain and valley views.

1996: Thermal Bath at Vals, Graubünden, Switzerland

layered stone appears like wooden walls beneath a green grass roof and open thermal baths
Thermal Bath at Vals in Graubünden, Switzerland. Mariano Mantel via flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0), cropped

The Thermal Bath at Vals in Graubünden, Switzerland.is often considered architect Peter Zumthor's masterpiece — at least by the public. A bankrupt hotel complex from the 1960s was transformed by Zumthor's ingenuity and simplicity of design that created a popular thermal spa in the heart of the Swiss Alps.

Zumthor used local stone cut into 60,000 slab layers, thick concrete walls, and a grass roof to make the building part of the environment — a vessel for the 86°F waters that flow from the mountains.

7132 Therme is open for business, much to the dismay of the architect.

In 2017, Zumthor told dezeen magazine that the community spa concept had been destroyed by greedy developers at Therme Vals spa. The community-owned Vals was sold to a property developer in 2012 and renamed the 7132 Thermal Baths. The entire community has turned into a sort of "cabaret" in Zumthor's opinion. The most outrageous development? Architect Thom Mayne's firm Morphosis has been enlisted to build a 1250 foot minimalist skyscraper on the property of the mountain retreat.

2007: Brother Klaus Field Chapel in Wachendorf, Eifel, Germany

yellowish concrete monolith in a farm field
Bruder Klaus Field Chapel designed by Peter Zumthor. René Spitz via flickr, Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

About 65 miles south of Koln, Germany, Peter Zumthor built what some consider his most intriguing work. The interior of this small chapel, dedicated to Swiss Saint Nicholas von der Flüe (1417–1487), known as Brother Klaus, initially was constructed with 112 tree trunks and pine logs arranged in the form of a tent. Then Zumthor's plan was to ram concrete in and around the tent structure, allowing it to set for about a month in the middle of a farm field.

Then, Zumthor set fire to the inside. For three weeks, a smoldering fire burned until the interior tree trunks separated from the concrete. The interior walls not only have retained the charred smell of burning wood, but also have the impression of the wood trunks.

The floor of the chapel is made from lead melted onsite, and a bronze sculpture was designed by Swiss artist Hans Josephsohn (1920-2012).

The field chapel was commissioned and mainly built by a German farmer, his family, and friends, on one of his fields near the village. It has been long noted that Zumthor chooses his projects for reasons other than the profit motive.

2007: Art Museum Kolumba in Köln, Germany

large modern masonry tomb-like structure built upon the remains of a medieval church
Kolumba Museum in Germany. harry_nl via flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), cropped

The medieval Sankt Kolumba church was destroyed in World War II. Architect Peter Zumthor's respect for history incorporated the ruins of Saint Columba with a 21st century museum for the Catholic Archdiocese. The brilliance of the design is that visitors can view the remains of the Gothic cathedral (inside and outside) along with museum artifacts — making history part of the museum experience, literally. As the Pritzker Prize jury wrote in their citation, Zumthor's "architecture expresses respect for the primacy of the site, the legacy of a local culture and the invaluable lessons of architectural history."

1997: The Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria

two wall panels of elongated glass reflect the blue sky
The Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1997, Museum of Contemporary Art. Hans Peter Schaefer via wikimedia commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0), cropped

The Pritzker Jury awarded Peter Zumthor the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize in part for "penetrating vision and subtle poetry" not only in his portfolio of buildings, but also in his writings. "In paring down architecture to its barest yet most sumptuous essentials, he has reaffirmed architecture’s indispensable place in a fragile world," cites the jury. 

Peter Zumthor writes:

"I believe that architecture today needs to reflect on the tasks and possibilities which are inherently its own. Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence. In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language. I believe that the language of architecture is not a question of a specific style. Every building is built for a specific use in a specific place and for a specific society. My buildings try to answer the questions that emerge from these simple facts as precisely and critically as they can."
~ Thinking Architecture by Peter Zumthor

The year Peter Zumthor was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture critic Paul Goldberger called Zumthor "a great creative force who deserves to be better known outside the world of architecture." Although well-known in architecture circles — Zumthor was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal four years after the Pritzker — his quiet demeanor has kept him from the starchitecture world, and that may be all right with him.