About Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor

(b. 1943)

Architect Peter Zumthor addresses an audience at the Guggenheim in 2017

Matthew Eisman / Getty Images

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

The interior of Zumthor's structure sheltering a Roman archeological site in Chur, Switzerland

Timothy Brown / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

About 140 miles north of Milan, Italy, is one of the oldest towns in Switzerland. Since B.C.E., 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. It's been called "the interior of a time machine":

"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."
(Arcspace)

1988: Saint Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, Graubünden, Switzerland

Zumthor's Saint Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, a small village in Graubuenden, Switzerland

Capital Lome / Getty Images

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

The low-rise, two-story horizontal profile of Wohnhaus für Betagte in Switzerland

fcamusd / Flickr / 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

At Zumthor's Thermal Bath at Vals, a green grass roof and open thermal baths is supported by layered stone that looks like wooden walls

Mariano Mantel / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Thermal Bath at Vals in Graubünden, Switzerland are 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. His trademark simplicity of design 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.

In 2017, Zumthor said 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 7132 Therme, which is open for business, much to the dismay of the architect. 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.

1997: The Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria

The Kunsthaus Bregenz or museum of contemporary art in evening light

Westend61 / Getty Images

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," declared 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)

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.

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

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, a concrete monolith designed by Zumthor, stands alone in a stark field

René Spitz / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

About 65 miles south of Koln, Germany, Peter Zumthor built what some consider his most intriguing work. 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.

The interior of this small chapel, dedicated to 15th century Swiss Saint Nicholas von der Flüe or Brother Klaus, was initially constructed with 112 tree trunks and pine logs arranged in the form of a tent. 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 features a bronze sculpture designed by Swiss artist Hans Josephsohn.

2007: Art Museum Kolumba in Köln, Germany

Kolumba Museum in Germany​, a large modern masonry tomb-like structure built upon the remains of a medieval church

harry_nl / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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."

Resources and Further Reading