Experiencing the architecture of Pritzker laureate Peter Zumthor

Sourabh Gupta, principal architect at Studio Archohm, reflects on his trysts with iconic Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and his architecture.

by Sourabh Gupta Published on : Apr 26, 2020

I met Peter Zumthor in July 2012. It was a beautiful moment to see the master at an exhibition of his own models, in one of his most revered projects – The Kunsthaus at Bregenz in Austria, near the Swiss border. Like his buildings, his presence and his demeanour was calm and clear. It was a brief encounter, but the works of Zumthor have been a long-standing lesson in architecture.

Architecture is not about form – Peter Zumthor

I would like to set out by reinstating the fundamental question - What is architecture?

And rarely will one find an architect giving an answer that doesn’t begin with ‘light’.

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor Image Credit: KovacsDaniel, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We all understand the power of light, its role and relevance in the built form as we work with it. One tries to tame it and control it; one plays with it to filter it or reflect it. One also attempts to diffuse it and radiate it. And since daylight on edifices is so overwhelming, literally and otherwise, we worship it.

In the modern era, there are architects whose works stand out distinctly as being synonymous with light. These include masters like Corbusier and Kahn. In more contemporary times, few play with light better than the Swiss Peter Zumthor.

Skylight at Bruder Klauss by Peter Zumthor | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Skylight at Bruder Klauss by Peter Zumthor Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm

Light and light alone, plays the most important role in creating an experience within architecture by conducting itself in a particular way.  This behaviour is usually induced by the way the architecture envelops or reveals itself around it.

Architecture can only create that is then rendered by light. It is the soul of architecture and therefore helps create various emotions and experiences.

Light therefore, filters feelings, I always say.

Diffused natural light inside Kunsthaus at Bregenz, Austria | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Diffused natural light inside Kunsthaus at Bregenz, Austria Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm

I have been on a perpetual architectural expedition to see and seek the works of Zumthor time and again, alone and with fellow architects from my studio - from the Kolumba Church Museum in Cologne to the Bruder Klaus Chapel in the middle of a farm, the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, to a short stint at staying at the Therme Vals, and then attending the Venice Biennale in 2018 to see his ‘workshop’ of his scale models installed at the exhibition.

Dreams and Promises of Atelier Peter Zumthor at Venice Biennale 2018| Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Dreams and Promises of Atelier Peter Zumthor at Venice Biennale 2018 Image Credit: Mridu Sahai

I would therefore like to celebrate Zumthor by sharing and stratifying my experience of light and architecture in his buildings.

The approach of building a building for experience rather than for what it represents, is epitomised in Zumthor’s works.

To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being. – Peter Zumthor

Calm and Sensitive - Kunsthaus at Bregenz

The art museum in Bregenz, Austria, came as the most beautiful ‘site visit’ way back in 2007 when I accompanied the Austrian lighting brand Zumtobel, who took me to the museum to explain the power of lighting concepts and not lighting products. It was art. Comprising glass, steel and a cast concrete mass, the interior of the building resonated and celebrated the building materials. The museum is a minimalistic structure and seems like a light box.

  • Kunsthaus at Bregenz – reception | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    Kunsthaus at Bregenz – reception Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm
  • Kolumba Church Musuem Cologne (external)| Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    Kolumba Church Musuem Cologne (external) Image Credit: Mridu Sahai

The most special aspect of the building is that it filters, absorbs and reflects light from the translucent façade, through the glass ceilings of the interior spaces. This is done in such a way that the most of the interior gets lit up using daylight, and incase it is insufficient, the remainder is covered up by artificial light. Therefore, the building transforms according to daylight, time, weather and the context.

The light here does all the talking. During the day, it plays subtly with the façade to reflect the picturesque context, changing tones and shades. Internally, it works with technology to bring in a desired democracy between the natural and the artificial. This homogeneity makes light larger than life. It makes one feel its warmth by rendering cool, uniform spaces. The metaphoric light temperature play expresses light as an artist in itself, a powerful yet a polite one.

  • Kunsthaus at Bregenz designed by Peter Zumthor | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    Kunsthaus at Bregenz designed by Peter Zumthor Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm
  • How light enters Kunsthaus at Bregenz | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    How light enters Kunsthaus at Bregenz Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm

Guiding and Narrating - Kolumba museum, Cologne

The Kolumba museum at Cologne houses the Roman Catholic religious collection of art of over a thousand years. The original church on which the museum stands was bombed during the war and Zumthor was called to resurrect the ruins of this late-gothic church by respecting its history and essence.

Customised handcrafted bricks have been especially designed for this project and Zumthor has restored the original octagonal chapel by creating a very high volume supported by thin metal columns, with a meandering wooden walkway that reveals the foundation below. The monumental space is made so by the lattice in the walls that filters indirect light and adds a much needed scenography, a drama that perforates the interior and sprinkles it with natural directional light beams.

  • Kolumba Museum inside gallery | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    Kolumba museum inside gallery Image Credit: Arushi Chhabra Chaudhary
  • Kolumba church musuem in Cologne - light in the galleries | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    Kolumba church musuem in Cologne - light in the galleries Image Credit: Vatsal Agrawal

The light at the museum plays the part of a guide as one walks through the cold ruins. It takes you back in time and presents the space in its true context with its dim but tall wall renderings. It talks to you at every step with spots of bright expose of the ruins. The light accompanies you throughout as a voice narrating stories of the structure, altering itself meaningfully. It was one of the most beautiful experiences for me as an architect, when simple sensual spatiality guides you and controls you as you explore architecture.

Play of light at Kolumba church musuem in Cologne | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Play of light at Kolumba church musuem in Cologne Image Credit: Vatsal Agrawal

Tranquil and Healing - Therme, 7132 Hotel at Vals

The location of Therme Vals already makes the project pious. The picture perfect valley deep within the white mountains and blue skies. The journey began with a flight to Basel, followed by a train ride across the scenic Swiss landscape to Chur and finally a hotel pick-up and drive to this destination at the 7132 Hotel in Vals. The pilgrimage completely cleanses one from any and every clutter but one can also choose the chopper ride straight from Zurich airport to Vals. And then one starts the experience of this magnificently austere structure in concrete and local stone. The play of darkness attracts you as you move from one pool to the other with varying temperatures. From almost uncomfortable warm waters to cold concrete contained volumes. The open to sky room with snow-capped mountain views and steaming water makes your experience of this architecture sublime.

  • The Therme at 7132 Hotel designed by Peter Zumthor | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
    The Therme at 7132 Hotel designed by Peter Zumthor Image Credit: Courtesy of Global Image Creation – 7132 Hotel, Vals

There are rooms designed by Zumthor, (Tadao) Ando, Kengo Kuma amongst others adjoining the therme but nothing can keep one away from the dark and dimensioned spaces of the spa, that somehow prepare you and draw you to the baths, but what is really therapeutic is the stone slates and scale of architecture.

Contemplative and Reflective - Bruder Klaus Chapel by Peter Zumthor

Before we visited the space, I thought that the scale of this chapel, set in a village in Germany, was probably the most special thing about it. However, upon experiencing it, a whole new dimension revealed itself.

Bruder Klaus external | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Bruder Klaus external Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm

The Bruder Klaus chapel is an interesting constructed piece of architecture that is organic in its spirit. It is made with 112 tree trunks huddled together to form a structure, over which layers of concrete was poured and then the scaffolding structure was burnt away, leaving behind a charred blackened interior with a teardrop shaped light well on top as its only generous ventilation and light puncture. Once you enter this really small chapel, your gaze is automatically pulled upwards where the roof is open to the sky and stars. Along the concrete walls, around four hundred small holes perforate the structure to give a spectacular light play inside that recalls feelings that even most generously scaled and adorned chapels fail to evoke.

Inside Bruder Klaus | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Inside Bruder Klaus Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Archohm

A visit to the Venice Biennale in 2018 took me to an incredible ensemble of models of Peter Zumthor’s works. The exhibition hall was like his ‘workshop’. If one can make models speak context and construction, one should appreciate what the architecture would do once transformed to scale. Each model modestly spoke of its material and terrain and as Zumthor puts it, 'if a model does not surprise me, then perhaps it is not good enough an idea in its first place'.

This itself shows the sense to scale and the passion to perfection that he has for his architecture.

It is so humbling to write and reflect on Zumthor and his works. It simply takes you back to your own north stars - of what is architecture and what it must be. Zumthor shows how one must go on relentlessly on the pursuit of excellence, with integrity in its inquiry.

Bruder Klaus Model at Venice Biennale | Peter Zumthor | STIRworld
Bruder Klaus Model at Venice Biennale Image Credit: Courtesy of Mridu Sahai

In 2019, he won the support to his new museum on Los Angeles, and SOM (Skidmore Owing & Merill) were taken as the local architects to translate this master’s new masterpiece. And that is the power of this modest practice in Switzerland.

Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words; Peter Zumthor’s architecture is almost like the man himself, a man of few words, one who can say it all, very quietly. And if light was an elixir and a drop did it all, then his architecture is the space where it is beautifully epitomized.

It is where one experiences light as architecture.

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About Author

Sourabh Gupta

Sourabh Gupta

Graduating from CEPT (architecture), TU Delft (urban design), Gupta founded studio archohm in 2000 - working on master plans, cultural centers, institutions, hospitals and residences. He forayed into design education and research, establishing the design village. He constantly seeks directions in contemporary Indian architecture with global insight, striving for cross-cultural dialogues to collaborate with international design firms.

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