Opinion

Contemporary Architecture Goes Spiritual

Peter Zumthor's Bruder Klaus chapel (image via nytimes.com)

New York Times Magazine profile of Pritzker Prize winning-architect Peter Zumthor shows the his work engaging with the spirituality of space and human history, and exploring the most basic aspects of our sensual experience. The profile highlights Zumthor’s buildings as a return to the humanistic, spiritual side of contemporary architecture.

Following his interest in both physical materials and our abstract reaction to them (in a home he built for himself and his wife, Zumthor used a solid wood construction because of its impact on the body), Zumthor’s work heralds a return to a spiritual architecture that’s a far cry from the work of starchitects like Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. Instead of using buildings as showpieces for virtuoso facade design and structural planning, Zumthor’s buildings work from the inside out, investing as much in feeling as in looking.

Peter Zumthor's Kolumba museum (image via umsu.de)

Why “spiritual”? It’s not because Zumthor is particularly religious. Rather, his work speaks to a kind of humanist sensibility that’s all about architecture of a personal, intimate level rather than the global brandings attempted by starchitects. In comparison, Zumthor’s architecture is engaged with its visitors rather than its appearance in a photograph. Particularly relevant in this case is Zumthor’s answer to the epic museums of Gehry and Hadid. The Kolumba art museum of Cologne, Germany is a significant building, but not because it upstages its surroundings. The structure actually incorporates the material history of its site, combining the remains of a Gothic cathedral with World War II-era ruins into a new whole. It’s integrative instead of iconoclastic.

The ascendancy of Zumthor’s work, as Michael Kimmelman points out in the profile, is a timely reaction to the excesses of showpiece architecture in the past decade. Though it may not be the beginning of a massive turn towards the quiet and spiritual, younger architects have established themselves on the basis of also shying away from the epic gesture, including such lights as Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Terunobu Fujimori. It’s worth exploring the buildings designed by these architects, including Zumthor, because they return to an aesthetic mode that’s sustainable both environmentally and artistically.

Check out an interview with Peter Zumthor on Artinfo here. The attendant slideshow shows some of Zumthor’s building models. Time has an excellent slideshow of Zumthor’s harder-to-find buildings. The Pritzker Prize website details Zumthor’s biography (useful, considering he doesn’t appear to have his own site … ). His Wikipedia page also has more information.

Here are some highlights from Michael Kimmelman’s profile. It’s worth checking out to let the architect speak for himself:

  • Kimmelman notes that in comparison to globe-straddling mega-architects, Zumthor’s work looks a bit old-fashioned:

    I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors [say] he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision.

  • Zumthor describes the qualities he ultimately looks for in a space that he creates:

    …Beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.

  • Kimmelman asks Zumthor about his artistic influences, and some surprising answers come up:
  • I asked about influences on him, and he talked about artists he first encountered in the ’60s and ’70s — Americans like Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, sculptors who adapted Minimalism toward massive projects that extended into the landscape. He also extolled the mercurial German artist Joseph Beuys.

  • Zumthor on the limitations of modernist architecture and how he overcomes them. This is interesting because Zumthor’s work actually reminds me of Le Corbusier’s later work when he turned toward vernacular architecture and local solutions.
  • For me as an architect it turned out to be about overcoming architectural Modernism, in which everything had to be new and nothing was supposed to have history. The Bauhaus seems to me now very limited in that respect, and this survey work helped me overcome that limitation.

  • On the value of simplicity and the role of intention in creating beauty:
  • I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly… Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality.

It’s nice to know that this kind of practice is still going on, even with the dominance of show-offy starchitecture and vanity projects.

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