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i n t e r v i e w
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p e t e r
z u m t h o r
In today’s world, a big name often translates into big business. Too much in demand, the master architect resorts to passing a quick idea sketch on to someone else who can translate the idea into a ‘famous architect’ style building. In stark contrast to that, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor dedicates himself to a small practice in which he remains intimately involved with a project along every step of the way, making great contributions by maintaining control over all the design and construction details. The following interview took place between Zumthor and Virginia Tech MArch II graduate Susan Perkins while she was working at the University’s Center for European Studies and Architecture in 1999. Zumthor explains why he chooses to practice in this way, and what continues to interest and challenge him in his work.
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I say. chapel of Sogn Benedeg. to keep this clear. and nothing else. I don’t remember where. I sometimes say. So this is sometimes the problem with dealing with architecture on. ok. PZ: The best thing is if somebody else does their own work of art or a personal work of literature or criticism. an academic level — from a distance. just dealing with construction and all that. and saying that he wants to know about this and that and the joints and the material and the type photo: A. in my book. What I don’t like so much is when people don’t know my work. if I realize that.J. Sometimes there are people who have a good understanding of what I am trying to do.SP: I was reading some of the interviews you have given in the past and I was wondering. And so this brings up the question of representation of your works. I had an email from a guy from the University of Boston saying that he’s going to lecture on my chapel tomorrow. what do you wish that you would have been asked you but never were? Or what do you wish that you could talk about that never gets brought up? PZ: (laughs) Well. You could maybe publish the concept of a building. So this is sort of like the concept of these autonomous pieces next to each other that are related to each other. For that. sometimes it doesn’t. FAIA of wood and this and that. "Let’s finish this. which of course is sort of like you have with the main characters in literature.. Sumuitg. so I emailed back to him and told him that I frankly think that he should not lecture about any building he hasn’t seen and hasn’t smelled and so on. Peter Zumthor: Works. And he should himself go and visit it and then he’ll maybe have no questions at all or other questions. Which is what I had decided. Switzerland p e t e r z u m t h o r . where you have a text of mine and you have the major plans and the site and the major ideas of the building itself. Sometimes it is better and sometimes it is worse. this is just our work. and of course it is very rarely. Because the thing is the house. Davis. When they start to talk. So it’s just my text and my buildings. You can feel this other person reacting to what he or she sees and then it doesn’t try to represent. you see something in a book or you see it in a magazine and then you see it in real life. I will do this once and then that’s it. like an explanation. It’s a little bit didactical. that this is how it would be. or never. Or on paper. I didn’t have any other people commenting on this. but you commented somewhere about the Hélène Binet photographs in your book.” Like yesterday actually. And then I think there’s another kind of representation. So sometimes something happens. shall we say. the same as it was in the image. that you could do. but in other cases the questions are just superficial. and how you didn’t see them as a representation because she is an artist. I haven’t thought about that because my main activity is not thinking about what [interviewers] should ask me. haven’t visited my buildings and so on. but is a thing in itself. SP: With architecture. when you have been interviewed. and I would be really glad if he would read this text aloud at the beginning of his lecture. This is what I was trying to do in the book. This is maybe more for architecture or people who are interested in concepts and how they are made.. So how do you approach that? Obviously people are going to publish your works. but I think to a certain point I do this. of course.
at least for me.J. I work partly in a classical kind of manner. austria. and I say. Because they didn’t ask me.artist. So that is three things I can see: artistic comment upon a work. it’s also explanation . Because really when it happens. this I really hate. (laughing) I mean. Still there is this aim that a building in its context would maybe be beautiful or would contribute to the beauty of the place. beauty.. PZ: No. and the concept part. where you can see this in this building that I like the surrounding and the houses and the gardens and this rural kind of place..I can’t think of the word either.there is something and then they put a piece there to emphasize. it sort of takes p e t e r z u m t h o r . this is interesting to think about .is explaining the technical. It has no aim at all to explain the building as a whole or to represent it." And how the representation of a thing then becomes not a representation but a thing in itself. and so on. what about the USM Haller ads. And this is also a little bit of a practical kind of thing. but I know what you mean. "The thing is the house. this is classical architecture in the context here. I get even more angry. I think that a building can become beautiful if you are lucky and you are talented.. Davis.. the landscape view here. they didn’t ask me. but I think we are actually trying to do a small little monograph for each building in which you get explanations about how it is constructed and the major issues of constructing the building. I don’t like it. for me. You know. PZ: SP: Yeah. let’s say.000 francs.yes.. If things go together well. photo: A. go look at the thing. And all they could do is send me some Haller furniture for my library and I looked it up in the catalogue and people say it probably cost 10. corner detail But what you also could do . then I’m out. to this person who wants to give the lecture. I despise it.. it’s not good for architecture.. FAIA SP: So speaking of marketing... in architecture. when it touches you. you know.. and how it works. As to the rest I try to be nice. that series of photographs with the USM products incorporated into well-known works of architecture . PZ: Yes... it is always back to the concrete. it’s always back to the thing as you say. the thing. Or as you just said. something about the space. I can’t think of the word. So I complained. you mean? Yes.. they didn’t ask me. that makes you.when do you experience beauty? [It’s] sort of.. I think it is pretty mysterious. Like somebody once said that this building here is like a declaration of love to this village.like in the a romantic period -. bregenz. right away. SP: Now. more strict. in reading what you have written and in looking at your work.or maybe it is not mysterious. I don’t want to be part of a marketing concept. if it doesn’t really matter what I do as long as my name is there. Or in other cases.. when you talk about "things". PZ: SP: The thing. this photographer. but its technique and concept. this cost them 10. This I have done so far only in one case. it just happens. So this would be an example of how something contributes to something else.. and the technique part. the spaces should be beautiful to live in... you know.it’s still not representation.. in the case of the Kunsthaus Bregenz. SP: Yes. then the building should become beautiful.one of them is in Vals.. "No no no no no". to sort of. If I find out that people want something from me because of my name. I admit that I was surprised to see it.. So I guess beauty would be ok for me..000 francs. It’s more than just the nuts and bolts.kunsthaus. I cannot stand architecture becoming part of a marketing strategy and its being used as a label. They just published the work of this. constructive and so on: the parts of the relations of the building. The older I get..
when you see them collected in a room -. this is much the same as if architecture starts to alienate itself from functional use. p e t e r z u m t h o r . SP: I’ve been thinking about functionalism lately because I‚ve been reading Otl Aicher. Then you can make them practical and everything and then beautiful and they become beautiful because they.something everyday and plucks it out. but architecture can be ugly. but 50 or 25 of them. More interesting is if you emotionally. from Karlsrühe. Experience is unique from second to second. It seems like that.. if they start to carry messages that don’t belong to them and to what they are doing. This is really a noble kind of task . to me. or bettered somehow by the sun. or from the meaning side .when it rains. it is really quite something. SP: Because if its "real stuff". in the desert and the mountains. is not meaning but is more like real stuff. maybe this is a good example: nature. PZ: It is never the thing in itself.. or I guess these paintings are like a part of his life. heightening the experience is a part. it’s not natural anymore.. Yeah. even ugly things get sort of glorified. the power of everyday life and the. Then you see their really sad existences. that nature is ugly.that you can use a glass or a chair or a table . or from the message side. This is sort of like what I like in literature.all of the same drinking glass. all pieces of art -. in the background there is this useful thing.. SP: Never? PZ: Never.from the beauty side. The reason for architecture being there is actually basically this practical need and its use. you know? And if the writer of the book starts to comment on himself.... and make all kinds of allusions and jokes and so on. And so it got me thinking about the use of everyday things and basic materials and wood and glass and stone and things like this that are then somehow heightened as we were saying before. and already deeper than just on the surface. Architecture can be beautiful like a chair or like a tree. is never ugly... What I like good literature to be. And one thing he has been doing that I find really intriguing is that.. or the North Pole or where ever... not too big -.. it’s more a concrete experience.I don’t say perception. . I think a good building should be -. it is not the thing in my mind.and all pieces. is already there. No. in being raised to another level. It has nothing to do with stupid functionalism or something. PZ: Yes. SP: There is a German painter named Peter Drehler. But if you start to think of architecture from the other side -. this is again.because they are reduced.. and if the characters and the heroes in this book or whatever. so these works I guess show or document. the message.. in a sense. And he has about 4000 of them by now. with architecture.. the same size. PZ: Yes.. like your example.and draws your attention to it. That’s what I like about these beautiful experiences that you can have in houses or towns or places.. right? Because it is always us reacting. or when the sun shines. PZ: SP: Right. Because it is the same glass.this is stupid.they should be like nature more. SP: They get worse. I think to be natural. since 1972. this painting. this is good. it’s of course always that the things are the things. Have you noticed the fact that things start to look better. and when you see them. it’s nice that. its like one big thing.whether it rains or the sun shines. every few days he has painted another in a series of paintings -.. And this I think you achieve if you stick to use. and heightens the whole experience. To me. but of course it is never the same glass. like drinking or something. I would never be able to say this. the message is never so simple. they get worse.. Things are part of life. it’s much more complex.. the everyday thing then can become something else and can give something else.the same format.. It’s not easy. PZ: (laughs) SP: He paints them every few days. and then you see it in the rain and you think. Good architecture to me is architecture which is good all the time -. I think nature is -. oh how terrible..not even all of them. PZ: Yes. because if you perceive something it is intellectually.
I haven‚t read him but I know him. Because then there is the history of the use of the building type you are working with that influences you -or me -. At one point he talks about form. He says that Eames‚ chairs are beautiful examples of technology and functionality and beauty.. I’m only interested in how this looks at the end. its complex... this is the. And I was reading this at the same time that I was reading some of your writing and thinking about the form coming from the object itself -. the didactical sort of the crutch is to have a theme. exterior . Not so often at the moment. It’s sort of being intelligent about your feelings. Compared to other people.coming from the necessity of the object and what it is made of. Any time we work on it. but I like the way he says it and I like it that he says it. or maybe everybody if you do something [creative]. right? And this is also classical.. Well. And then it’s about having had these moments where I’ve experienced beauty. whereas Rietveldt’s chairs were revealed as a "Mondrian to sit on". I have none of these irritations or anything. whether technical or historical. maybe I have been here or there. I like all of these things actually.like feed . But then we try to find the theme. but sometimes they are. so you say.. And so I say yes to this one or that one. Davis. I am just sort of grazing. the form. This is really simple. and about the form coming out of the object. you know.so you know what you are doing. using the example of Eames chairs and Rietveldt’s chairs. Emotions are immediate. all these things that have gotten to you at some point in time. all architects. I like to read. so the way I work is of course that. for me. FAIA its use and its place. at any point of the design-construction process. PZ: Right. SP: You mean theoretical questions or. Then it’s easy to react on it. this house of stone and water in the mountain" and so on.sometimes it is by instinct that I can immediately tell whether or not something will help me do a good house or not.. and the things you’ve seen. he calls it an object that "unfortunately tried to be useful". this is all there in the background. There is somewhat the grounds for the form to arrive -photo: A. We just did this thing outside -.. use and place. we have an image of how it looks. right. it helps me a lot. you have a theme and this can start to control everything – the details and so on . I think.that is real. yes. Sometimes they are also architects.where was I going with this? SP: We got started by talking about the form and the form coming out of the thing. but maybe through life experience. or have heard something. Yes.J. Well -.PZ: Yes. they are fast. And then starts 2000 hours of bringing this meaningful and rich use from the function. This is really the instinctive part. But there is always a strong emotional part.. I don’t always agree with what he says. switzerland. PZ: Ah yes.. work like this... SP: I’m finding him very interesting. so I can see. PZ: Yes. I read. I like philosophy. we try to feel it. and your emotions are sort of all fodder. exactly. That’s why I have to produce images in my mind and in the minds of my collaborators. I’m always interested in the real thing. So some of this is also easy.and they use the spark of what it is and where it is. PZ: Yes. because the emotions. "this house. SP: So then your knowledge.. p e t e r z u m t h o r thermal baths. I am fond of good thinkers. vals.not only through books and so on. Architects. and then you work on this theme.
in combination with an office/atelier. and all this kind of thing.. and you could have a table and other things. p e t e r z u m t h o r . and what could be the experience to swim. Whereas. bregenz. yes? And the gartensalle. Yes. this is something traditional in Europe. this is one thing. so I like biographies.and let’s see. kunsthaus. Another one I am reading is a book with the stories of old women from this area that talks about how things used to be here and what they were like and how they lived.. Are those conscious at all? Do you know where those come from? Or do you care? Or is that just what is distilled from all of these experiences that you acknowledge that you have? PZ: You think there are recurrent themes? SP: Well. Just like about about 10 or 15 years ago.and if there is something I can use then. the casino on the lake shore. austria photo: A... So these kinds of things that sort of come up again and again.so you think of Las Vegas and all these kinds of places and so on. here on this place we tear down an old house and we make an atelier building and this atelier building should have a drawing room and a gartensalle. I read 20 books at a time. Bregenz is a light box. but if you think of ideas. the idea of wholeness. a real thing. and parts of the baths are kind of like a cave. parts of the Gugalun house. "Ok. the idea of cave versus the light box -. this could be a nice image on the lake... And this building here. I don’t think it’s a light box. I don’t know that themes is really the word. So. perhaps. a fantastic garden house. you know. one could say.. and maybe a fountain.(laughing) SP: (laughing) Well.So this is this big thing and it has this little small park as an answer in front of it. There is again the use of this building obviously transformed as something to the outside.J. with that black concrete wall against the hill is kind of like a cave. like the kitchen. Davis.just take the light box. you understand what it is? -. you go out at two o’clock in the morning and you see that there is this thing on the shore. because you can see what people did and why. you can have water there.. Yes.things like this that are sort of recurring threads. to cleanse yourself.. SP: Looking through PZ: Works. place and function. this is a sort of a garden house. FAIA PZ: Let’s see. I guess I would say -although I haven’t seen it. You can see how things have totally changed.I am surrounded by books." So this is how it goes.. SP: PZ: Again. Even the Laban dance theater is a kind of a light box. the competition for the casino on Lake Constanz was a light box. I look at it. Like the monolith. so this is creating this specific kind of thing which we’d say. time and time again: it’s the place and the function. and I don’t think it’s a cave.. SP: So what are you reading now? PZ: A history of the world. And so it is completely different if I start to think about what could it be if you have a hot spring in this rocky slope in a mountain area.. I wasn’t trying to say that those are the only things you have going on. I see certain threads. just that they come back maybe several times. "Yes. when we said. it has a little bit of this quality of luxury and it has grape vines. place and function. Like the cave and a light box -.
SP: So do you think that characterizations of things like that I had just said.. but I think basically they happen to everybody . and then there comes a certain condensation. I don’t look a lot because I feel this is sort of like -. I think it is also a profession. you can do this. and then the spark comes out of that. It is difficult in this field of art historians or architecture historians writing about art or architecture or music or literature — its hard to find really good quality. accumulation of the things.. no.if you do a museum collecting the daylight -. p e t e r z u m t h o r . we are collecting daylight there and then it becomes a light box from the inside out... For the education of architects I don’t think this helps at all. So I think it’s more going. are sort of silly? Or pointless. I try to be straightforward with the site. so this is like a wanted.. I usually go the other way. Davis.. the most telling and most obvious solutions for a problem. Actually. this depends.J.. PZ: No. I hope. See. nice secondary result of trying to get all this daylight into the interior spaces and so on. switzerland photo: A. It’s not like we make a one family home and say. for the essential. SP: You mean for students. it depends. striving. and then make it beautiful.this is an academic thing.PZ: Yes.. FAIA SP: You don’t have to worry about insulting me. PZ: Well. or that we make a theater and say. I might look at this and say this is ridiculous or whatever. "Let’s do it like a steamer". chur. It’s not gaining a quality by reversing forms and trying this because it could work. "Let’s do it like a skyscraper". So it’s like in architecture — a lot of people are trying. and in some cases it’s really done well.this is the main issue. I’m not putting it down. I like to insult people! (laughing) It depends how good this person does this. I am not taking something and turning it completely around in order to gain a specific quality. SP: So do you ever read what people write about your work at all? Do you look at that? PZ: Vaguely. this is also a big art — its a form of art.. protective housing for roman archaeological excavations. There’s something slightly disturbing somehow.. about these recurrent threads.
Perkins international juries is not so good.we talked a little bit before about people who want to publish your work and so on -. The nicest thing is to be here and work.. how well you are still able to work with the people in your studio and keep control over the projects. Or for architects even. What do you really feel and so on. I am not myself there". SP: How long does it usually take you for a building.. Because there you are really competent -. I can’t imagine if I would have to do that.. So I am in a situation to turn down a lot of commissions and select carefully things that I think may become real things and things where there will not be compromises along the way.this is not the problem . and to be precise there. Because what I have to offer here is custom made Peter Zumthor buildings -. People ask me to come there are letters coming every day from architects and I will say no. reading all these things about what architecture is like and so on.. And sometimes the president of a company. That’s the work. maybe you get more interesting commissions and more freedom and things like this. so things which could be bothersome are now ignored. I don’t have to keep swallowing all these things that are coming and get bigger and bigger and bigger. people believe me maybe faster. like Bregenz. where there is this dynamic of the round table when you have to answer questions you are not interested in. The nice thing is that I have enough work still and I don’t need to do anything like this to get clients. yes. having made this decision. exactly. SP: Do you think that becoming well known -. you know. they can also be bigger. Everybody knows this.they don’t have to be small. this makes great sense as far as I am concerned. for educating yourself.. I cannot be on your jury. than a logical form of analysis.in your own personal life I believe you are competent -. SP: Or you feel like you have to say something even if you have nothing to say. I mean aside from pauses that come from funding or something. from when you start. People say. I hate it. PZ: A couple of years ago I decided to stay small. say. if it is smooth is it really smooth or is it just going to look smooth — and I would imagine for that you need to be here. PZ: Yes..has it gotten in the way? Obviously there are some benefits that come with it. I think good architecture doesn’t come into existence by preliminary formal analysis. SP: It seems to me that there is so much in what you do that is in the infinitesimal decisions — you know. PZ: Yeah. even if you have nothing to say or maybe don’t want to say it. That’s what I think. Five years ago I came back from one and I said "I hate it. he calls me up personally and says.PZ: For students. this kind of building. "Your secretary said you won’t come. And I find that this make sense in some way. that it doesn’t work. This is of course an important part.but this is what I offer. Being on juries. "You should come here and speak about this and this"." But I don’t go. these round table kinds of seminars. big things -. So I don’t do lectures anymore. on photo: S. What takes you much further is your personal experience. but just the design work? zumthor studio interior p e t e r z u m t h o r . So I am gone.. PZ: Yes. but you should come because there are all the most important people of Switzerland now in this meeting and they are businessmen and so on and this is a good opportunity for commissions to come up and so on..this is really nice! Its amazing how much more connected you are to life. and to free and open yourself towards this work. So these kind of dynamics and all of this I just stopped.(laughing) SP: So what is the trade off in terms of demands on time and energy and how many projects you can take in or want to take in. with a dozen people in the office. I’m not a good person for this podium.
SP: Aside from obvious building mistakes or using shoddy material or something like that. that we never live. Memory. to get things clear. The users have to pay and I think this is really terrible. maybe -this is not objective. instantly. And then when everything has passed. . I think this is an emotional intelligence. PZ: Really fast? PZ: Yeah. three and even four years. in a way. yet at the same time you talk about recollection and how it is not from careful observation. How I like this p e t e r z u m t h o r thermal baths. how you order things.PZ: The design work always is like two. you can look at the building and then maybe there are people who can do that. yeah. in a way? PZ: I believe that I never live. Otherwise I might be killed already. without using your brain. we stop.so fast that it doesn’t make sense. So you ask yourself. You are thinking. not that they turn out so well.do you know what I mean? SP: Do you mean that you are always waiting? Do you believe that we are always waiting to live. Yeah. Someone who wants to earn money with buildings should be able do a good job at the same time. In one of the articles in "Thinking Architecture" you write about going back to a certain hall with a niche and how it was different in reality than it was in memory. The other thing I was talking about there is the same feeling of course. who was I when I was waiting? Then when I was waiting. How to work with memory is the major issue. So where does that balance lie? Are they two different things? PZ: I think they are two different things. So that is how I do it. Davis. Its your imagination.experience. but actually for us. this has to do with how you get along in the world. the human race would already have died out. FAIA beginning phases are really important. just in the moment that we start to live.. but these processes help you make use of these. Careful observation has a lot to do with inventing and making because it is imagining how it could be. but yeah. SP: I ask this because I think this is something for people to realize -. interior SP: Really fast. you don’t care how they get older because you know they will be sold. can be rather scary. these photo: A. it is thinking. and it’s colored by life. I ask myself. This is subjective.J. who you were at the time when you were waiting. And I say this because I want to make a point that your architectural memory -. with your instincts or whatever it is and all these things and you have this thing that enables you to react appropriately to your surroundings. ridiculously fast -. So you don’t always have to think with your brain what to do or what this is. SP: You speak and write about perception and memory and I was curious about a dichotemy that seemed to come up.I think that sometimes the speed with which buildings are often built today. Memory does this. but are always waiting to live and then. Actually it’s nice because you can see in your conceptions that there is also a part of your imagination. and you are not really there.. is there behavior that you would say is unethical for an architect? PZ: If you do buildings which have to look good and sell in 2 or 3 years. I don’t know. now this is a great human capacity. depending on how complex it is. It sounds . so that the foundation of the emotional and intellectual foundations are clear. And you talk about William Carlos Williams and the specific and careful observation of things. but you usually have a problem to really live in the moment. especially in America. This is unethical if you think of the environment and also because somebody else maybe has to pay the price.
. In terms of -. that what they say? SP: PZ: You talk a lot about the sensuousness of things. Nothing else works for me. the baths -. PZ: . you know.. then it always seems like it turns into some kind of weird image of itself..because if it would all be a cave then it wouldn’t work. and then again too much of this is not good either.I would almost say it has to be fun.. I can only do it with material. You could say in German Es so spass machen. p e t e r z u m t h o r .— this changing. and these kind of things so then I think I should talk about the concepts only. FAIA SP: I was talking with Miguel the other night and he mentioned a book he is reading by a mathematician who describes the ideal mathematical problem as having three aspects: unexpectedness. this coming.. but that’s where it comes from and I think this is important.. It should be sexy. but basically the matter I deal with is the material. it should be light. I don’t either. Davis.already the thinking about a bath has this sensuous connotation. to being sexy. and economy of media. but sober.. So is there the same kind of aspect for you to a church or a casino? Or is it more in the material itself? PZ: When I build. That’s why I do it. Do I? SP: Yes. SP: Yes. SP: No.it’s sort of like setting trends.. exterior pools photo: A.. architecture is already powerful. It doesn’t work... when you go out to where the chairs are. inevitability.. PZ: There are amazing pieces with an incredible openness and grand views.. And some of these people start to. SP: Yes. the work. SP: "Fun" is too frivolous? PZ: Yes. SP: Which is ironic. It especially jumps out if you read all of your writings at one time. that it should be like that. thermal baths. inevitability. And then they talk about materials and then I cannot listen to it anymore.. Say it again? Unexpectedness... especially material. This works. So I can make materials and I can make some material spaces. Would you say this also describes your ideal building? PZ: SP: PZ: Yeah.for example.you can call it experience or beauty or pleasure or whatever. which is also too bad. Not many people say this. isn’t it? Isn’t it strange? Because otherwise why are they doing it? PZ: Yeah. he hasn’t said anything to me about it. The architecture doesn’t have to be intelligent or made powerful. exactly. PZ: I think it should always be whole. not many architects say this.. It has to. or . Because this is a stupid expression. for example. The way that we think of architecture is very close to pleasure. And the other one must be a reaction of the people. So everything belongs to everything. it is too frivolous. this is not bad. that sounds good. they talk about sieglichkeit. but it should also be heavy. Yeah. and economy of media. It should be a pleasure to you.J. I don’t think Vals is only a cave.. but I would take it back. huh?.