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a n i n t e r v i e w w i t h

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.

b y s u s a n p e r k i n s

Or on paper. but I think to a certain point I do this. 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.J. Sumuitg. but in other cases the questions are just superficial. and nothing else. but is a thing in itself. I say..SP: I was reading some of the interviews you have given in the past and I was wondering. which of course is sort of like you have with the main characters in literature. "Let’s finish this. So this is sometimes the problem with dealing with architecture on. where you have a text of mine and you have the major plans and the site and the major ideas of the building itself. 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. just dealing with construction and all that. shall we say. if I realize that. ok. Davis. It’s a little bit didactical. Sometimes it is better and sometimes it is worse. the same as it was in the image. And he should himself go and visit it and then he’ll maybe have no questions at all or other questions. that this is how it would be. This is maybe more for architecture or people who are interested in concepts and how they are made. Which is what I had decided. When they start to talk. and I would be really glad if he would read this text aloud at the beginning of his lecture. You can feel this other person reacting to what he or she sees and then it doesn’t try to represent. So sometimes something happens. haven’t visited my buildings and so on. So how do you approach that? Obviously people are going to publish your works. I sometimes say. PZ: The best thing is if somebody else does their own work of art or a personal work of literature or criticism. to keep this clear. So this is sort of like the concept of these autonomous pieces next to each other that are related to each other. I will do this once and then that’s it.. And then I think there’s another kind of representation. when you have been interviewed. in my book. For that. of course. Switzerland like so much is when people don’t know my work. Sometimes there are people who have a good understanding of what I am trying to do. So it’s just my text and my buildings. FAIA of wood and this and that. sometimes it doesn’t. p e t e r z u m t h o r . you see something in a book or you see it in a magazine and then you see it in real life. an academic level — from a distance. And so this brings up the question of representation of your works. like an explanation. I haven’t thought about that because my main activity is not thinking about what [interviewers] should ask me. Because the thing is the house. but you commented somewhere about the Hélène Binet photographs in your book. Peter Zumthor: Works. I had an email from a guy from the University of Boston saying that he’s going to lecture on my chapel tomorrow. and saying that he wants to know about this and that and the joints and the material and the type photo: A.” Like yesterday actually. this is just our work. or never. and how you didn’t see them as a representation because she is an artist. This is what I was trying to do in the book. that you could do. I didn’t have any other people commenting on this. You could maybe publish the concept of a building. What I don’t chapel of Sogn Benedeg. I don’t remember where. SP: With architecture. and of course it is very rarely.

you mean? SP: Yes. and so on. corner detail photo: A. and the technique in the a romantic period -. Still there is this aim that a building in its context would maybe be beautiful or would contribute to the beauty of the place.I can’t think of the word either. 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. that makes you. "No no no no no".. PZ: Yeah. 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. this cost them 10. and the concept part. If things go together well. to sort of..artist. the spaces should be beautiful to live in.. but its technique and concept. PZ: Yes. constructive and so on: the parts of the relations of the building. It’s more than just the nuts and bolts. If I find out that people want something from me because of my name. they didn’t ask me. they didn’t ask me. I don’t like it. (laughing) I mean. it’s not good for architecture. FAIA representation. and I say. it’s also explanation . But what you also could do . I think that a building can become beautiful if you are lucky and you are talented. something about the space. SP: I admit that I was surprised to see it. for me.J. beauty. Like somebody once said that this building here is like a declaration of love to this village. go look at the thing.yes.or maybe it is not mysterious.. more strict. what about the USM Haller ads. So this would be an example of how something contributes to something else. Davis. but I know what you mean.. I despise it. It has no aim at all to explain the building as a whole or to represent it. As to the rest I try to be nice.." And how the representation of a thing then becomes not a representation but a thing in itself. Or as you just said.... right away. this I really hate. explaining the technical. SP: Now. then the building should become beautiful. that series of photographs with the USM products incorporated into well-known works of architecture . and how it works. then I’m out. SP: Yes. You know. you know.000 francs. SP: So speaking of marketing. this is interesting to think about . when it touches you. in architecture.000 francs. Because they didn’t ask me. at least for me. this photographer. They just published the work of this. it is always back to the concrete... PZ: The thing. And this is also a little bit of a practical kind of of them is in Vals. austria. it just happens.. in reading what you have written and in looking at your work. the thing. the landscape view here. "The thing is the house..there is something and then they put a piece there to emphasize. This I have done so far only in one case. I can’t think of the word. So I complained. So that is three things I can see: artistic comment upon a work.. in the case of the Kunsthaus Bregenz.. Or in other cases. I cannot stand architecture becoming part of a marketing strategy and its being used as a label. The older I get. if it doesn’t really matter what I do as long as my name is there.. this is classical architecture in the context here.. Because really when it happens. I think it is pretty mysterious. 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.. to this person who wants to give the lecture. when you talk about "things". I work partly in a classical kind of manner. I get even more’s still not kunsthaus. PZ: No.. it sort of takes p e t e r z u m t h o r ..when do you experience beauty? [It’s] sort of. So I guess beauty would be ok for me. it’s always back to the thing as you say. I don’t want to be part of a marketing concept... you know. let’s say.

. maybe this is a good example: nature. or bettered somehow by the sun. but of course it is never the same glass.. right? Because it is always us reacting. every few days he has painted another in a series of paintings -. I think a good building should be -. SP: There is a German painter named Peter Drehler.. PZ: It is never the thing in itself.I don’t say perception. is already there. if they start to carry messages that don’t belong to them and to what they are doing. Things are part of life. SP: . and already deeper than just on the surface.. It has nothing to do with stupid functionalism or something. this is much the same as if architecture starts to alienate itself from functional use.. in the desert and the mountains. even ugly things get sort of glorified. No. all pieces of art -.. SP: They get worse. this is again. or from the message side. its like one big thing... Experience is unique from second to second.. to me.when you see them collected in a room -. What I like good literature to be. and when you see them. Because it is the same glass.whether it rains or the sun shines. in being raised to another level. Then you can make them practical and everything and then beautiful and they become beautiful because they. PZ: Yes. in the background there is this useful thing.. or from the meaning side . it’s much more complex.. like your example. like drinking or something. Architecture can be beautiful like a chair or like a tree. the message is never so simple. This is really a noble kind of task . it’s nice that. the same size. PZ: (laughs) SP: He paints them every few days. and make all kinds of allusions and jokes and so on. it’s of course always that the things are the things. PZ: Yes..because they are reduced. and heightens the whole experience.that you can use a glass or a chair or a table . It seems like that. it is really quite something. Then you see their really sad existences. oh how terrible. To me. but 50 or 25 of them. and if the characters and the heroes in this book or whatever. not too big -. is not meaning but is more like real stuff.not even all of them. it’s not natural anymore...and all pieces.from the beauty side.all of the same drinking glass. because if you perceive something it is intellectually. the power of everyday life and the. PZ: Yes. it’s more a concrete experience. and then you see it in the rain and you think. or I guess these paintings are like a part of his life. SP: Never? PZ: Never.they should be like nature more. from Karlsrühe.. p e t e r z u m t h o r . That’s what I like about these beautiful experiences that you can have in houses or towns or places. heightening the experience is a part. or the North Pole or where ever. Yeah. This is sort of like what I like in literature. the everyday thing then can become something else and can give something else. you know? And if the writer of the book starts to comment on himself.. since 1972..something everyday and plucks it out. It’s not easy. I think to be natural. More interesting is if you emotionally. I would never be able to say this. it is not the thing in my mind. PZ: Right. they get worse. with architecture.this is stupid.. And he has about 4000 of them by now. in a sense. that nature is ugly. And this I think you achieve if you stick to use. or when the sun shines.and draws your attention to it..the same format.. But if you start to think of architecture from the other side -. The reason for architecture being there is actually basically this practical need and its use. SP: Because if its "real stuff". so these works I guess show or document. this painting.when it rains. And one thing he has been doing that I find really intriguing is that. Have you noticed the fact that things start to look better.. I think nature is -. Good architecture to me is architecture which is good all the time -... but architecture can be ugly. 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. is never ugly. the message. this is good. SP: I’ve been thinking about functionalism lately because I‚ve been reading Otl Aicher.

And then it’s about having had these moments where I’ve experienced beauty. its complex.. this is all there in the background.and they use the spark of what it is and where it you know what you are doing. There is somewhat the grounds for the form to arrive -- photo: A. exterior to find the theme.. SP: You mean theoretical questions or. and the things you’ve seen.where was I going with this? SP: We got started by talking about the form and the form coming out of the thing. at any point of the design-construction process. we try to feel it. because the emotions. But there is always a strong emotional part. I haven‚t read him but I know him. this is the. vals. they are fast. maybe I have been here or there. for me. SP: I’m finding him very interesting. And so I say yes to this one or that one. We just did this thing outside -. right? And this is also classical. and then you work on this theme. Well -. so you say. and about the form coming out of the object. but sometimes they are. PZ: Right. At one point he talks about form.. Yes.that is real. you know.not only through books and so on. Because then there is the history of the use of the building type you are working with that influences you -- or me -. but I like the way he says it and I like it that he says it. switzerland. Then it’s easy to react on it. or have heard something. I am just sort of grazing. PZ: Yes. SP: So then your knowledge. Not so often at the moment. Sometimes they are also architects. I like philosophy. using the example of Eames chairs and Rietveldt’s chairs. And then starts 2000 hours of bringing this meaningful and rich use from the function.coming from the necessity of the object and what it is made of. you have a theme and this can start to control everything – the details and so on . Any time we work on it. p e t e r z u m t h o r . the didactical sort of the crutch is to have a theme. or maybe everybody if you do something [creative]. FAIA its use and its place. all these things that have gotten to you at some point in time.J. I have none of these irritations or anything.. whereas Rietveldt’s chairs were revealed as a "Mondrian to sit on". so the way I work is of course that.. I’m only interested in how this looks at the end. This is really simple. Davis. So some of this is also easy. I like to read.. That’s why I have to produce images in my mind and in the minds of my collaborators. He says that Eames‚ chairs are beautiful examples of technology and functionality and beauty. I’m always interested in the real thing. Emotions are immediate.. right. But then we try thermal baths.sometimes it is by instinct that I can immediately tell whether or not something will help me do a good house or not. this house of stone and water in the mountain" and so on. This is really the instinctive part. and your emotions are sort of all fodder.. Compared to other people. I don’t always agree with what he says. Architects.. whether technical or historical. yes. I like all of these things actually. PZ: feed . all architects. It’s sort of being intelligent about your feelings. the form. but maybe through life experience. PZ: Yes.. 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 -. PZ: Ah yes. it helps me a lot. I am fond of good thinkers. Well.. "this house. work like this. use and place. we have an image of how it looks. exactly. I think. I read. so I can see.. he calls it an object that "unfortunately tried to be useful".

I read 20 books at a time. because you can see what people did and why. you can have water there. one could say. perhaps. so I like biographies. and all this kind of thing. I see certain threads. this is one thing. yes? And the gartensalle. you understand what it is? -. "Ok. SP: So what are you reading now? PZ: A history of the world.. You can see how things have totally changed. the idea of cave versus the light box -." So this is how it goes. Davis. I wasn’t trying to say that those are the only things you have going on. place and function. it has a little bit of this quality of luxury and it has grape vines. you go out at two o’clock in the morning and you see that there is this thing on the shore..things like this that are sort of recurring threads. and I don’t think it’s a cave. Yes.just take the light box. like the kitchen. in combination with an office/atelier..and if there is something I can use then. to cleanse yourself. PZ: Yes.. I guess I would say -- although I haven’t seen it. Bregenz is a light box. PZ: Let’s see. Like the monolith.(laughing) SP: (laughing) Well. Whereas.I am surrounded by books.. I don’t think it’s a light box. this is something traditional in you think of Las Vegas and all these kinds of places and so on. "Yes. parts of the Gugalun house. SP: Looking through PZ: Works.. So. There is again the use of this building obviously transformed as something to the outside.and let’s see.. austria Constanz was a light box. Just like about about 10 or 15 years ago. time and time again: it’s the place and the function. a real thing. the competition for the casino on Lake kunsthaus. but if you think of ideas. and you could have a table and other things. I don’t know that themes is really the word. Even the Laban dance theater is a kind of a light box. 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.. with that black concrete wall photo: A. 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.J. place and function... bregenz. this is a sort of a garden house. SP: Again.. when we said. this could be a nice image on the lake. the idea of wholeness. and what could be the experience to swim. And this building here. 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. a fantastic garden house. Like the cave and a light box -. I look at it. you know. and parts of the baths are kind of like a cave.So this is this big thing and it has this little small park as an answer in front of it. just that they come back maybe several times. So these kinds of things that sort of come up again and again. FAIA against the hill is kind of like a cave. and maybe a fountain. so this is creating this specific kind of thing which we’d say. p e t e r z u m t h o r . the casino on the lake shore.. 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.

. SP: So do you ever read what people write about your work at all? Do you look at that? PZ: Vaguely. SP: So do you think that characterizations of things like that I had just said. this depends.this is the main issue. and then the spark comes out of that. SP: You mean for students.J. switzerland everybody . See. I hope.. it depends... Actually. FAIA museum collecting the daylight -.. I am not taking something and turning it completely around in order to gain a specific quality. So I think it’s more going. about these recurrent threads.. I don’t look a lot because I feel this is sort of like -. I try to be straight- forward with the site. So it’s like in architecture — a lot of people are trying. but I think basically they happen to protective housing for roman archaeological excavations. this is also a big art — its a form of art. for the essential. no..if you do a photo: A. striving. It’s not like we make a one family home and say.. There’s something slightly disturbing somehow. PZ: Well. I might look at this and say this is ridiculous or whatever. so this is like a wanted. I like to insult people! (laughing) It depends how good this person does this. For the education of architects I don’t think this helps at all. p e t e r z u m t h o r . chur. we are collecting daylight there and then it becomes a light box from the inside out. and in some cases it’s really done well. accumulation of the things. 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. the most telling and most obvious solutions for a problem. It’s not gaining a quality by reversing forms and trying this because it could work. I’m not putting it down. are sort of silly? Or pointless. Davis.. SP: You don’t have to worry about insulting me. I usually go the other way. you can do this. nice secondary result of trying to get all this daylight into the interior spaces and so on. and then there comes a certain condensation.this is an academic thing. "Let’s do it like a steamer". "Let’s do it like a skyscraper". and then make it beautiful. PZ: No. I think it is also a profession. or that we make a theater and say. 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 makes great sense as far as I am concerned.. PZ: Yeah. Being on juries. SP: Or you feel like you have to say something even if you have nothing to say. people believe me maybe faster. yes. and to free and open yourself towards this your own personal life I believe you are competent -. PZ: A couple of years ago I decided to stay small. That’s what I think. where there is this dynamic of the round table when you have to answer questions you are not interested in. "Your secretary said you won’t come. these round table kinds of seminars. What do you really feel and so on. I can’t imagine if I would have to do that. The nice thing is that I have enough work still and I don’t need to do anything like this to get clients. I am not myself there".but this is what I offer.. PZ: Yes. Perkins international juries is not so good.(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. this kind of building. And sometimes the president of a company. they can also be bigger. I cannot be on your jury." But I don’t go. Five years ago I came back from one and I said "I hate it. I don’t have to keep swallowing all these things that are coming and get bigger and bigger and bigger.they don’t have to be small. People ask me to come - there are letters coming every day from architects and I will say no. 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. like Bregenz. with a dozen people in the office. but just the design work? p e t e r z u m t h o r .. Because what I have to offer here is custom made Peter Zumthor buildings -. you know. People say. And I find that this make sense in some way. even if you have nothing to say or maybe don’t want to say it. say. PZ: Yes. So I zumthor studio interior don’t do lectures anymore. What takes you much further is your personal experience. Or for architects even. The nicest thing is to be here and work. exactly. how well you are still able to work with the people in your studio and keep control over the projects. that it doesn’t work. on photo: S. This is of course an important part. having made this decision. That’s the work. I hate it. reading all these things about what architecture is like and so on..PZ: For students. So I am gone. I think good architecture doesn’t come into existence by preliminary formal analysis. I mean aside from pauses that come from funding or something. SP: Do you think that becoming well known -. Everybody knows this. and to be precise there. for educating yourself..this is not the problem .this is really nice! Its amazing how much more connected you are to life. I’m not a good person for this podium. Because there you are really competent -. he calls me up personally and says. from when you start. so things which could be bothersome are now ignored. SP: It seems to me that there is so much in what you do that is in the infinitesimal decisions — you know. "You should come here and speak about this and this".. So these kind of dynamics and all of this I just stopped. than a logical form of analysis.we talked a little bit before about people who want to publish your work and so on -. maybe you get more interesting commissions and more freedom and things like this.has it gotten in the way? Obviously there are some benefits that come with it. 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. SP: How long does it usually take you for a building. big things -.

the human race would already have died fast that it doesn’t make sense. Yeah. three and even four you know what I mean? SP: Do you mean that you are always waiting? Do you believe that we are always waiting to live. but you usually have a problem to really live in the moment. but actually for us. who you were at the time when you were waiting. who was I when I was waiting? Then when I was waiting..I think that sometimes the speed with which buildings are often built today. You are thinking. The other thing I was talking about there is the same feeling of course. just in the moment that we start to live. And then when everything has passed. And you talk about William Carlos Williams and the specific and careful observation of things. and it’s colored by life. but are always waiting to live and then. maybe -this is not objective. 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. So you ask yourself. This is subjective. SP: Aside from obvious building mistakes or using shoddy material or something like that. SP: You speak and write about perception and memory and I was curious about a dichotemy that seemed to come up. How to work with memory is the major issue. in a way? PZ: I believe that I never live.. so that the foundation of the emotional and intellectual foundations are clear. 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. FAIA beginning phases are really important. And I say this because I want to make a point that your architectural memory -. ridiculously fast -. thermal baths. instantly. can be rather scary. depending on how complex it is. this has to do with how you get along in the world. to get things clear. these photo: A. but yeah.J. Otherwise I might be killed already. how you order things. Careful observation has a lot to do with inventing and making because it is imagining how it could be. yet at the same time you talk about recollection and how it is not from careful observation. Davis. PZ: Really fast? SP: Really fast. in a way. without using your brain. This is unethical if you think of the environment and also because somebody else maybe has to pay the price. So where does that balance lie? Are they two different things? PZ: I think they are two different things. PZ: The design work always is like two. It sounds . yeah. especially in America. So that is how I do it. Actually it’s nice because you can see in your conceptions that there is also a part of your imagination. it is thinking. but these processes help you make use of these. interior PZ: Yeah. that we never live. now this is a great human capacity. So you don’t always have to think with your brain what to do or what this is. not that they turn out so well. Someone who wants to earn money with buildings should be able do a good job at the same time. Memory does this. you don’t care how they get older because you know they will be sold. I think this is an emotional intelligence. I ask myself. I don’t know. SP: I ask this because I think this is something for people to realize -. Its your imagination. and you are not really there. The users have to pay and I think this is really terrible. Memory. How I like this p e t e r z u m t h o r .experience. 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. you can look at the building and then maybe there are people who can do that. we stop.

or . it should be light.. but that’s where it comes from and I think this is important. It should be a pleasure to you. SP: Which is ironic. p e t e r z u m t h o r .J.— this changing. The architecture doesn’t have to be intelligent or made powerful. then it always seems like it turns into some kind of weird image of itself.. but basically the matter I deal with is the material.. they talk about sieglichkeit.I would almost say it has to be fun. photo: A. So everything belongs to everything. It should be sexy. 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. to being sexy. SP: No. SP: "Fun" is too frivolous? PZ: Yes. inevitability. thermal baths. especially material. inevitability. So I can make materials and I can make some material spaces. Not many people say this. isn’t it? Isn’t it strange? Because otherwise why are they doing it? PZ: Yeah. Nothing else works for me. but it should also be heavy. SP: Yes. but sober. that sounds good. It especially jumps out if you read all of your writings at one time.already the thinking about a bath has this sensuous can call it experience or beauty or pleasure or whatever. This works.. Say it again? SP: Unexpectedness. and economy of media. It doesn’t work. this coming. PZ: I think it should always be whole. the work.. PZ: . Would you say this also describes your ideal building? PZ: Yeah.. That’s why I do it. it is too frivolous. I don’t either.’s sort of like setting trends.. And the other one must be a reaction of the people. PZ: Yeah... not many architects say this.. Davis. and these kind of things so then I think I should talk about the concepts only. for example.. The way that we think of architecture is very close to pleasure. Because this is a stupid expression. you know. And then they talk about materials and then I cannot listen to it anymore. he hasn’t said anything to me about it. but I would take it back. And some of these people start to. this is not bad. that what they say? SP: You talk a lot about the sensuousness of things.. In terms of -. when you go out to where the chairs are. 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. the baths -. You could say in German Es so spass machen. PZ: Do I? SP: Yes.for example.. and then again too much of this is not good either.because if it would all be a cave then it wouldn’t work. architecture is already powerful... that it should be like that.. which is also too bad... exterior pools PZ: There are amazing pieces with an incredible openness and grand views. I can only do it with material. huh?. and economy of media. It has to. SP: Yes. I don’t think Vals is only a cave.