Peter Zumthor, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1990–1997. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR
All mysteries disappoint. The power of a suggestive image you can't quite understand, or an airport thriller you haven't finished reading, or the unknowable thoughts of your beloved or your God comes less from the satisfaction of revelation than from the elevated awareness that precedes that moment. Some deep region of the Homo sapiens brain is rewarded by pattern recognition, interpretation and theorization and is disappointed when the need for those activities expires. Which makes Peter Zumthor's receipt of the 2009 Pritzker Prize (popularly considered the Nobel Prize of architecture) a good occasion to think about the mysterious. And about the way in which Zumthor's buildings, in their deep elegance, breathtaking craftsmanship, seeming restraint and enduring atmosphere of enigma can both delight and lightly disappoint.
Kolumba Museum, Cologne, 2007. Photo courtesy Dominic Roberts/Continuity in Architecture
Like Nobelists in literature, Pritzker honorees are subject as much to parochial professional politics and tastes as to a sincere search for enduring excellence. The prize has rewarded architects of worldly status, such as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Gordon Bunshaft, Rafael Moneo and Zaha Hadid, all of who have achieved both brilliance and banality. But it has also been increasingly conferred on architects of self-styled or genuine otherworldliness: Alvaro Siza, Sverre Fehn, Glenn Murcutt, Jørn Utzon and Paulo Mendes de Rocha. This latter group is easier to love, but harder to explain.
Zumthor would seem to be among them. Like Utzon, who designed a certain opera house for Sydney and not much else, he has produced a small body of work that has had great impact within the profession. Like Siza, he seems to have thought for a long time about buildings before he had the chance to build any — an impression supported by his unconventional background in carpentry and historic preservation. Just as Murcutt's works are exquisitely attuned to that architect’s native Australian Outback, Zumthor's seem perfectly poised in the deep valleys and clean cities of Switzerland. (He himself resides in the remote Swiss hamlet of Haldenstein.) Like Fehn, Zumthor has developed a minimal though deeply personal vocabulary of forms. And like Mendes de Rocha, he seems to think as much about the immersive sensory, even sensual, experience of his buildings as about their independent status as conceptual objects. His most celebrated creation, the Spartan yet voluptuous Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland (1996), with their moody dark spaces, indeterminate interior boundaries, and fluid movement between solid and liquid environments across a cascading cross-section, is the incarnate infrastructure for a dream of flying.
Zumthor is a gifted and visibly decisive designer. He gets enormous mileage out of small gestures. At Vals, the subtle decision to match the proportions of the wall's gray stone blocks to the low, wide dimensions of ancient Roman bricks lends an uncanny sense of both lightness and weight and nods to ancient Roman baths without being hokey about it. Cryptically incised facade details in his Kolumba Museum in Cologne mediate crisply between the incorporated ruins of an earlier Gothic chapel and adjacent postwar construction. His Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, a stocky translucent art-gallery tower completed in 1997, achieves a mysterious fragility and depth of surface from the decision to gingerly overlap the large rectangular glass panels that make up the facade, as in a house of cards.
Kunsthaus Bregenz, exterior detail. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR
And there it is again: mystery. Architectural minimalism, the style that comes closest to describing Zumthor's later, less woodsily picturesque buildings, promotes transparency, simplicity, even artlessness. What you see (or see through) is what you get. But Zumthor’s works delay understanding, perhaps perpetually. The Kunsthaus Bregenz facade, for example, doesn't explain the inside. Or vice versa. The suggestive patterns of dark and light behind a translucent veil of exterior glass panels would seem to promise an interior of overwhelming complexity — suitable to the black obelisk in 2001. Instead, one finds a smart, quasi-Miesian pinwheel of circulation and service spaces around stacked central galleries. It’s not bad, but it’s not Kubrick. Perhaps no physical construction can fulfill such rich surface promise or fully reward such anticipation, but the beholder is nevertheless left with a puzzling sense of displacement, even of loss.
Kunsthaus Bregenz, interior gallery. Photo courtesy Timothy Brown/Atelier FLIR
This combination of severe rectilinear proportions and careful details with a spookiness achieved through surface translucency or opacity, shimmer or roughness, is not unique to Zumthor. Many of his regional contemporaries — Swiss firms like Baumschlager & Eberle, Burkhalter Sumi and early Herzog & de Meuron — have combined a boxy practicality in glass or wood with a trans-Alpine interest in the ambiguous, even ominous atmospherics of the sublime. But Zumthor has developed a singular mastery of these themes.
This singularity suggests that Zumthor's Pritzker is about more than his beautiful work. Our long visually saturated and celebrity-fascinated era seems to have left architects straddling opposite roles or chasing two different forms of fame: the fame that comes from always being on an airplane, and the fame that comes from never getting near one. In the first instance, we have the architect as majordomo, as cohort or courtier to titans and tyrants; such architects mention their hotel rooms a lot in their lectures, and their aesthetic currency is a jolie-laide awkwardness — implying that pure forms matter less than recondite global data garnered from anthropology, economics and other dismal sciences. In the second instance, we have the architect as sage or guru or ascetic — someone who writes soon-to-be-out-of-print books in which early childhood memories of light figure strongly, and whose aesthetic currency is breathtaking beauty, skilled material craft and the aura of the eternal. The first role is a dream of timely access; the second, a dream of timeless refusal. There’s a grain of truth in both stories. And maybe this is nothing new. These templates go at least as far back as the technocratic will-to-power and cultish flim-flam of both Corbusier and Wright. But it may be that the tendency toward these roles has reached a critical point, and far from empowering architects has begun to limit their ability to speak and work.
It’s tempting and sometimes even correct to view the guru as the antidote to the courtier. It feels bracing when intentionally modest yet profound accomplishment is recognized and rewarded. But unlike, say, the audience for baseball, politics, or filmmaking, the captive audience for architecture is generally ignorant of its most basic procedures and principles. Architects can easily adopt what they imagine are the manners of the mountaintop (quietude, hauteur, cruelty and, yes, an air of mystery) without having managed its heights. A lot of wretched buildings have come into the world that way, through strategic confusion of the gnostic with the merely gnomic, the numinous with the merely luminous.
Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland, 1996. Photo courtesy Mario Bellvite
Zumthor may be a real wizard, but if we prize magic too much, we invite a lot of cheap tricks from all sides. It may be better to seek and celebrate visionary ideas less from enlightened individuals and more from lively and imperfect collectives on the order of Archigram, Ant Farm and Archizoom, or, today, The Living, Stalker and Périphériques, whose practices have begun to resemble the electrically recombinant and semi-anonymous teams behind the production of today’s best fine art and pop music.
A second problem with overvaluing the guru is, well, more mysterious. It’s again tempting and sometimes even correct to see singularly remote, compact, crafted, uncompromising-seeming buildings as remedies to the digitally enhanced cult of the image. It’s reassuring to know that those dense yet diaphanous structures are out there somewhere in a distant valley. They’re irreducible and irreproducible. But without undertaking a pilgrimage, how do we experience them except through a system of technologically mediated representations? Zumthor’s work happens to make for wonderful images: not everything beautiful is photogenic, but his buildings are both. Their proportions reward the aspect ratio of cameras; their massing and reflectivity and their opaque or cognitively enigmatic facades all suggest great gravity and depth when captured in a static frame. One might wonder whether the greatest and most powerful sites for those glassy, glowing, mutable, deep-seeming, mysterious rectangular facades are actually the glassy, glowing, mutable, deep-seeming, mysterious rectangular screens on which you’re reading this very essay. We can’t really blame Zumthor for this adaptability, but we can be wary of how his buildings are incorporated into a system that we imagine they resist. We might be wiser to regard such work not as a retreat from a culture of surfaces and images into materiality, authenticity or irreproducibility, but as a very particular and peculiar fulfillment of it. As in any good mystery, everyone’s a little bit guilty.
Thomas de Monchaux, the inaugural winner of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing and Criticism, is currently working on Food Money Sex Style Art Stone Glass, a biography of the building at 2 Columbus Circle, New York.