Visiting Master Peter Zumthor

Travel Diary

Drawn by the work of architect Peter Zumthor- honoured with the Pritzker Prize  in 2009- Paula set out this year on a study trip of this Master’s buildings located in Germany and Switzerland. Her pilgrimage rout began in Germany, at the Kolumba Kuntmuseum in Cologne city, and at the Bruder Klaus Kapelle, in Wachendorf fields. Afterwards, the trip continued through the heart of the Swiss Alps: the Vals Thermes and the chapel of Saint Benedetg in Sumvitg, finishing her tour at the capital of the Grisons canton, at the Chur Protective buildings for Roman Excavations and the Atelier Zumthor in Haldenstein, a mountain village at the banks of the Rhin River.

Protective buildings for Roman Excavations, Chur, Switzerland, 1986
Wooden floors like light membranes, heavy stone masses, soft textiles, polished granite, pliable leather, raw steel, polished mahogany, crystalline glass, soft asphalt warmed by the sun.the architect´s materials, our materials. We know them all, and yet we do not know them. In order to design, to invent architecture, we must learn to handle them with awareness. This is research; this is the work of remembering.
Architecture is always a concrete matter. Architecture is not abstract, but concrete. A plan, a project drawn on paper is not architecture, but merely a more or less inadequate representation of architecture, comparable to sheet music. Music needs to be performed. Architecture needs to be executed. Then its body can come into being. And this body is always sensuous.
(Quote: Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, 1998)

You can only learn architecture by visiting the grand Masters’ buildings.

Today that’s how I feel my personal journey of search and study should be: to visit the works of the masters of architecture. There, in the intimacy between space and matter of a building, experience happens: a glimpse of a new understanding, an approach to what’s sacred in this discipline.

Why did I travel to visit Peter Zumthor’s work in Germany and Switzerland?

My driving force: the points that run from Helsinki and Jyvaskyla, to Riversdale in Australia, to Wachendorf and Vals. Thus, the points that come together in my route, passing through the readings of Juhani Pallasmaa and Wim Wenders’ stories, formed what was the genesis of my journey through Zumthor’s work.

The concept of authenticity. In Peter Zumthor’s words: ¨How do people design things with such a beautiful, natural presence, things that move me every single time. One word for it is Atmosphere.¨(*1)

Atmosphere. Presence. Light. Material. Body. Timelessness. Authenticity. All of these are essential qualities in Zumthor’s work, studied over and over. With this search, I started my journey to meet his buildings, a corporeal experience.

In my pilgrimage, my first encounter with Zumthor’s work was in Cologne, Germany, the Kolumba Kunstmuseum. Revealing the quality of materiality, Zumthor “the cabinetmaker”, the leather drapes and the softness of polished concrete contrasting with the white brick flush joint, two and a half spans long. Subtlety. Sitting that blue skied March afternoon at the Reading Room in Kolumba, I began to wonder: How is it possible that a building’s reality, its corporeal work in front of me, teaches me more than years of studying? Masterpieces take your breath away when you are in contact with them, when you touch them. Kolumba museum was a Master Class in my journey.(*2)

Afterwards I continued on to the south of Cologne, to the Wachendorf fields. I was able to live the religious experience of visiting the Bruder Klaus Kapelle, finished by Zumthor in 2005. Then I went to the heart of the Swiss Alps, to the Vals Thermal Baths– Zumthor’s masterpiece finished in 1996 – . In there, my body was with all its senses on a high alert: the water’s temperature, the softness of the stone, the sky, the smell of pine trees and the mountain, the sound of running water, the silence. A timeless architecture, everlasting like the Baths of Caracalla, the thermal baths of Imperial Rome.

From Vals to Sumvitg, I went to Saint Benedetg chapel, wooden made by Zumthor in 1989. At the top of the Alps, architecture and landscape come together. (*3)

And then I got to Chur, capital city of Grisons (Graubünden) canton, to find the building that harbours the archeological remains of the romans, the Protective buildings for Roman Excavations, made by Zumthor in 1986.

To my surprise, a reencounter with Alberto Giacometti’s work was also waiting for me in Chur, the swiss sculptor that lived for a long period of time in that area. On my way there, I had already been in contact with four masterpieces by Zumthor, so I arrived to Chur feeling the whole experience on my skin. Slowly, without anxiety, taking everything in, eyes full and my body alert.

In my wandering inside Chur’s Art Museum, Alberto Giacometti’s work brought me to Zumthor’s work, the beautiful creases in the faces of Giacometti; the marks of life on them.

I understood then what draws me to Zumthor’s architecture: the beautiful way in which his buildings age, the dignity of the material in the face of passing time and the intimate and timeless spaces.

Slowly, I enjoyed my Saturday afternoon in Chur, knowing that on Sunday I would go to my last date with Zumthor’s masterpieces.

Sunday’s sunrise. I walked through Poststrasse to Bahnhoplatz and left my passport at the tourism office at the train station in exchange of “The Key”. Midday with sun in this spring Sunday at the Swiss Alps.

Sitting here at the threshold that contains the Roman excavations, I feel the sun’s heat on my face and the pleasant temperature of the plate of the step in which I’m sitting in. Thank you Zumthor.

Here is again the balance between light and darkness and between lightweight and heavy. Light and weightlessness against darkness and gravity.

It’s a pleasure to arrive here with my key, to open up the treasure. Here he worked with wood, a 1986 work. It’s been 30 years.

Here he worked with galvanized steel and wood; a lightweight wooden skin. A container that houses, shelters, protects. A new building that almost does not touch that pre-existing building of centuries ago. The wooden envelope allows the passage of air and light. An interior space that is also an outer space.

And the suspended metal walkways. And the central skylights. Pure geometry that evokes that first construction of the times of the Roman Empire. And the textile bellows. They feel powerful to the touch. The spaces of transition between one volume and another of the building are suspended leather bellows, impermeable to the outside, delicate to the touch inside. Beautiful textile solution.

And the sitting space: five consecutive benches forming a lecture room. A praying space? Five benches form a place.

Light and darkness again. The heavy black steel door opaque with a beam of perimeter light like an eclipse of the sun (or moon?). Beautiful is the feel of the dark and black portal inside a box of wooden slats that sifts the light. Contrast.

Slowly, in a timeless day, I inhabited this building in Chur. Time to observe, to comprehend and to assimilate. I sat there at the threshold. I drew. I went inside again; time to observe again; time to learn how to observe.

“What are you working on Alberto?” André Breton asked Giacometti. “I’m working on a head”, he answered. “A head? Everybody knows what a head is” The following response marked Giacometti’s break with the surrealists: “I still don’t know”.

Arq. Paula Herrero – Published in Revista Wideprint #1 – August 2017


( *1) Peter Zumthor . Atmospheres: Architectural Environments – Surrounding Objects. 2006
( *2) The second part of this note is in the next issue of Wideprint: Kolumba Kunstmuseum – Travel Diary II.
( *3) The third and last part of this note is in Wideprint’s 3rd issue: Capilla de San Benedetg – Travel Diary III.