Peter Zumthor wins 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Interview below.

    Peter Zumthor portraitPeter Zumthor
    Photo by Gary Ebner

    Well-deserved. Below is my interview with Peter Zumthor.

    Here's a link to my National Public Radio story on this. You'll also find there a beautiful slide show of Zumthor's work.

    Zumthor seems to say at the end of my interview that he's working on getting a project in Los Angeles. "I'm on it. I'm on it. You will hear from that," he says. I'll try to get more information.

    Peter Zumthor Thermal Baths Vals Switzerland ThermaePeter Zumthor - Thermal Baths - Vals, Switzerland

    From the Jury Citation:
    His buildings have a commanding presence, yet they prove the power of judicious intervention, showing us again and again that modesty in approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive. Humility resides alongside strength. While some have called his architecture quiet, his buildings masterfully assert their presence, engaging many of our senses, not just our sight but also our senses of touch, hearing and smell.


    Conducted by telephone.
    Mr. Zumthor spoke from his studio in Haldenstein, Switzerland.

    LIFSON: What do you try to communicate through architecture?

    ZUMTHOR: Well I guess, first of all I’m not trying to communicate anything. I try to do good buildings. So if you don’t mind me, it’s not about the message or promoting anything. It’s about making a fine building, for the place, and for the use. So I’m trying to be very responsive to the place and responsive to the use. And make it very typical, because I think if it’s done very typical for the place and the use, maybe it becomes special. There’s a chance.

    LIFSON: For example, what were you trying to accomplish with the Bruder Klaus Chapel?

    Peter Zumthor Brother Bruder Klaus Chapel GermanyPhoto by Walter Mair

    ZUMTHOR: Well, this was a hard task to do, sort of a spiritual place, maybe spiritual place, very small and tiny, in the fields. So, I know all the old, probably you know them also in Europe, all these field chapels where you have a painting in a niche, and a little grid in front of it. So it was hard to make a tiny little space which would invite, for contemplation. That’s about the space of contemplation and it turned out to be in the end I think something very existential.

    LIFSON: Existential?

    ZUMTHOR: Right, right, right. That’s what I, the reactions I get from people, there are a lot of reactions coming back from people I don’t know. A lot of religious people, or “art crowd” or something; when they come back, or they write to me, they say they always come back to this tiny little space and it makes them think. That is something that architecture is capable of.
    I think this is a noble task that architectural spaces can provoke… yeah, it’s the frame of our lives, and sometimes they can provoke good feelings, like, let’s say, there’s a good living room, there’s a good swimming pool, there’s a good movie theater, there’s a good nightclub, there’s a good (laugh) chapel! And that’s what I’m trying to do it make a noble space, for me and you.

    (At this point, we hear some background noise in the Zumthor studio, where his team is working. Peter Zumthor asks them to be quiet. He comes back to the phone.)

    ZUMTHOR: Okay, now nobody works here anymore!

    LIFSON: What do you think the architecture profession can learn during this economic current downturn?

    ZUMTHOR: Well, it’s a general question. I’m sort of not so good on (telling other architects what to do.) So I try to concentrate on my work. You know it’s a little bit a general question for me really.

    For me, if the client wouldn’t understand what I’m trying to do, then I don’t take on the commission. Because I’m not money-driven, as you probably know. So, it’s a choice. You make in your life. What you are going for. (He laughs) And maybe it’s also, you need a little bit of talent also, I guess.

    LIFSON: Then let me ask you, what are you “going for?”

    ZUMTHOR: I think if I can make a building fit to the purpose and fit to the place. Fit to the purpose that people are happy to be in the restaurant I did, or in the bath I did, or in the church, and they say, “what a great nightclub,” or “what a great church,” I feel really well, and I think this is the biggest compliment. You know, if I go with my daughter or with my mother to a place I did, I don’t want to explain to her why this is good. They should tell me, “hey, I feel really good in this space. It works,” and so on. And the same thing if you do a building which makes part of the urban environment, or a landscape, that it becomes part of this environment, and people like to remember it, (laugh) and think it fits in its place; stuff like that. Very classical architectural things (laugh.)

    LIFSON: You say you want people to be happy in your places. How do you define happy?

    ZUMTHOR: Yeah, in a very simple way. I’ll make an example. If you go to a restaurant, and you are talking there to your girlfriend, and the environment is just right to talk to her. And the acoustics aren’t terrible, and you like to sit there, and your back doesn’t ache, and it’s full of pleasant atmosphere; then I think I did a good job in doing this restaurant. And I don’t want to be remembered as an architect; I think this is what we architects have to do. Now you can take this restaurant to any other building tasks. And this is easy, I think, to evaluate. If an ordinary person thinks it’s good, then it’s good. Because people are not stupid. You can make a beautiful railway station, ask people, “did you like this railway station?” People will tell you, “yes, I like it.” I think it’s not such an intellectual academic thing, quality in architecture. Atmosphere. Everybody can feel it I think. And architects have to be careful not to over-rationalize their task. Because at the end of the day, it has to work in a world without explanation, speaking of itself. Am I sort of clear in what I’m saying?

    LIFSON: Yes. Can you add to that how you use the senses?

    Peter Zumthor Art Museum Kunsthaus Bregenz AustriaKunsthaus (Art Museum) Bregenz Austria
    Photo by Helene Binet

    ZUMTHOR: The way I experience architecture, we all experience architecture. How it feels as an atmosphere. The atmosphere we know is composed by light, by shadow, by sound, by tactile qualities. All material qualities, material presence. Nothing new! All the old things, you know! It’s like, all the spaces from our childhood we like, they were like that, if we experience a nice architectural atmosphere, it’s all of that. And some of these sense are maybe, more in foreground, and others, maybe like the sound of the space is more in the background; but nevertheless it’s maybe very important for your absorption of the atmosphere. So I think I’m trying to look, what are the elements, which make my spatial composition rich? I think it’s very normal. At least, everybody experiences architecture like that. There’s no other way. So I think forms are over-rated in talking about architecture, not in experiencing architecture. Forms, are over-rated.

    LIFSON: There’s certainly a classical quality to your work and a timeless quality; there’s also something very contemporary. What is contemporary, what is new in your work?

    ZUMTHOR: Well, this is hard for me to say, but I’ve been brought in up in the Modernist tradition at the art school, and there innovation was a goal in itself. And as you get older you find out there are other goals. I think quality does not always need to be new. So I’m sort of relaxed in what means I am using. But the filed is completely open. Whether I use an ancient technique, or a more advanced technique, I’m completely open at the beginning of a work. So, maybe this is what you experience, that there’s very advanced things which I’m using, and sometimes not, but no ideology with this new and old stuff, in a way.

    LIFSON: I’m a little worried about contemporary architecture; so much is about “spectacle” and “commodity.”

    ZUMTHOR: Yes, yes. Maybe this Pritzker Prize helps, that I get this prize, I interpret as a sign of the jury that they say please look at this way of working. And, it’s true, when I look at the schools, so this all becomes very academic and remote from the real practice, and this is left to economic people, to servicing people; and the architects become, I should not say “talking heads,” but at least, artists of some sort, or something.

    So, in the world of business, the world of architecture is sort of left at the disposal of other people. So we should regain this terrain. And this “going back,” and “regain,” this has to do with being professional. Being professional about this work, doing it well, is what I am trying to do.

    But I think there are always these pendulums, these cycles. Now, we’re in a cycle where architecture has become, as you know, a lot of imagery, but I think slowly, slowly, people are not satisfied anymore, with getting these images delivered by architects, but they want the real stuff, so I think this will come back.

    LIFSON: Oh, you think it will come back?

    ZUMTHOR: Yeah sure. It will always come back. Because the sense of quality is not dying out. If things become too superficial and artificial, all of a sudden people say, no, we want something real here.

    LIFSON: I was speaking with a colleague of yours about your work, and he asked me to ask you, are you first an architect or a mystic?

    ZUMTHOR: (He laughs.) I’m a passionate architect. I’m not a mystic.

    LIFSON: Do you think you’re the last of your kind of architect?

    ZUMTHOR: No. I hope this prize gives a lot of hope that this still can be done. We can not give up. This has nothing to do with mysticism. This has to do with solid, hard work, down to the bone. So, there must be young people.

    LIFSON: Any plans to build in the United States?

    ZUMTHOR: I’m on it. I’m on it. Los Angeles, you will hear from that.

    (Note- Mr. Zumthor knew I was calling from Los Angeles.)

    LIFSON: Anything else you would like to say?

    ZUMTHOR: What I would like to say is I try to prove, also in the United States, and also with somewhat more urban buildings, in Holland and in other places, that this still can be done. And I’m surrounded here with these guys- see, they don’t even stop working here, you hear this noise?! - no, I’m surrounded by twenty young people here; and they will go out into the world and try to do the same.

    LIFSON: That’s a nice image to end on. Thank you.

    ZUMTHOR: Thank you. Goodbye.

    Interview conducted in English; very slightly edited.

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