The life and career of Peter Zumthor

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Introduction

Peter Zumthor is a Swiss architect whose work has gained fame for being minimal and uncompromising. He has run his own relatively small firm since 1979. In 2009, he won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, becoming living proof that it is not the size of the firm that matters in architecture but rather the quality of work by the architect.

Quick facts

  • Born: Peter Zumthor, 26th April 1943, Basel, Switzerland

  • Nationality: Swiss

  • Occupation: Architect, carpenter, professor

  • Practice: Peter Zumthor & Partner

  • Website: Peter Zumthor has intentionally chosen not to have a website. According to him, a website communicates a specific thing, and he does not want to be tied down to that. Instead, he prefers his work to be discussed through more traditional channels.

Synopsis

Peter Zumthor was born on April 26, 1943, to the family of a carpenter in Basel. From humble beginnings, he has today become one of the most influential architects of our time.

Apart from being an architect, Peter Zumthor is also a professor of the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio. He has also taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, Tulane University, the Technical University of Munich, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Facts about Peter Zumthor

  1. He studied industrial design and architecture as an exchange student at Pratt Institute in New York.

  2. He was also a conservationist architect for the Department of the Preservation of Monuments at Graubunden. This experience gave him a deep understanding of construction and the qualities of various rustic building materials, which he incorporated into his later buildings.

  3. He later moved to start his practice in Haldenstein, Switzerland in 1979.

  4. He currently works out of his small studio of around 30 employees in Haldenstein, Switzerland.

  5. Peter Zumthor is a strong believer in the philosophy that architecture must be experienced first-hand. For this reason, most of his work remains largely unpublished. The only literature available by Peter Zumthor is published narrative and phenomenological work.

Family

Zumthor was born to a Swiss family in Basel, Switzerland. His father was a cabinet maker called Oscar Zumthor. He trained Peter to be a cabinet maker between 1958-1962 before he sent him to school.

Zumthor credits his father for instilling the passion for design into him from an early age.

Education

After his apprenticeship as a cabinet maker, Zumthor proceeded to study design at Schule für Gestaltung in Basel before he joined the Pratt Institute of New York.

His experience in carpentry is an important part of Zumthor’s life and education. He specialized in cabinet making and also offered consultation services for the preservation of historic or old buildings in Grisons Canton, 1968-1979.

Personal life

Zumthor’s personal life is kept very quiet and out of the media, however he has wife is called Annalisa Zumthor-Cuorad, and together, they have three children: Anna, Peter, and Jonn Zumthor.

Architecture career

Peter Zumthor has had a colorful, illustrious career. Apart from being an architect, he is also an architecture professor. As a professor, he has taught at the Academy of Architecture, Universitá Della Svizzera Italiana, Mendrisio from 1996.

He also visited and lectured at the University of Southern California Institute of Architecture, SCI-ARC in Los Angeles since 1988 and the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University at around 1999.

During his career, he has designed quite a number of phenomenal buildings, one of his most famous projects is the Kunsthaus Bregenz, which was completed in 1997. It is a stunning minimalist building that overlooks Bodensee or Lake Constance, Austria.

He is also responsible for the thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland. The baths are cave-like and unique. They were built in 1999.

Zumthor designed and built the Pavilion in Hannover. This is the Swiss Pavilion 2000, built specifically for the Expo. It is an all-timber building that was meant to be recycled after the expo.

He designed the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, built on a farm close to Wachendorf, and later the Kolumba Diocesan Museum in 2007 in Cologne.

He is also the author of an excellent small book series ‘Thinking Architecture’ and ‘Atmospheres’, both of which feature in our architecture book list here

Architectural style and philosophy

Peter Zumthor has generally maintained a single clear style throughout his career. His work is characterized by strong ties with a particular place, a clear understanding of the philosophy of genius loci, and a focusing on historicizing forms and/or types.

This is all evident in buildings such as the Rath Twin House which was built in Haldenstein, and a school in Churwalden which was built between 1982 and 1983.

In his architectural career, Zumthor has also developed a style of “great executive and conceptual rigor”. This was a direct effect of his critical and theoretical reflection.

Above all else, he has always paid close attention to detail and choice of material.

To hear an insight into his work and philosophy firsthand, the below film is an extensive and rare biographical interview that tells the captivating story of Zumthor’s childhood, his studies in NYC and his parents’ strong influence.

Top 10 buildings by peter zumthor

The following are some of the best-known buildings that Peter Zumthor has designed and built during his career:

1. Therme Vals, Vals

This building was designed and built in 1996. It is without a doubt one of Zumthor’s his best works. It is characterized by the use of noble materials, clean lines, and a deep sense of serenity which makes it a perfect place to go for a retreat. Therme Vals is located on 7132, Vals, Graubünden.

2. Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg

This chapel is the kind that hides within its environment. It is located in Vitg 221, 7174 Sumvitg, Graubünden. As you Approach this building, you’ll underestimate its appearance as to look at it, it seems extremely modest. However when you arrive, you’ll notice how it plays with light to give rise to a silver-tone from its wooden facade. Creating a type of serenity.

Inside the building, Zumthor plays with 3D and geometrical shapes to arouse a boat-like feel. This is definitely one of his unique pieces of work.

3. Shelters For Roman Archaeological Site, Chur

This one is located in Seilerbahnweg 17, 7000 Chur, Graubünden. The building’s designs especially its lamella is strictly contemporary making it hard to believe it was built in 1986. Zumthor also created a huge contrast in the elements of the building, making it so different from the appearance of the Roman remains housed here.

4. Residential Home For The Elderly, Masans

This building was built in Masans, Cadonaustrasse 71-75, 7000 Chur, Graubünden. It is a modern design 22-flat complex and is part of CADONAU-Das Seniorzentrum. Its purpose is to give elderly people from mountain villages a nice place and a chance to get treatment whilst being amongst natural soundings.

The building was constructed in 1993 and it adopted a minimalistic design which combines a variety of wood types with tufa. It has huge windows that run from its floors to the ceiling and also has numerous south-facing balconies which are sheltered.

It has been designed to maximise the feeling of bringing the outside inside.

5. The Timber Houses, Leis

These holiday homes speak a lot about Peter Zumthor’s personal life. They are most like his personal work because of the intimacy they carry.

The first building, Oberhus, is Annalisa’s (Zumthor’s wife) dream house, she still resides here. The house has amazing views and is constructed with noble timber. There are also two other chalet rentals which offer respite from city life and are warm inside.

6. Luzi House Jenaz, 2002 Graubünden, Switzerland.

This is a private residence that has a separate granny flat. The granny flat is called a “stoeckli” by the people of Switzerland. The clients of this house were a local couple who had six little children and lived in Jenaz.

7. Spittelhof Estate, 1996 Biel-Benken, Baselland Switzerland.

This estate is in a town known as Biel-Benken which is near the border of Alsace. It is a nice residential area near Basel. People who live here work in the nearby City then commute to their homes in the country, in a house that has a nice garden.

8. Truog House (extension and renovation), 1994 Gugalun, Versam Graubünden, Switzerland.

This house was inhabited by the relatives of the current owner. They also ran this small farm in Gugalun in Arezen which is at the entrance of the Safien Valley. This small house faces North to the moon or luna, as the estate indicates.

Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

Peter Zumthor founded his own firm in 1979. His practice grew quickly and Zumthor was soon doing international projects. This rapid growth can largely be attributed to his strong work ethic and his clear design philosophy which he consistently employs in all his projects.

Today, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner is a small studio of about 30 or so employees. They are located in Haldenstein which is close to the City of Chur, Switzerland.

Influences

Zumthor’s buildings are strongly influenced by the environments in which they exist. He is known to take a lot of time to create finished work, so his clients need to be very patient. His work is also famously expensive due to the close attention to detail he pays.

The end result is always a well-designed, coordinated and laid out piece of architecture.

He also draws his other influences from his early experience in his job as a consultant for the preservation of old buildings, and from his early life as an apprentice for his father.

Awards

  • 1993: He won an award at the competition for a documentation center and a museum on the horrors of Nazism which was to be constructed on the Gestapo headquarters, Berlin.

  • 1998: Carlsberg Architecture Prize in Denmark.

  • 1999: Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture.

  • 2006: Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture from the University of Virginia.

  • 2008: Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association.

  • 2009: Pritzker Laureate prize in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • 2013: RIBA Royal Gold Medal

Famous quotes

  1. “Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep.”

  2. “There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt's garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house.”

  3. “Construction is the art of making a meaningful whole out of many parts. Buildings are witnesses to the human ability to construct concrete things. I believe that the real core of all architectural work lies in the act of construction. At the point in time, concrete materials are assembled and erected, the architecture we have been looking for becomes part of the real world.”

  4. “If a work of architecture consists of forms and contents that combine to create a strong fundamental mood powerful enough to affect us, it may possess the qualities of a work of art. This art has, however, nothing to do with interesting configurations or originality. It is concerned with insights and understanding, and above all truth. Perhaps poetry is an unexpected truth. It lives in stillness. Architecture's artistic task is to give this still expectancy a form. The building itself is never poetic. At most, it may possess subtle qualities, which, at certain moments, permit us to understand something that we were never able to understand in quite this way before.”

  5. “I work a little bit like a sculptor. When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It’s not about paper, it’s not about forms. It’s about space and material.”