“In order to design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction.”
Peter Zumthor, winner of the 2009 Pritzker Award, is unquestionably one of the most influential and revered contemporary architects who is admired for his focused, uncompromising, and exceptionally determined work. His style of architecture epitomizes the principles of phenomenology and expresses deep respect for the primacy of the site, the legacy of a local culture, and the invaluable lessons of architectural history — untouched by fad or fashion. Zumthor strongly believes that to truly understand a building it must be experienced in person, and therefore rarely courts media publicity for his projects. Here is a crisp look into his 10 lesser-known works.
1. Protective Housing for Roman Excavations, Chur, Switzerland (1986)
When the archaeological excavations uncovered the remains of the foundations of three Roman buildings in Chur, the authorities decided to preserve and open them for public exhibition. To house these archaeological findings, Peter Zumthor came up with a design which was an abstract reconstruction of the Roman volumes: timber lamella pavilions that allow in light and ventilative air and exactly follow the outer walls of the remains, thus allowing visitors to comprehend the original extent of the Roman buildings while providing a physical form to distinguish the ancient remains in sharp contrast to the modern city.
Inside the structure, the metal footbridge allows the visitors to walk from one building to another through dark connecting tunnels. Floating over the excavated areas, this light metal footbridge has a few stairs that allow the connection down to the Roman soil. The original Roman foundation walls are backed with black clothing and some of the items found are carefully displayed for public exhibition.
2. Home for Senior Citizens, Chur, Switzerland (1993)
The intent to create a rural atmosphere in a suburban setting, the craftsmanship of construction, and the sensuous materiality (a triad of exposed concrete, tufa, and larch wood) make the project stand out. In an interview, Zumthor stated that “we want the building to seem relaxed and informal, like a big ‘rock’ in the open expanses of a mountain landscape, expertly worked with precise, careful, perhaps even old-fashioned craftsmanship”.
The complex comprises 21 apartments, a guest room, and a staff room, all connected by external corridors. The plan of the building is based on the idea of placing solid elements (masonry piers, sanitary blocks, wooden apartment cells) at regular intervals within a large, flowing continuum of space. To make the inhabitants feel at home, certain elements which they recognize from their own lives in the surrounding villages have been used: timber flooring, wooden paneling on tufa walls, the birchwood-clad kitchenette, an integrated veranda, and an oriel window with a view up the valley towards the evening sun.
3. Twin House Räth, Haldenstein, Switzerland (1983)
Twin house Räth, one of the early works of Zumthor, won him an award for good buildings in Grisons in 1987. Located directly on the topographic edge of the terrain, it overlooks a lower plain and the nearby river Rhine. With distinctive classic motifs, U-shape configuration around a courtyard along with an outbuilding in front of it, this austere building is reminiscent of classic atrium villas. The use of reddish brick and roof tiles on the gently sloping roofs give the twin house a highly unified character and a calm appearance.
4. Art Museum, Chur, Graubünden, Switzerland (1990)
In 1957, Villa Planta, a private residence, was acquired by the Canton Grisons and converted into an art museum. In 1981, when it showed signs of ageing, Zumthor, P. Calonder, and H.J. Ruch was appointed for its restoration. There were three new additions: a foyer and cafeteria at the entrance, an underground art gallery, and a bridge connecting Villa Planta to the neighboring Susler building (erstwhile museum of natural history).
While entering the building, the focus becomes the long perspective created by the bridge which is a covered ramp, articulating the different geometries of the buildings’ plans and the height difference between their main levels. The surfaces, soft to the eye and the touch, are made out of wood and glass but resemble a metal framework. The underground gallery, made out of thick white walls, polished cement floor, and rooms connected by openings framed with a thick metal plate, produce an elegant yet cold effect.
5. Gugalun House, Versam, Switzerland (1994)
When the tenants desired to update their vacation home, but “without losing its magic”, Zumthor designed the house extension alongside the existing building while respecting the house’s original materials and techniques. In his design, only the modern essentials were added to the existing structure – a new kitchen, two bedrooms, a reading room, and a bathroom – which extended directly into the mountainside. Zumthor’s subtle work on this project delicately knits the old with the new, establishing a sense of the continuum of time.
6. Swiss Pavilion, Hannover, Germany (1997-2000)
At Germany’s Expo 2000, the Swiss pavilion was intended to be a refuge – an oasis for the senses – for visitors who are exhausted by information overkill and multimedia presentations. A labyrinthine structure, it encourages the visitors to roam, to let go, to discover, and to enjoy. The most remarkable feature of the structure are the walls that consist of 118 individual stacks held together with post-tensioning cables and linking planks between four walls, that make up the basis of the modularity followed throughout the whole design. Also called “The Swiss Sound Box”, the pavilion functions as an acoustic space created by the material’s quality and the height of each wall. Performance spaces coexist in the plan and the acoustics of the structure creates harmony between multiple music performances without any dissonance.
7. Steilneset Memorial, Norway (2011)
Peter Zumthor collaborated with Louise Bourgeois to design the Steilneset Memorial in memory of the 91 victims persecuted in the 17th century as part of the Finnmark Witchcraft Trials. In an interview with ArtInfo, Zumthor said “the end result is about two things — there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers……Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions.”
Zumthor’s wooden scaffolding supports a suspended fiberglass cocoon which houses a 400-foot-long corridor with an exhibition of the trials. In contrast to Zumthor’s wooden installation, Bourgeois’ installation is housed within a smoky, reflective glass structure. It contains an endless flame burning upon a steel chair that lies within a hollow concrete cone. This flame is reflected in seven oval mirrors placed around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.
8. Spittelhof Estate, Biel-Benken, Basel, Switzerland (1996)
Zumthor’s deep respect for the landscape, the use of simple materials, and his attention to details are evident in his Spittelhof development. The frame is suited to the slightly sloping plot that reaches the edge of the forest in the hilly area just outside the city. Three masses make up this composition: two rows of terraced housing with gardens on the south side and a building with rental units at the upper edge of the central green courtyard. The ﬂoor plans of all three buildings are designed in a way to provide light-ﬁlled living rooms and bedrooms lined up porch-like along the facades.
9. Werkraum Bregenzerwald, Austria (2012)
Equipped with offices, meeting rooms, restaurant, and display areas, the building was designed in painstaking detail to serve as a meeting place and to provide a space for activities and promotion of the crafts and trade association in Austria’s Bregenzerwald region. The timber and concrete building combines a contemporary, minimalist design with the area’s centuries-old local traditions. Moreover, Zumthor’s concern with craftsmanship in architecture finds expression with an impeccably joined protruding roof and bands of reflective glass that draw in the landscape.
10. Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum, Sauda, Norway (2016)
To welcome the visitors and bring the old mining history of Sauda back to life, Peter Zumthor was commissioned by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration to design a tourist route attraction.
The installation, all prefabricated, includes a museum building, a café building, toilet, and parking facilities, paths and stairs. The rough stone, exposed joint work, and the museum structures – suspended in balance with the harsh climate, evoke the toilsome labor and strenuous everyday lives of the miners that the project aims to memorialize. Moreover, the buildings are poised in and above the landscape, providing views of the natural gorge that unfolds as visitors move through Zumthor’s dark interiors.