At the beginning of this article, I would like to address my appreciation for the contribution Peter Zumthor has brought upon the world of architecture. I am a fan, alright. And, although I do not possess the power to give someone the following honour title, I would like to address him as “Sir Peter Zumthor”, all the way to the end of this article. Hopefully, no one will sue me. 

Apart from being a world-renowned architect, Zumthor is also a writer. And a good one at that. Have you read “Atmospheres”, “Thinking Architecture” or any interview that he has ever done? Sir Peter Zumthor knows architecture, social psychology, and most importantly, he understands space. 

1. “Atmospheres” | Peter Zumthor

Sir P. Zumthor does not write as a writer. He writes commercially-explanatory; his eloquence in “Atmospheres” is as though every person in the room should and can understand him and his point. Although the book is not entirely an elucidated piece on what Atmospheres are exactly, Sir P. Zumthor depicts a series of questions, enough to involve the reader into a thinking paradigm, ensuing with the reader’s responsibility to formulate his/her opinion on the matter. I like this type of writing because the reader is not just a passive subject of persuasion that by the end of the reading will blindly agree with the writer, but it gives you an idea of how to think. 

I don’t know if you would consider this a spoiler alert, but by the end of the book, you will realize that even Zumthor tries to find out the self-imposed question on Atmospheres, as he goes along in his career, given the fact that in forty years of practicing |if we agree that he started his career in 1966, and the book is published in 2006|, he puts the question in his book, but is doubtful of whether he can or can not create an atmosphere like the one he considers extraordinary. As much as he is a big figure in our line of profession, he humanizes himself in his written pieces, he is just like every one of us, not sure of some things, and that is perfectly okay.

It is easy reading, that keeps you at night thinking; that is how I would call it. And I recommend it. 

2. “Thinking Architecture”

This book is a melancholic journey through Sir P.Zumthor’s childhood nostalgia, almost as a storybook depicted with impressions of sensible material introduction, an inspirational guidebook for creation led by personal experiences and critical stand of the author towards the contemporary guidelines imposed by “style by era”.

Worth the read.

3. Style | Peter Zumthor

Sir P. Zumthor is not style-oriented or style-obstructed for that matter. His philosophy is that each space and place is different because of its surroundings. And each surrounding, setup and fundamental need of the place is different, and in that rational sense, one cannot restrict oneself on one style-characterization. His main goal when designing is the harmonious interaction of the structure with the surrounding area, the compatible interaction between the materials of the structure, and the sense of belonging of the structure in the given community, the given location. 

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Chapel in Sogn Benedetg ©Heinrich Helfenstein
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Kolumba Museum ©Pietro Savorelli
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The Leis Houses ©
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Steilneset Minnested by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois ©

4. Identity in Architecture

Quality and Beauty. Sir P. Zumthor believes these attributes form the identity of architecture. It is not a matter of uniqueness and individuality, because for an architectural subject to be understood, accepted, and well-beloved, thus becoming an example of the identity of architecture, should have certain universality and to lack a name-tag. Sir P. Zumthor encourages the idea that creators should be taught again to rely more on the normal, simple, anonymous creation, to see charm and quality in the ordinary, and therefore use it.

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Model of Zinc Mine Museum Project in Norway ©

5. Geometry | Peter Zumthor

Have you ever been confused and slightly, but unwilling to admit, afraid by all that unavoidable space when designing? Do not worry, Sir P. Zumthor is also. His prerogative on this matter is that when designing, geometry, and grandeur of the structure play a crucial part. After all, you are taking up space, a tiny space from this one Planet that we can exist on (knowingly until now), so you better make sure it is good. This is not Math, so there is not a universal solution, however his method of creating starts with a simple functional diagram of spaces and forms, and trying to visualize them as physical entities trying to invade at first, but then become a part of some surrounding. At the same time, making sure the entities relate to the context they were set into (meaning, try to engage something in the interior to correspond to the surrounding), and last but not least, the determination of the geometry, or the spatial composition of a structure can be recognized as a closed architectural entity that isolates itself from its surroundings, or an open-type entity that embraces fully or partially its surroundings. Piece of cake, right?

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Bruder Klaus Field Chapel ©
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St. Benedict Chapel ©

6. Landscapes

Buildings should not just exist in a place, should not just be a heavy subject placed to take up space and be there, just to be there. They are envisioned to be an occupant of that area for a long time, maybe even go down in history. In that regard, Sir P. Zumthor advises us to create a structure that self-evidently will be part of their surroundings and will say “I am as you see me and I belong here”.

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Secular Retreat ©
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Thermal Bath at Vals ©
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Zinc Mine Museum Project ©

7. Materials

Sir P.Zumthor’s opinion on Materials is that they give life to the building. Although they are not part of the poetic exuberance the landscape, or the geometry brings, they certainly can make the building more vibrant. The catch here is, an architect should ask themselves what type of material and what type of use of the same one should be acclimated to the specific architectural context that is in question. As in what type of story should your building tell?

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The Therme Vals ©
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St.Benedict Chapel ©

8. Fragments and Joints | Peter Zumthor

His motive is not really about decorations, as you already know or have noticed. However, Sir P. Zumthor respects the “details” that fall into the category of functional, subtle, sense of belonging, or separation (as in border of the transition of two materials), an element of surprise, and taste. And he refers to them as fragments and joints. His conviction is that “details” should not act as decoration, nor should be put in that context, only in that manner, they will be an intrinsic part of a whole, where their job will not be to entertain or distract but to add additional meaning to the creation.

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Zinc Mine Museum Project ©
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Detail of the textures of Zumthor’s atelier wooden facade ©
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The Therme Vals ©

9. Images

Sir P. Zumthor portrays “images” in his architectural marvels. “Images” to him are corners, spaces, and ambiances of the interior/exterior that create a unique visual embodiment for the experiencer. These elegant “images” are not always palpable, but they are created in such a way to catch the eye of the observer in either subtle or striking manner.

Serpentine Pavilion ©
Serpentine Pavilion ©

10. Deadlines | Peter Zumthor

I am good at handling projects until the deadline, procrastinating or not, however, what I am not good with, is the pressure that “tick-tock, tick-tock” inflicts (uh, the worst). And neither is Sir P. Zumthor. In his opinion, architecture can not be rushed, because that may lead to mistakes in the design, and it is all about the quality of the projects, not the quantity of them in an architect’s lifetime. Time pressure is not the best “surrounding” for architecture, and we all know how important Surroundings are. When asked when a project will be finished he simply answers “It will take as long as it takes,”/from the interview with Peter Zumthor, by Magali Robathan/.


Viktorija Vitanova is a fifth-year student at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Architecture, Slovenia. She received a bachelor’s degree of Arts in Architecture from American College Skopje, North Macedonia. Her interests lie in the theory of architecture, an abstract undertake of architectural projects, and the socio-psychological aspect of architecture.