Published in 1998, Thinking architecture is a thin, 65 pages book, which gives an epigrammatic view into the mind of Pritzker prize laureate, Peter Zumthor. It is an abstract of his architectural philosophy, inspirations and learnings.
“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. “
–An excerpt from the book, page 9, Thinking architecture, Peter Zumthor
The very first extract of the book reveals the impact of his memory. His writings, much like his architecture, instil an emotional quality and infuse an ethereal experience, felt by the depth of his words. He articulates his approach to design as a derivative of his memories and observations, bestowed upon his intuitive core, a quality that he has possessed since the beginning. The quest for this passion and the endeavour to understand and refine it, is what drives him to work, whether it is as an architect or a cabinet maker.
Thinking architecture is an elegiac allegory on the simplest of feelings of touch, sound, smell and sight and its resonance with architecture. A keen observer, Zumthor is in perpetual search of truth, beauty and meaning.
He believes that materials can assume a sensuous and poetic quality if one can find a meaningful situation to evoke its presence. He begins the design process with a mental perception of materials and space, the essence of which, can bring life in architecture. Thus, every material possesses a particular memory in light of its context and can be perceived in a certain way, in that particular place only.
“The sense that I try to instil into materials is beyond all rules of composition and their tangibility, smell and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language that we are obliged to use.”
– page 11, Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor
Memories and mental images serve as the genesis of the book. A keen observer, Zumthor has a gift for a detailed recollection of past experiences and spatial impressions, which act as an inspiration for his work. The poetic yet effortless manner in which every experience is narrated unveils curiosity and artistry, the memories and images of which form a conundrum of architectural expressions.
Imagination is an innate process common to everyone, a part of intuition and thinking. To think in images, in architectural, visual and sensuous pictures is the premise of designing, directed towards a ‘whole’. Thus, the nature of the image is whole of the imagined reality, incomplete at the beginning but re-articulated again and again until its true meaning is attained.
Parts to a whole
Artistic processes involve an attempt to create a presence that is analogous to what is found in nature, an instinct to venture for wholeness. Similarly, a comparison is made between art and construction.
Zumthor elaborates the process of construction as the art of making a significant whole out of many parts; a myriad of functions, details, materials, forms and dimensions. Buildings must be viewed as complexes, the inherent qualities and details of which, have been truly identified and put into a ‘factual relationship’ with one another.
Reality of architecture
Zumthor talks about the parallel between ‘reality’ and ‘living’. The true meaning of architecture can be revealed only through relating the act of dwelling along with the inherent qualities of materials and structures, infused with imagination. Emotions and feelings disseminate the essence of a concrete body, thus translating the distinction between architecture and life until it ceases to exist.
The author is critical of the current approaches to architecture and expresses a radical perspective where the process of design is an endless interplay of emotions and reason. It explores the medium of images to create a plethora of atmospheres and perceptible forms.
Thus, the coalescence of the qualities of design, function, form and construction create a humble environment that holds incessant elegance and warmth, as long as there is a person to witness it. Architecture is concrete, it needs to be executed. To experience it means to touch, hear, see and smell.
By the end of the book, one is compelled to pause and introspect their perception about space, how one reacts, moves and inhabits. One may ask the question, whether every individual, experiences space the same way or do they possess a personal realm within the built environment. What if we envisage the undefined and reflect on the intangibility of space and life?
In conclusion, ‘thinking architecture’ is much more than merely being a collection of lectures and essays, it is a collection of anecdotes, narratives, spatial experiences and feelings. It is an honest impression of architecture, its depth, its association to people and the sense of just being.