Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Peter Zumthor: Starchitect

While I was off-duty over Easter, Tim Selwyn kindly kept track of things architectural, posting the work of the 2009 Pritzker Prize winning "starchitect" Peter Zumthor.

Here's a characteristic sample. Crap, don't you think?

Frankly, Tim was far, far too kind about it.


  1. So glib, PC. I would be immensely proud to claim authorship to a project anything like the thermal baths at Vals. Unfortunately I only know it through drawings, photos, and the experience of friends from here in Sweden and NZ that have been there and can't say enough about it. The sequence of different pools and rooms is apparently incredible - a real triumph of the haptic and experiential side of architecture over simple 'starchitect' style.

    I don't think the image you showed could actually be fairly called 'characteristic' of Zumthor either - as you would immediately admit if you were at all familiar with his work. This is an architect who is very, very talented at detail design - look up some of his timber projects for an example.

    With the greatest possible respect, I sometimes wonder if you don't stick too carefully inside the cloistered little world of Objectivist-approved 'Organic' architects. You make the most bizarre arguments for ugly-ass buildings that nevertheless conform ideologically to your beliefs (that bloke who made that horrible, egregiously planned UFO-house for example) and then dismiss a master architect out of hand without the slightest discussion as to what it is you disapprove of.

    For those who look outside ideological boundaries in the consideration of architecture (and other arts) spare some time to google up Zumthor's projects. You'll find that PC's off-the-cuff dismissal is unfair.


  2. Peter,

    Can't say I like it, but tell us why you think it's crap.

  3. Very well, here's some more adjectives to describe what I've seen of his architecture:

    A victory of rationalistic abstraction over the fundamentals of good architecture, which is (most fundamentally) to provide a home for man: for the whole man.

    An example of everything that's wrong with the bogus intellectualisation of architecture, without reference to who is to occupy it, or what for.

    There's a reason I promote organic architecture over this brand of sterile masturbation. What one finds in organic architecture -- joy, delight, warmth, colour, a home for man -- are entirely absent here. Organic architecture gives a home for the human soul: Mr Zumthor and his colleagues instead place it in a parking garage.

    There were two movements in modernism, the so-called International Style, and the Organics.

    The first is characterised by Corbusier's remark that "a house is a machine for living." The second might be understood by Frank Lloyd Wright's rejoinder "just like the human heart is a suction pump."

    It's a tragedy that the sterile abstractionists are still winning.

  4. I get the idea of thermal baths. Does this invite me? Does it look like the kind of place that would comfort, sooth and relax? No.

    It is a man made prison like pit.


  5. PC: Again, I think you are being desperately unfair to Zumthor. These arguments always get reduced down to dogma: notice how you don't discuss the work in and of itself, you just throw out a few disdainful adjectives and then start proselytising for 'Organic Architecture'. Take a step back, drop your preconceptions, and look at some of his other work.

    It's unfortunate that you reduce what should actually be a complex and enriching discussion of what are the strengths and weaknesses of Zumthor's work to sloganeering.

    I'll say again - Zumthor is a master of 'joy' and 'delight'. Did you watch the Youtube video that was posted on the Tumeke sight?

    Take some time and check out the Gugalun House. This is another one of his projects which is an example of some of the very best architecture produced in the last fifty years. A sensitive addition to a generations-old farmhouse, respecting both the context and the building traditions of the area. The detailing, which I can't find any good links for on the net, is nothing short of masterful. We have a whole book of Zumthor's details just from that house here in the office.

    Cold - sterile - inhuman - unwelcoming - these are all words which no-one I know that has been in the building would use. The wife of an architect friend of mine went to the baths a couple of years ago with a bunch of girlfriends and came back raving about the sensual side of the building, and how unique the experience was. She didn't know anything about architectural theory, she knew what she liked. She knew a well-made building, and had a well-put together architectural experience.

    Please, for God's sake, say something to indicate that your reaction here is not just an ideological knee-jerk based on a couple of photos.


  6. I DO like the look of this complex - I DO like this style of architecture, but

    I also agree with PC in that it is cold, uninviting and sterile, and NOT a place one would go to sooth the soul.

    Perhaps the architect got the job briefs for a car park come war memorial and a hot water spa retreat mixed up, and designed a carpark instead of a place of relaxation!

    It is not the right architectural style for the purpose.

    This may be for a couple of reasons.

    1: Those responsible for commissioning THIS architect, like his work, and wanted something like this - just like when the Vespa or Lambretta, - I cant remember which - factory employed an ex aircraft designer to design a new range of scooters, or when Reardon employed Roark to design his house. He just wanted a design like that regardless!

    2: The Architect did not listen to the job brief and delivered this result - the wrong - or less than ideal building for the job!

    Either way somebody would have given this project the all clear to proceed.

    If you want to build an unsinkable ship, dont chose the guy that designed the Titanic!

    It looks to me like DenMT is just sticking up for Peter Zumthor, because he likes his style in general, and NOT because he has designed a good building for the particular purpose.

    I have just been through this in my job. Somebody here designed some beautiful packaging to sell a product overseas. The product BOMBED! I took a job brief from the client and listened carefully to what his target market was and where his product was being sold, then re-designed the packaging - stripped it back to a very basic, and almost under-designed (not visually attractive at all) packaging, and the product is now the biggest-selling product on the market.

    Its all in the job brief folks - get that wrong and you are screwed

  7. I came across this blog by googling the following words, "zumthor" and "roark"... funny thing. What I have read amazes me, and I couldn´t agree more with DenMT.There is so much more to Zumthor´s architecture than what you can simply see. I think PC has never been in a building desinged by Zumthor. I am really glad that even after winning the Pritzker there will still be people like Peter Cresswell around who will try to promote his work as cold, sterile and inhuman "crap". The more like him the better, because there will be fewer trying to stumble over each other to visit his buildings.
    I took the time (not more than 10 seconds needed) to visit PCs site, and realize that he is more like Peter Keating, boasting about what his clients had to say about his beautiful drawings and understanding their needs... nothing much about architecture. However, I must say Ayn Rand must be revolting in her grave to have anyone who lives in a "castle" claim to have been changed by her work.
    I really hope PC´s word gets out, because Zumthor´s work is worthless! don´t waste your time people!

  8. Thanks Mr Soler. You've given me the best belly laugh I've had for weeks. :-)

  9. I have visited Vals twice, each for a week and stayed in the complex, and used the baths nearly every day. I understand how people might think this building is cold and prison like, if you have only seen the pictures.

    If you have been there and experienced it for yourself it is an entirely different matter. The whole point of it is, that it is elemental. Taken back to basic materials.

    The only entrance to the spa is via a dark tunnel from under the hotel, so when you arrive in the spa you feel as if you are arriving at the mouth of a cave from within the mountain. You hear the water and feel the moisture in the air.

    The baths are made from stone quarried from the same mountain, (a mile up the road), the material is definitely the right choice in terms of context. And this is precisely why it works. Nothing ornamental, nothing unnecessary. Cave like.

    This place is not just visually interesting, shards of light penetrating the darkness of the cave and playing in the water they fall in. It awakens your other senses, the smell of minerals, the temperature differences of stone in different areas, the echoed sounds of splashing water. The cold warm or hot water. Trust me, it really does have a calming effect. It does exactly what it should to the best of its ability.

    With respect PC, you couldn't be more wrong.

  10. cold and inhuman?

    Don't make me laugh, you couldn't be more wrong.

    kind regards.


  11. I pursued architecture because I was knocked completely flat by the Fountainhead.

    That said, Zumthor's Thermal Baths is without question the best building I've ever visited, and I live within a short drive Taliesen West and other Wright projects, which I adore. So good are the Baths that my wife and I plan to visit them at each successive ten year anniversary (we went originally for our honeymoon).

    The experience is totally unique and we sincerely enjoyed ourselves. For example, in the small 'sound' room - an abstraction if there EVER was one - a group of strangers and I spent over an hour literally humming musical notes under our breath, carefully considering the magical acoustics of the space. People would enter the space and immediately look up thinking that speakers were playing above; they quickly joined in the fun.

    Also, on certain evenings they open the space up at night and kindly ask visitors not to talk so the spaces can be experienced in silence. At a lesser building this would have been annoying; instead, it was spiritual in a way that an atheist rarely gets to experience in a building.

    The building isn't cold (except the Ice Bath!). The water and the stone are warm. It is breathtaking to float in the water of the exterior pool and take in the vast landscape, especially when it's snowing.

    It isn't sterile. The stone detailing is par excellence, and very restrained so that it merely provides a backdrop to the LIFE of the space - the people, the water, the mysterious light and the beautiful environment.

    It isn't inhuman. A visitor immediately sense how alive it is, and wandering the complex spaces is fantastic. Photographs with no people in them give the wrong impression.

    It isn't unwelcoming. Getting there is difficult because it's in a tiny town way up in the Alps, but trust me, nobody there felt unwelcome. In fact, it's not even very costly to get in. Exclusivity is unwelcoming, and this experience is the opposite.

    Visitors become aware of how powerful the elements of the earth are, and how they can be creatively harnessed. When I experienced this, I could immediately picture Howard Roark standing naked on the cliff with nothing but the stone under his feet and the water far below him, and then taking the plunge - a primal experience that does tap into the depths of the soul.

    I highly recommend that everyone visit this building at least once. I think it will convince you that this instance isn't bogus intellectualization. In fact, Zumthor has written extensively about his rejection of such. His goal is to craft atmospheres that inspire powerful emotions by engaging all of your senses. In the right hands, this really, really works. I wouldn't have been motivated to join the discussion if I didn't honestly feel that he succeeded.

    The local gneiss stone is the right material choice. Look deeper into the project and you'll understand just how rigorous the building science is. And the same stone was used to make the tiles for nearly all of the local roofs, which have lasted for generations, so the Baths have an obvious relationship to the context, despite the modern geometries. To have imported a foreign stone, or detailed some other cladding to make the building look 'warmer' would have been a mistake. But you might be interested to know that Zumthor has built several houses in the same canton, entirely out of wood, where you'll even find flowerpots and decorative curtains, just like you'd expect in any Swiss chalet. Ask Koolhaas if he'd tolerate that.

    PC - Come to Arizona where 'Frank Lloyd Wright Architects' tried to carry on FLW's legacy by imitating his work, and instead became the laughing stock of the community. Time to find your own voice.

    And don't forget, Ayn Rand lived in a Neutra house.

    Gabriel Quijada


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