Claudia Comte and Peter Zumthor in Conversation
On Landscapes and Contemplation
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has attracted a cult following over the five decades of his career, and yet he has kept a famously low profile in the media. Exclusively for KÖNIG MAGAZINE, he answered artist Claudia Comte’s questions on how he feels about nature, mathematics, and the idea of architecture as Gesamtkunstwerk.
Claudia Comte: Whether in the countryside or the city center, your projects have a contemplative quality, a sense of quietude. What are some of the key investments of your work?
Peter Zumthor: I love calm, beautiful spaces. Materials harmonizing with each other, daylight, reflections, gleaming details, darkness, shade. The light trembles under the marquee. My aim is to create spaces that are relaxed, where I can be left alone to indulge in my own thoughts, and where I can also engage in good conversation.
C.C.: You have recently completed a house for your family in the Swiss mountains, which resonates for me having spent my childhood in the Swiss countryside. In my work, I’m constantly thinking about the relationship between manmade and natural materials. How does your work understand the relationship be-tween the built environment and the natural world? In what ways are these delineations blurred?
P.Z.: As humans, we come out of nature and into it we return. Like all living beings on this earth, we become and we pass away. I don’t understand it, yet I see it and I experience it every day.Geologists describe our planet’s dead materials. Biologists describe living materials. When I look at a place in nature, for me it immediately transforms into a landscape. It becomes a landscape that I at once see externally, but also imagine and experience internally. The actual landscape that I see always tells a story; a story told by the traces left behind by other humans. I see layers, I sense the sedimentations. And thus, the landscape that I see and the landscape within my own biography, melt together. Composing my buildings into this real and spiritual landscape is a task that both excites and inspires me.
C.C.: Your buildings are conceived as Gesamtkunstwerk; all the details are designed by you, from the light fittings to the door handles. This all-encompassing attention to form means that no detail is too small or insignificant; everything has a role to play in synthesising the project. How does Gesamtkunstwerk feature more broadly in your thinking about inhabitation?
P.Z.: I have a knack for creating the Gesamtkunstwerk. Though, not in the classical sense of interplaying all art forms. I have a – yes, I admit it – small obsession for continuously creating a milieu or a performance, or to think up an ensemble in which everything fits, harmonizes and blends together. In that way, every element is important; shape and design, light, noise, sound. All things, all objects in the room are full of wonder, and they spark my interest. I want to read every book I see in the shelf, to experience the history of all objects being found in a place. In the high rooms, I envision a pair of dancers, and in the hardwood parlour, I see four musicians playing Bela Bartok’s first strong quartet. Beauty, ecstasy, yearning, a stimulating calm, full of tension.
C.C.: Your work has been read in the lineage of minimalism. How visual geometries and utility meet is very sensitive – I’m inspired by your use of materials to convey complexity; how do you balance pragmatism with more intuitive or poetic formalisms?
P.Z.: I create architectural compositions. That is my job and my passion. Did I coin a new style in this process? Am I a minimalist? Perhaps I am actually a maximalist. I am always trying to combine everything; the practical, the comfortable to use, the well-made and the enduring, the harmonizing, the beautiful form. What helps me the most in this process, is it mathematics or geometry, you are asking? Today I would say; it’s my love of things.
© Images Diana Pfammatter
© Text Gabriella Beckhurst and Chus Martinez, In Conversation with Peter Zumthor