Pritzker Prize to Peter Zumthor

Architecture & Interiors

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has been announced as the 2009 Laureate for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in the industry. His body of work, both built and unbuilt, has been honoured alongside his writing and commitment to the education of a new generation of architects.

Often described as the architect's architect, Zumthor lives and works at the foot of the Alps, keeps his firm small (no more than 20 staff), and insists on "enough time – enough
money" for his projects. This passion for perfection and creative control is evidenced in his body of built work, however small it may be compared to current celebrity architect output. Zumthor resists the very world where "even the name is
enough – you don’t have to deliver good work."

Perhaps befitting of the
times, much of his built work is somber and understated, yet powerfully hopefully. Excerpts from the jury citation note that Zumthor's restrained, elegant body of work is now perhaps more relevant than ever.

Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined.

Declining a majority of the commissions that come his way, he only accepts a project if he feels a deep affinity for its program, and from the moment of commitment, his devotion is complete, overseeing the project’s realization to the very last detail.

His buildings have a commanding presence, yet they prove the power of judicious intervention, showing us again and again that modesty in approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive. Humility resides alongside strength. While some have called his architecture quiet, his buildings masterfully assert their presence, engaging many of our senses, not just our sight but also our senses of touch, hearing and smell.

In Zumthor’s skillful hands, like those of the consummate craftsman, materials from cedar shingles to sandblasted glass are used in a way that celebrates their own unique qualities, all in the service of an architecture of permanence. In paring down architecture to its barest yet most sumptuous essentials, he has reaffirmed architecture’s indispensable place in a fragile world.

The citation also goes on to emphasise the importance of two projects in particular; the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, completed in 1996, and the 2006 Saint Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Germany.

The former is Zumthor's best known work, and is often referred to as "his masterpiece." With a brief to create something special and unique to draw people to the Alpine town, Zumthor and his team created a bold, contemporary take on ancient baths, with structural walls clad in thin slabs of quartzite that evoke stacked Roman bricks.


[Concept Sketch by Peter Zumthor]



 [Photography by Helene Binet]

Over 40,000 people have visited the Thermal Baths every year since
their completion, making the most of the naturally occurring 30°C
(86°F) thermal mountain springs and the calm, spiritual spaces. Australian
architectural historian Professor Miles Lewis describes the Thermal
Baths as "a superb example of simple detailing that is used to create
highly atmospheric spaces. The design contrasts cool, gray stone walls
with the warmth of bronze railings, and light and water are employed to
sculpt the spaces. The horizontal joints of the stonework mimic the
horizontal lines of the water, and there is a subtle change in the
texture of the stone at the waterline. Skylights inserted into narrow
slots in the ceiling create a dramatic line of light that accentuates
the fluidity of the water. Every detail of the building thus reinforces
the importance of the bath on a variety of levels."

More recently, the Saint Bruder Klaus Field Chapel has garnered much critical acclaim. Commissioned and largely constructed by a local farmer, his family, friends and local craftsmen, the chapel was formed by layering a tent-like tree trunk construction with thin coats of concrete over the course of three weeks. The tree trunks were then burnt out and removed from the structure, giving the interior its distinct aesthetic and scent.


[Concept Sketch by Peter Zumthor]

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     [Photos by Thomas Mayer]


[Photo by Pietro Savorelli]

The exterior is a smooth, unexpected form in the German countryside, however stepping into the chapel is an even more surprising and powerful event. Along with the overpowering scent, the main light source seeps down from the oculus and is punctuated by pinpricks of light that pierce through the unfilled holes left by the construction process. The available light reflects off the poured lead floor, creating an unparalleled atmosphere and experience that has become synonymous with the Zumthor's work. When interviewed at the time of the chapel's completion, Zumthor simply stated:

Atmosphere is my 'style'.

Read more about this announcement at the official Pritzker Architecture Prize website, The New York Times and bd online, or read the rest of the 2006 interview with Peter Zumthor here.

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    Apr 19, 2009 at 11:31 am

    It’s refreshing to see a smaller scale architect like Zumthor chosen for the Pritzker. While most of the winners over the years are extraordinary architects, laureates like Zumthor and Murcutt (in 2002) seem to have a more hands on approach; their attention to craft and immediacy to the work makes the Pritzker more relevant for many of us. Thanks for the coverage on this.

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