Sponsored by The Hyatt Foundation

Ceremony Speech

Lord Palumbo
Chairman of the Jury

Mr. Mayor, President of the Legislature of the city of Buenos Aires, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen:

This evening celebrates the 31st Annual Award of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture to this year’s laureate, Peter Zumthor. The 29th of May is one, therefore, that marks a very special chapter in the history of the Prize. For this, as for so much else, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Pritzker family, and most especially to Cindy, Tom and Margot Pritzker, for their unfailing encouragement and support, as well as to the Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, Señor Mauricio Macri, for his generosity in making available for the Prize the historic Palacio San Martín and this wonderful and very splendid Palacio del Consejo Deliberante. Picking our way through the historical landscape, we discover that this very same day, 29 May, celebrates two other events of global significance: The first, in 1917, saw the birth of John F. Kennedy, who was to become the 35th President of the United States, and whilst, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to conquer the hitherto impregnable Mount Everest.

But to return to the man of the moment. To those who do not know him, Peter Zumthor represents something of an enigma since he cannot be easily labelled, filed and pigeonholed. An architect of coruscating brilliance and a craftsman of refinement and sensibility, Zumthor and his work command international attention and respect. Yet at the same time, he is an intensely private person, with a deep well of reserve, and he is not remotely interested in the cult of celebrity. Public relations, glamour and spin are, to him, an anathema. This is an unusual departure from the norm, as is the fact that he declines more commissions than he accepts and that he will only undertake projects with which he feels entirely comfortable. A quiet man then, self-contained and self-assured, who marches to the beat of his own drum. He much prefers, for example, to dwell upon the meaning of architecture, the atmospheres created by architecture, the music best suited to architecture, rather than to embark upon a discussion of his own work. Of how many can this be said? For me, Mies van der Rohe is one of the very few to come to mind. In fact, Mies and he share a good deal in common. For a start, both come from families of craftsmen. Mies’s father was a master stonemason; Peter Zumthor’s a joiner and cabinetmaker. Peter Zumthor is a thinker in ordered logic and clarity of expression, who works in the spirit of his time, using traditional materials—wood, brick and stone—put together with painstaking precision in the pursuit of achieving perfect harmony between the work itself and its intervention in the environment for which it is intended. His structures link the past to the present, as if by an invisible thread. His overriding priority is to make sure, at all costs, that quality is never sacrificed to quantity. The buildings and structures of Peter Zumthor have about them a serenity, an honesty, a dignity, a quiet strength, a poetic dimension and an aura of high romance. Those who inhabit or visit them find very quickly that the cares and woes of everyday life seem to fall away and assume minor proportions as a result of the therapy that washes over them and that leaves them with the feeling of being at one with nature and, indeed, with themselves.

Peter Zumthor has described his particular creative process in this way: “The ability to dream is a fantastic gift of man. It produces realities that have never been seen. As an architect, I have to know the site, the use, the people who are going to live in a building, and I have to find a form that corresponds to these needs. I am helped by my capacity to provoke dreams. Images that are very concrete appear. Over time, I learn to understand my images, and I start to organize them according to the task. But in the beginning is an image. If the image does not stand up to the light of critical, rational questions, I have to start over again and search for new images.”

No one who has seen them can fail to marvel at the dream images created by Peter Zumthor for the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, that has risen out of the ashes of the former Church of St. Kolumba, which was virtually obliterated by bomb damage in the Second World War. Or at the haunting beauty of the tiny field chapel of Brother Klaus that stands near the village of Wachendorf a few miles outside Cologne; at the stunning composition of the Kunsthaus in Bregenz; at the magical properties of the thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland; or at the minute and sensitive interventions along the tourist route of Norway’s most remote northern region.

The apparent simplicity of the work of Peter Zumthor is, of course, the distillation of a lifetime’s experience that disguises blood, sweat and toil and that creates in the process a timeless quality that is the true hallmark of the master craftsman. In other disciplines, we might think of a pen-and-ink drawing by Rembrandt, a Beethoven sonata, a pocket watch by Breguet, a painting by Mondrian, a dress by Balenciaga, a dance by Nijinsky or Fred Astaire—all of which share the characteristics of economy of line and effortless ease and grace.

In these troubled times of economic uncertainty, fear and dislocation, it is essential to record, and not only to record but to emphasize, the fact that the Arts speak a universal language that is, in every way, as valuable and effective as any political initiative in furthering international relationships and understanding. And this is so because the Arts transcend race, colour, creed and physical barriers, and bring, instead, harmony where there is discord, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, creativity where there is chaos. The work of Peter Zumthor is a tangible expression of this obvious truth, which is why he is, this evening, a most worthy and honoured recipient of the 2009 Pritzker Prize for Architecture.

The distinguished Architect from Santiago, Chile—Alejandro Aravena

The distinguished Architect from Tokyo, Japan—Shigeru Ban

The Chairman of Vitra, Patron of the Arts, and a man who has enhanced the lives of people the world over through the medium of Architecture and Design—Rolf Fehlbaum

The distinguished Architect, Professor of Rice University School of Architecture, and Principal of the Studio that bears his name, from Houston, Texas—Carlos Jiménez

The distinguished Architect and Architectural Historian from Helsinki, Finland—Juhani Pallasmaa

The distinguished former Editorial Director of Phaidon Press, from New York City—Karen Stein

And last, but by no means least, and in his absence through circumstances outside his control, and indeed our own, the distinguished Architect and 1998 Pritzker Prize laureate, from Genoa, Italy—Renzo Piano.