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Essay

Earthworks: The Architecture of Peter Zumthor
By Philip Ursprung
Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Zürich

More than the legendary episode at the beginning of Marcel Proust's novel Remembrance of Things Past—when the narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of tea and experiences a flashback to his childhood—was always intrigued by another, less-known episode at the end of the novel. Namely, the moment when the narrator gives way to an approaching carriage in a courtyard in Paris, steps back, and stumbles against some unevenly placed paving stones. He remains there, repeating the movement, one foot upon the higher flagstone and the other on the lower. He tries to figure out what this movement reminds him of, while the passers-by watch him with amusement. Eventually, he recalls the same sensation he had many years ago and is overwhelmed with happiness: “It was Venice.” The occurrence in the courtyard evoked the feeling he had experienced as he “stood on two uneven stones in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.” What Proust describes—the tactile sensation of the uneven ground under his slow moving feet—is intrinsically connected to what Maurice Halbwachs described as “spatial memory.” And this spatial memory, I would argue, is a crucial component of the architectural experience.

Peter Zumthor is among those architects who consider more than just the visual aspects of a project. For him, it is not only important how a floor, stair, wall, room or façade look, but also how they feel when one touches them with his or her finger tips, how they smell, how they resonate and sound, and what kind of associations, mental images, expectations and memories they evoke. His buildings always revolve around the relationship between the human body and its environment, and the way the individual subject experiences very specific situations. However, it took me some time to realize this. Until recently, I had a very clear yet narrow image of his architecture. I had much respect for the beauty and atmospheric effects of his buildings. I admired the calm and steady pace with which his small team produced projects, uninterested in expansion and spending more inventive energy on seemingly marginal projects than many international architects invest in spectacular skyscrapers. Nevertheless, I could not subscribe to Zumthor’s idea of authenticity, his anachronistic conception of nature, and his romantic impulse that I felt pervaded his oeuvre. Although I had visited some of his buildings, my image of his work was mainly influenced by photographs, especially those of the Saint Benedict Chapel (1987) in Sumvitg in the Swiss Alps, taken by the Swiss photographer Hans Danuser in the late 1980s. Danuser’s interpretation, depicting the chapel in misty black and white photographs, had shaped my image of Zumthor as an earthbound, quasi-romantic architect, working far from urban centers in the remoteness of an untouched landscape.

Then, in early 2004, I went to visit Saint Benedict Chapel. I walked through the tiny hamlet above Sumvitg, passing farmhouses, stables and vacation homes. A narrow gravel road leads up to the chapel. The effort of walking uphill, the crunching gravel under my shoes, the smell of fresh pines in the nearby forest, and the arrangement of the small stables and vacation houses shaped my perspective. I was waiting for my mental image of a remote chapel hovering in the sublime Alpine landscape to materialize. Then suddenly the building appeared before me, much smaller and much more elegant than expected. The shingle surface of the outer skin was burned black by the sun, just as the stables and wooden huts in the area. The few, narrow concrete steps that led to the door of the chapel felt not only firmer than the gravel road but also more comfortable. After the ascent on the rough path, the steps to the chapel required no effort. My impression was not so much to ascend the steps but to descend toward the chapel. My strenuous walking turned into relaxed striding. My movements became more measured, more rhythmically structured, more focused. They became appropriate to the building, so to speak. I immediately remembered the episode by Proust, and I recalled various moments when one or two steps had led to a radical shift of my spatial experience. Almost automatically, my hand followed the thin metal handrail the way one holds onto a gangway before boarding a ship. I was now facing the door panel made from vertical wooden laths. It appeared lighter and more welcoming than the usual massive doors barring church entrances, but I had a brief moment of hesitation. Will the chapel be locked? Did I make the long journey in vain? Then the door swung open, almost by itself. The unexpectedly long and narrow doorknob, which increased the leverage and lay in the hand like a comfortable tool, facilitated the entry further. From the very beginning, I was already involved in the chapel’s spatiality. I became part of choreography of everyday movements and gestures. I was neither impressed nor dwarfed by the building. On the contrary, it made me pay attention because of its fragility. The details of the building subtly guided the way I moved and helped me become familiar with the environment. Later, Peter Zumthor told me that he always developed his spaces from a bodily experience and "a feeling for the body, for a physical presence, or a certain aura" motivated the design process ...

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