Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined. He has conceived his method of practice almost as carefully as each of his projects. For 30 years, he has been based in the remote village of Haldenstein in the Swiss mountains, removed from the flurry of activity of the international architectural scene. There, together with a small team, he develops buildings of great integrity—untouched by fad or fashion. 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.
Zumthor has a keen ability to create places that are much more than a single building. His architecture expresses respect for the primacy of the site, the legacy of a local culture and the invaluable lessons of architectural history. The Kolumba Museum in Cologne, for example, is not only a startling contemporary work but also one that is completely at ease with its many layers of history. Here, Zumthor has produced a building that emerges from the remains of a bombed church in the most inevitable and lyrical of ways, intertwining place and memory in an entirely new palimpsest. This has always been the compelling character of this architect’s work, from the singular yet universal breath of faith inscribed in the tiny field chapel in the village of Wachendorf, Germany, to the mineral mist in the thermal baths at Vals, Switzerland. For him, the role of the architect is not just to construct a fixed object but also to anticipate and choreograph the experience of moving through and around a building.
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. The same penetrating vision and subtle poetry are evident in his writings as well, which, like his portfolio of buildings, have inspired generations of students. In paring down architecture to its barest yet most sumptuous essentials, he has reaffirmed architecture’s indispensable place in a fragile world. For all of these reasons, Peter Zumthor is the recipient of the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize.