The Therme Vals, by Peter Zumthor (Photo: ArchNow!)

Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece about the architect Peter Zumthor is full of nuggets worth keeping on hand, easily accessible. I first began paying attention to Zumthor after visiting his Kolumba museum in Cologne. It was such an unexpected blend of old and new (Zumthor incorporated the ruins of a Gothic church as well as a chapel built on the site after World War II) in a way that both honored the past and melded it with the future. And the spaces were unexpected and yet organic. Zumthor is not tricky, clever, ironic or manipulative, all important qualities in art as well as life IMHO. Architectural critic Peter Rüedi pointed out that some may mistake Zumthor as an ascetic. He is instead an “essentialist of the sensual.”

I like Kimmelman’s comparison of Zumthor with some of the high visibility starchitects we read about constantly:

As the designer of some of the subtlest and most admired buildings of the last quarter-century, Zumthor has hardly been toiling in obscurity. But he has eschewed the flamboyant, billboard-on-the-skyline, globe-trotting celebrity persona, setting himself apart from, and in his own mind clearly somewhat above, some of his more famous colleagues. His works, even from the most superficial perspective, differ from Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s or Jean Nouvel’s or Norman Foster’s, for starters, because they are not flashy: they often don’t grab you at all at first glance, being conceived from the inside out, usually over many painstaking years. Moreover, because Zumthor runs a small office and doesn’t often delegate even the choice of a door handle, he hasn’t taken on many projects, and most of the ones he has completed aren’t very big.

And later, this passage:

I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors respond to this sort of argument by saying he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision. It is true that his projects are not enormous; there is an intimacy to his work. At places like Bregenz or the Bruder Klaus chapel, visitors respond not just to how his buildings look but also to their sounds, smells, to the light as it changes around them, even to the feel of the walls and floors — to what Zumthor has described as the “beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.”

Zumthor is easy to compare with Louis Kahn and for good reason. His artistic proclivities and perfectionistic style sound familiar for those of us who are Kahn fans. He talks about being influenced by the work of sculptors Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, and he also references Joseph Beuys. “With Beuys,” Zumthor explained, “my interest has had to do with the mythology and sensuousness of his materials, the importance of his personal life in his art. He was looking at objects with history, with a past.”

The description and photos of Zumthor’s Vals spa hotel and baths are evocative and memorable. “The spa invests ordinary leisure-time bathing with a sacramental gravity. It lends existential weight to even the simplest, most banal rituals — walking from room to room, looking out a window, reclining on a bench, gazing up at the sky or hearing the splash of water and the echo of footsteps. Bathers move like supplicants through wet stone chapels,” writes Kimmelman. “Vals is not about an outside object,” says Zumthor. “It’s not about lap pools and slides and gadgets. It is about what happens inside, the bathing, oriented toward the ritual, as if in the Orient. It’s about water and stone and light and sound and shadow.”

A few more phrases from Zumthor that are worth pondering:

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I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly. Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality. This is what you learn from studying the old townscapes of the Swiss farmers. If you do what you should, then at the end there is something, which you can’t explain maybe, but if you are lucky, it has to do with life.

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Solid wood has almost disappeared as too expensive, complicated and old-fashioned. I reintroduced it as a construction method here because it feels good to be with, to be in. You feel a certain way in a glass or concrete or limestone building. It has an effect on your skin — the same with plywood or veneer, or solid timber. Wood doesn’t steal energy from your body the way glass and concrete steal heat. When it’s hot, a wood house feels cooler than a concrete one, and when it’s cold, the other way around. So I preserved the wood-beam construction because of what it can do for your body.

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I believe in the spiritual value of art, as long as it’s not exclusive. It is the same with architecture.

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