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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Apr-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 797

Pritzker gives permanence to an ephemeral magic


‘I like to read literature,” the quiet silver-stubbled man tells his hushed, black-clad audience. “I like to read philosophy. I like intellectual thought, I don’t like the architecture of magazines . . . My true passion is the magic of the real.”

Peter Zumthor is habitually hailed as the archetypal architect’s architect. But in a world where most architects derive most of their ideas from the dumb porn of architectural publishing (yes, there are exceptions), the tag warrants parsing. Architects’ architect? Literature? Philosophy? Intellect? In truth Zumthor, the reclusive Swiss who has landed this year’s Pritzker, may inspire other architects – especially students – but he’s not someone they copy, in method or in form.

The Pritzker bestows upon its annual winner a hundred thousand Hyatt Foundation dollars and a gargantuan glom of global glory. It was first won, in 1979, by architecture’s kingmaker, Philip Johnson. Johnson, who transformed himself from known Nazi to darling of the MoMA-set through the adroit application of independent wealth, good looks and a glued-on pair of Corbusian specs, peaked early, in design terms.

From his own glorious if uninhabitable glass house in New Canaan, 1949, Johnson careened downhill to the execrable Crystal Cathedral megachurch (1980) and New York’s AT&T (now Sony) building, 1984. Despite this regrettable trajectory, however, and almost until his death, aged 98, in 2005, Johnson could make and break entire architectural careers with a finely whetted word.

Zumthor, a thoughtful, civilised type who travels and teaches abroad as required but is always happy to climb back into his mountain home “where there’s no world lookingover my shoulders”, could hardly be more different.

Over its 30 years the Pritzker has proved the most catholic of churches, premiating by turns modern monomaniacs, corporate capitulators, postmodern pretenders and ceaseless self-publicists, including last year’s Jean Nouvel, poised as we speak to start building in Sydney. Threaded through this mixed bag, though, is a string of poets; Louis Barragan 1980, Tadao Ando 1995, Sverre Fehn 1997, Glenn Murcutt 2002 and now Zumthor.

If Barragan is architecture’s Neruda, say, and Ando its T. S. Eliot, Zumthor is its Rilke, or maybe its Dylan Thomas. His works are few, shy and unself-aggrandising, but in a way that reads as confidence, not its opposite. Often they are small, low-budget buildings on obscure sites in remote mountain villages (not remote by our standards, but you get my drift). They strive not for crowd-pleasing, for glossy covers or hero shots, but for what Zumthor calls “atmospheric density”. The magic of the real.

What is this mysterious quality? I fancy it nudges Renzo Piano’s idea that architecture should “talk the language that is in your stomach”. (He frames this in English, for my benefit, but it would likely fare better in the full, gesticulatory Italian.) And it is no surprise that Piano, Pritzker laureate himself in 1998, graced this year’s jury.

But the “magic of the real” is best illustrated by Zumthor’s work. He first drew the public gaze in 1996 with his severely beautiful thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland. Built of concrete faced with local gneiss, the thermae form a series of steaming, rectilinear, dragonbreath caves where planes of cool stone dissect planes of warm water against a backdrop of extreme alpine verticality. Hot water and stone. Nothing but hot water and stone. That was the brief.

In his Swiss pavilion for the 2000 Expo, Zumthor wanted to use timber in an entirely new way. Persuading the committee away from the usual hard-sell tourism towards a building that was itself the message – a beautiful place simply to be – he designed the Sound Box. Solid but hollow, muscular but finely wrought, it had such remarkable acoustics that a special piece for wooden instruments was commissioned for performance there.

But it is Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel in Wachendorf that really blows me away. Commissioned by a husband-and-wife team of Catholic farmers with so little money that Zumthor waived his fee, the construction itself became part of the sacrament.

Arranging logs into a loose teepee form, they rammed concrete around these in 24 half-metre “tagwerk” (or “day’s work”) lots, then used traditional charcoalers to burn the timber slowly over a three-week period, leaving a blackened, log-formed open-to-the-rain interior. You’ve heard of lost-wax casting? Well, this is a cast chapel using the lost-timber technique.

In the excess-versus-relevance debate that is (at last!) exciting the international architecture scene, Zumthor is sometimes criticised for being un-driven by social or environmental reform. In fact, though, if more architects – and more clients – were to apprehend his mindset, to pursue the magic of the real rather than losing themselves in the intoxicating mirror-hall of the virtual, that’d be a step for humanity right there.


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