Entrevista.com Interview of Peter Zumthor
by Susan PerkinsIn
today’s world, a big name often translates into big business. Too much in demand, the master architect resorts to passing a quick idea sketch on to someone else who can translate the idea into a ‘famous architect’ style building. In stark contrast to that, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor dedicates himself to a small practice in which he remains intimately involved with a project along every step of the way, making great contributions by maintaining control over all the design and construction details. The following interview took place between Zumthor and Virginia Tech MArch II graduate Susan Perkins while she was working at the University’s Center for European Studies and Architecture in 1999. Zumthor explains why he chooses to practice in this way, and what continues to interest and challenge him in his work.
SP: I was reading some of the interviews you have given in the past and I was wondering, when you have been interviewed, what do you wish that you would have been asked you but never were? Or what do you wish that you could talk about that never gets brought up?
PZ: (laughs) Well, I haven’t thought about that because my main activity is not thinking about what [interviewers] should ask me. Sometimes there are people who have a good understanding of what I am trying to do, but in other cases the questions are just superficial. So sometimes something happens, sometimes it doesn’t. What I don’t like so much is when people don’t know my work, haven’t visited my buildings and so on. When they start to talk, if I realize that, I sometimes say, “Let’s finish this.” Like yesterday actually, I had an email from a guy from the University of Boston saying that he’s going to lecture on my chapel tomorrow, and saying that he wants to know about this and that and the joints and the material and the type of wood and this and that, so I emailed back to him and told him that I frankly think that he should not lecture about any building he hasn’t seen and hasn’t smelled and so on, and I would be really glad if he would read this text aloud at the beginning of his lecture. And he should himself go and visit it and then he’ll maybe have no questions at all or other questions. So this is sometimes the problem with dealing with architecture on, shall we say, an academic level ― from a distance. Or on paper, just dealing with construction and all that. Because the thing is the house.
SP: With architecture, you see something in a book or you see it in a magazine and then you see it in real life, and of course it is very rarely, or never, the same as it was in the image. Sometimes it is better and sometimes it is worse. And so this brings up the question of representation of your works. I don’t remember where, but you commented somewhere about the Helene Binet photographs in your book, Peter Zumthor: Works, and how you didn’t see them as a representation because she is an artist. So how do you approach that? Obviously people are going to publish your works…
PZ: The best thing is if somebody else does their own work of art or a personal work of literature or criticism. You can feel this other person reacting to what he or she sees and then it doesn’t try to represent, but is a thing in itself. So this is sort of like the concept of these autonomous pieces next to each other that are related to each other, which of course is sort of like you have with the main characters in literature. And then I think there’s another kind of representation, like an explanation, that you could do. You could maybe publish the concept of a building. This is what I was trying to do in the book, where you have a text of mine and you have the major plans and the site and the major ideas of the building itself. This is maybe more for architecture or people who are interested in concepts and how they are made. It’s a little bit didactical, of course, but I think to a certain point I do this. I say, ok, I will do this once and then that’s it. For that, to keep this clear, in my book, I didn’t have any other people commenting on this; this is just our work. Which is what I had decided; that this is how it would be. So it’s just my text and my buildings, and nothing else. But what you also could do ? it’s still not representation, it’s also explanation ? is explaining the technical, constructive and so on: the parts of the relations of the building. This I have done so far only in one case, in the case of the Kunsthaus Bregenz, but I think we are actually trying to do a small little monograph for each building in which you get explanations about how it is constructed and the major issues of constructing the building, and how it works. And this is also a little bit of a practical kind of thing, but its technique and concept. It has no aim at all to explain the building as a whole or to represent it. So that is three things I can see: artistic comment upon a work, and the concept part, and the technique part. As to the rest I try to be nice. The older I get, I get even more angry, more strict, and I say, “No no no no no”. I cannot stand architecture becoming part of a marketing strategy and its being used as a label; this I really hate, I despise it. I don’t like it, it’s not good for architecture; at least for me, let’s say, for me, I don’t want to be part of a marketing concept. If I find out that people want something from me because of my name, if it doesn’t really matter what I do as long as my name is there, then I’m out, right away.
SP: So speaking of marketing, what about the USM Haller ads, that series of photographs with the USM products incorporated into well-known works of architecture ? one of them is in Vals.
PZ: Yeah, this cost them 10,000 francs. Because they didn’t ask me.
SP: I admit that I was surprised to see it.
PZ: No, they didn’t ask me. They just published the work of this…artist, this photographer; they didn’t ask me. So I complained. And all they could do is send me some Haller furniture for my library and I looked it up in the catalogue and people say it probably cost 10,000 francs.
SP: Now, when you talk about “things”, in reading what you have written and in looking at your work, it is always back to the concrete, it’s always back to the thing as you say, to this person who wants to give the lecture, go look at the thing. Or as you just said, “The thing is the house.” And how the representation of a thing then becomes not a representation but a thing in itself. It’s more than just the nuts and bolts…
PZ: The thing, you mean?
SP: Yes, the thing.
PZ: Yes. I work partly in a classical kind of manner. I think that a building can become beautiful if you are lucky and you are talented. If things go together well, then the building should become beautiful, the spaces should be beautiful to live in, and so on. So I guess beauty would be ok for me. (laughing) I mean, in architecture, beauty…yes, this is interesting to think about ? when do you experience beauty? [It’s] sort of, when it touches you, something about the space. I think it is pretty mysterious, you know…or maybe it is not mysterious. Because really when it happens, you know, it just happens. Still there is this aim that a building in its context would maybe be beautiful or would contribute to the beauty of the place. Like somebody once said that this building here is like a declaration of love to this village; where you can see this in this building that I like the surrounding and the houses and the gardens and this rural kind of place. So this would be an example of how something contributes to something else. You know, this is classical architecture in the context here. Or in other cases, the landscape view here……like in the a romantic period ? there is something and then they put a piece there to emphasize, that makes you……. I can’t think of the word…
SP: Yes, to sort of…I can’t think of the word either, but I know what you mean, it sort of takes something everyday and plucks it out…
SP: …and draws your attention to it, and heightens the whole experience.
PZ: Yes, heightening the experience is a part; it is not the thing in my mind; it’s more a concrete experience. That’s what I like about these beautiful experiences that you can have in houses or towns or places.
SP: There is a German painter named Peter Drehler, from Karlsruhe. And one thing he has been doing that I find really intriguing is that, since 1972, every few days he has painted another in a series of paintings ? the same format, the same size, not too big ? all of the same drinking glass. And he has about 4000 of them by now…
SP: He paints them every few days, and when you see them…when you see them collected in a room ? not even all of them, but 50 or 25 of them, it is really quite something. Because it is the same glass, but of course it is never the same glass. And so it got me thinking about the use of everyday things and basic materials and wood and glass and stone and things like this that are then somehow heightened as we were saying before. It seems like that, in being raised to another level, the everyday thing then can become something else and can give something else.
PZ: It is never the thing in itself, it’s of course always that the things are the things, right? Because it is always us reacting. Experience is unique from second to second, so these works I guess show or document, or I guess these paintings are like a part of his life, its like one big thing, like drinking or something, this painting. To me, it’s nice that, with architecture, in the background there is this useful thing. The reason for architecture being there is actually basically this practical need and its use. This is really a noble kind of task ? that you can use a glass or a chair or a table ? because they are reduced. Then you can make them practical and everything and then beautiful and they become beautiful because they… this is again, like your example, the power of everyday life and the…I don’t say perception, because if you perceive something it is intellectually. More interesting is if you emotionally…. Things are part of life. Architecture can be beautiful like a chair or like a tree. Yeah, maybe this is a good example: nature, to me, is never ugly…
PZ: Never. No, I think nature is ? whether it rains or the sun shines, in the desert and the mountains, or the North Pole or where ever. I would never be able to say this, that nature is ugly, but architecture can be ugly. Good architecture to me is architecture which is good all the time ? when it rains, or when the sun shines. Have you noticed the fact that things start to look better, even ugly things get sort of glorified, or bettered somehow by the sun, and then you see it in the rain and you think, oh how terrible…
SP: They get worse…
PZ: Yes, they get worse. Then you see their really sad existences. I think a good building should be ? and all pieces, all pieces of art ? they should be like nature more. And this I think you achieve if you stick to use. But if you start to think of architecture from the other side ? from the beauty side, or from the message side, or from the meaning side ? this is stupid. This is sort of like what I like in literature. What I like good literature to be, is not meaning but is more like real stuff, you know? And if the writer of the book starts to comment on himself, and make all kinds of allusions and jokes and so on, and if the characters and the heroes in this book or whatever, if they start to carry messages that don’t belong to them and to what they are doing, this is much the same as if architecture starts to alienate itself from functional use. It’s not easy; it’s not natural anymore. I think to be natural, this is good.
SP: Because if its “real stuff”, the message, in a sense, is already there, and already deeper than just on the surface.
PZ: Yes, the message is never so simple; it’s much more complex. It has nothing to do with stupid functionalism or something.
SP: I’ve been thinking about functionalism lately because I’ve been reading Otl Aicher…
PZ: Yes, I haven’t read him but I know him…
SP: I’m finding him very interesting; I don’t always agree with what he says, but I like the way he says it and I like it that he says it. At one point he talks about form, and about the form coming out of the object, using the example of Eames chairs and Rietveldt’s chairs. He says that Eames’ chairs are beautiful examples of technology and functionality and beauty, whereas Rietveldt’s chairs were revealed as a “Mondrian to sit on”; he calls it an object that “unfortunately tried to be useful”. And I was reading this at the same time that I was reading some of your writing and thinking about the form coming from the object itself ? coming from the necessity of the object and what it is made of.
PZ: Yes, right, its complex. There is somewhat the grounds for the form to arrive ?its use and its place, I think. Yes, use and place. But then we try to find the theme, and then you work on this theme, so you say, “this house, this house ofstone and water in the mountain” and so on. And then starts 2000 hours of bringing this meaningful and rich use from the function. Because then there is the history of the use of the building type you are working with that influences you ?or me ? not only through books and so on, but maybe through life experience, maybe I have been here or there, or have heard something. And then it’s about having had these moments where I’ve experienced beauty. Architects, allarchitects, work like this, or maybe everybody if you do something [creative], all these things that have gotten to you at some point in time, this is all there in the background; this is the…where was I going with this?
SP: We got started by talking about the form and the form coming out of the thing…
PZ: Ah yes, the form. Well, the didactical sort of the crutch is to have a theme, right? And this is also classical; you have a theme and this can start to control everything ? the details and so on -so you know what you are doing. But there is always a strong emotional part, so the way I work is of course that, at any point of the design-construction process, we try to feel it. That’s why I have to produce images in my mind and in the minds of my collaborators. Any time we work on it, we have an image of how it looks. Then it’s easy to react on it, because the emotions, they are fast. Emotions are immediate. This is really the instinctive part. It’s sort of being intelligent about your feelings.
SP: So then your knowledge, whether technical or historical, and the things you’ve seen, and your emotions are sort of all fodder- like feed ? and they use the spark of what it is and where it is…
PZ: Yes, yes, exactly. I’m always interested in the real thing. We just did this thing outside ? that is real. This is really simple, it helps me a lot, so I can see. Compared to other people, I’m only interested in how this looks at the end. So some of this is also easy, for me; I have none of these irritations or anything…
SP: You mean theoretical questions or…
PZ: Right. Well ? sometimes it is by instinct that I can immediately tell whether or not something will help me do a good house or not. And so I say yes to this one or that one. I read; I like to read, I like philosophy, I like all of these things actually; I am fond of good thinkers. Sometimes they are also architects. Not so often at the moment, but sometimes they are. I am just sort of grazing, you know,and if there is something I can use then, you know, I look at it.
SP: So what are you reading now?
PZ: A history of the world, this is one thing…and let’s see…I am surrounded by books; I read 20 books at a time. Another one I am reading is a book with the stories of old women from this area that talks about how things used to be here and what they were like and how they lived. You can see how things have totally changed. Yes, so I like biographies.
SP: Again, a real thing.
PZ: Yes, because you can see what people did and why.
SP: Looking through PZ: Works, I see certain threads. Like the monolith, the idea of wholeness, the idea of cave versus the light box ? things like this that are sort of recurring threads, one could say. Are those conscious at all? Do you know where those come from? Or do you care? Or is that just what is distilled from all of these experiences that you acknowledge that you have?
PZ: You think there are recurrent themes?
SP: Well, I don’t know that themes is really the word, but if you think of ideas, perhaps. Like the cave and a light box ? just take the light box. Bregenz is a light box; the competition for the casino on Lake Constanz was a light box. Even the Laban dance theater is a kind of a light box. Whereas, I guess I would say ?although I haven’t seen it, parts of the Gugalun house, like the kitchen, with that black concrete wall against the hill is kind of like a cave, and parts of the baths are kind of like a cave. So these kinds of things that sort of come up again and again.
PZ: Let’s see; the casino on the lake shore……so you think of Las Vegas and all these kinds of places and so on. There is again the use of this building obviously transformed as something to the outside. So, this could be a nice image on the lake, you go out at two o’clock in the morning and you see that there is this thing on the shore. And so it is completely different if I start to think about what could it be if you have a hot spring in this rocky slope in a mountain area, and what could be the experience to swim, to cleanse yourself, and all this kind of thing. Just like about about 10 or 15 years ago, when we said, “Ok, here on this place we tear down an old house and we make an atelier building and this atelier building should have a drawing room and a gartensalle, yes? And the gartensalle, this is something traditional in Europe, you understand what it is? ? So this is this big thing and it has this little small park as an answer in front of it; it has a little bit of this quality of luxury and it has grape vines, and you could have a table and other things, and maybe a fountain; you can have water there, so this is creating this specific kind of thing which we’d say, “Yes, this is a sort of a garden house, a fantastic garden house, in combination with an office/atelier.” So this is how it goes, time and time again: it’s the place and the function, place and function, place and function. And this building here, I don’t think it’s a light box, and I don’t think it’s a cave….(laughing)
SP: (laughing) Well, I wasn’t trying to say that those are the only things you have going on, just that they come back maybe several times.
PZ: Yes, but I think basically they happen to everybody ? if you do a museum collecting the daylight ? this is the main issue; we are collecting daylight there and then it becomes a light box from the inside out, so this is like a wanted, nice secondary result of trying to get all this daylight into the interior spaces and so on. So I think it’s more going, striving, for the essential, the most telling and most obvious solutions for a problem, and then make it beautiful. See, I am not taking something and turning it completely around in order to gain a specific quality. It’s not like we make a one family home and say, “Let’s do it like a steamer”; or that we make a theater and say, “Let’s do it like a skyscraper”. It’s not gaining a quality by reversing forms and trying this because it could work; I usually go the other way. I try to be straightforward with the site, and then there comes a certain condensation, accumulation of the things, and then the spark comes out of that… I hope.
SP: So do you think that characterizations of things like that I had just said, about these recurrent threads, are sort of silly? Or pointless…
PZ: Well, this depends…
SP: You don’t have to worry about insulting me…
PZ: No, no, it depends. I like to insult people! (laughing) It depends how good this person does this. I might look at this and say this is ridiculous or whatever. It is difficult in this field of art historians or architecture historians writing about art or architecture or music or literature ― its hard to find really good quality; this is also a big art ― its a form of art. So it’s like in architecture ― a lot of people are trying.
SP: So do you ever read what people write about your work at all? Do you look at that?
PZ: Vaguely. There’s something slightly disturbing somehow. I’m not putting it down; I think it is also a profession; you can do this, and in some cases it’s really done well. Actually, I don’t look a lot because I feel this is sort of like ? this is an academic thing. For the education of architects I don’t think this helps at all.
SP: You mean for students…
PZ: For students, yes. Or for architects even, for educating yourself, reading all these things about what architecture is like and so on. That’s what I think. What takes you much further is your personal experience, and to free and open yourself towards this work, and to be precise there. What do you really feel and so on. Because there you are really competent ? in your own personal life I believe you are competent ? this is really nice! Its amazing how much more connected you are to life, than a logical form of analysis. I think good architecture doesn’t come into existence by preliminary formal analysis. Everybody knows this, that it doesn’t work.
SP: Do you think that becoming well known ? we talked a little bit before about people who want to publish your work and so on ? has it gotten in the way? Obviously there are some benefits that come with it; maybe you get more interesting commissions and more freedom and things like this…
PZ: Yeah, people believe me maybe faster…(laughing)
SP: So what is the trade off in terms of demands on time and energy and how many projects you can take in or want to take in, how well you are still able to work with the people in your studio and keep control over the projects.
PZ: A couple of years ago I decided to stay small, with a dozen people in the office. So I am in a situation to turn down a lot of commissions and select carefully things that I think may become real things and things where there will not be compromises along the way. And I find that this make sense in some way. This is of course an important part, you know, having made this decision, this makes great sense as far as I am concerned. I don’t have to keep swallowing all these things that are coming and get bigger and bigger and bigger. Because what I have to offer here is custom made buildings ? they don’t have to be small, they can also be bigger, big things ? this is not the problem ? but this is what I offer, this kind of building. So I don’t do lectures anymore. People ask me to come -there are letters coming every day from architects and I will say no, I cannot be on your jury, so things which could be bothersome are now ignored. The nicest thing is to be here and work. Being on juries, on international juries is not so good. I’m not a good person for this podium, these round table kinds of seminars, where there is this dynamic of the round table when you have to answer questions you are not interested in…
SP: Or you feel like you have to say something even if you have nothing to say…
PZ: Yes, even if you have nothing to say or maybe don’t want to say it. So these kind of dynamics and all of this I just stopped. Five years ago I came back from one and I said “I hate it, I hate it, I am not myself there”. So I am gone. The nice thing is that I have enough work still and I don’t need to do anything like this to get clients. People say, “You should come here and speak about this and this”; I can’t imagine if I would have to do that. And sometimes the president of a company, he calls me up personally and says, “Your secretary said you won’t come, but you should come because there are all the most important people of Switzerland now in this meeting and they are businessmen and so on and this is a good opportunity for commissions to come up and so on.” But I don’t go.
SP: It seems to me that there is so much in what you do that is in the infinitesimal decisions ―you know, if it is smooth is it really smooth or is it just going to look smooth ― and I would imagine for that you need to be here.
PZ: Yes, exactly. That’s the work.
SP: How long does it usually take you for a building, say, like Bregenz, from when you start. I mean aside from pauses that come from funding or something, but just the design work?
PZ: The design work always is like two, three and even four years, depending on how complex it is.
SP: I ask this because I think this is something for people to realize ? I think that sometimes the speed with which buildings are often built today, especially in America, can be rather scary.
PZ: Really fast?
SP: Really fast, ridiculously fast ? so fast that it doesn’t make sense.
PZ: Yeah, you can look at the building and then maybe there are people who can do that; I don’t know, not that they turn out so well, but yeah, but actually for us, these beginning phases are really important, to get things clear, so that the foundation of the emotional and intellectual foundations are clear. So that is how I do it.
SP: Aside from obvious building mistakes or using shoddy material or something like that, is there behaviour that you would say is unethical for an architect?
PZ: If you do buildings which have to look good and sell in 2 or 3 years, you don’t care how they get older because you know they will be sold. This is unethical if you think of the environment and also because somebody else maybe has to pay the price. The users have to pay and I think this is really terrible. Someone who wants to earn money with buildings should be able do a good job at the same time.
SP: You speak and write about perception and memory and I was curious about a dichotemy that seemed to come up. In one of the articles in “Thinking Architecture” you write about going back to a certain hall with a niche and how it was different in reality than it was in memory. And you talk about William Carlos Williams and the specific and careful observation of things, yet at the same time you talk about recollection and how it is not from careful observation. So where does that balance lie? Are they two different things?
PZ: I think they are two different things. Careful observation has a lot to do with inventing and making because it is imagining how it could be; it is thinking, in a way. Its your imagination. The other thing I was talking about there is the same feeling of course, but you usually have a problem to really live in the moment. You are thinking, and you are not really there. So you ask yourself, who you were at the time when you were waiting. It sounds …do you know what I mean?
SP: Do you mean that you are always waiting? Do you believe that we are always waiting to live, in a way?
PZ: I believe that I never live, that we never live, but are always waiting to live and then, just in the moment that we start to live, we stop. And then when everything has passed, I ask myself, who was I when I was waiting? Then when I was waiting. And I say this because I want to make a point that your architectural memory ? experience, maybe -this is not objective. This is subjective, and it’s colored by life. Actually it’s nice because you can see in your conceptions that there is also a part of your imagination. Memory does this. Memory, now this is a great human capacity; I think this is an emotional intelligence, this has to do with how you get along in the world, how you order things, with your instincts or whatever it is and all these things and you have this thing that enables you to react appropriately to your surroundings, instantly, without using your brain. So you don’t always have to think with your brain what to do or what this is. Otherwise I might be killed already; the human race would already have died out. Yeah, yeah, but these processes help you make use of these. How to work with memory is the major issue. How I like this
SP: You talk a lot about the sensuousness of things, especially material…
PZ: Do I?
SP: Yes. It especially jumps out if you read all of your writings at one time. In terms of ? for example, the baths ? already the thinking about a bath has this sensuous connotation. So is there the same kind of aspect for you to a church or a casino? Or is it more in the material itself?
PZ: When I build, I can only do it with material. Nothing else works for me. So I can make materials and I can make some material spaces, but basically the matter I deal with is the material. And the other one must be a reaction of the people. The way that we think of architecture is very close to pleasure, to being sexy, or ? you can call it experience or beauty or pleasure or whatever, but that’s where it comes from and I think this is important. The architecture doesn’t have to be intelligent or made powerful; architecture is already powerful. It has to…I would almost say it has to be fun, but I would take it back. Because this is a stupid e-pression. You could say in German Es so spass machen. This works.
SP: “Fun” is too frivolous?
PZ: Yes, it is too frivolous. It doesn’t work. Not many people say this, not many architects say this, that it should be like that, huh?…
SP: Which is ironic, isn’t it? Isn’t it strange? Because otherwise why are they doing it?
PZ: Yeah, exactly. It should be a pleasure to you, the work; That’s why I do it. And some of these people start to…it’s sort of like setting trends. And then they talk about materials and then I cannot listen to it anymore; they talk about sieglichkeit, and these kind of things so then I think I should talk about the concepts only, and then again too much of this is not good either.
SP: Yes, then it always seems like it turns into some kind of weird image of itself, you know, which is also too bad.
PZ: I think it should always be whole. It should be sexy, but sober; it should be light, but it should also be heavy. I don’t think Vals is only a cave…
SP: No, I don’t either…
PZ: There are amazing pieces with an incredible openness and grand views…
SP: Yes, for example, when you go out to where the chairs are…
PZ: …because if it would all be a cave then it wouldn’t work.
SP: I was talking with Miguel the other night and he mentioned a book he is reading by a
mathematician who describes the ideal mathematical problem as having three aspects: unexpectedness, inevitability, and economy of media. Would you say this also describes your ideal building?
PZ: Yeah, this is not bad; he hasn’t said anything to me about it. Say it again?
SP: Unexpectedness, inevitability, and economy of media.
PZ: Yeah, that sounds good.
Fonte: ”The Reflective Practitioner”; College of Arquitecture & Urban Studies; Virginia Tech; Spring 2002