Sometimes it’s easy to be disillusioned with architecture, with the reality of everyday practice – and recently that’s how I’ve tended to feel from time to time. However, on October 13th 2016 I was present at the Royal Scottish Academy Metzstein Discourse in Edinburgh, where Peter Zumthor had been invited to speak about his work. Attending this event provided a tonic to that occasional disenchantment. It was a delightful, fascinating, and truly inspiring evening.
Once Zumthor took to the stage and began to address his enthralled audience it quickly became clear that this would not be a conventional lecture, focussing on an account of the architect’s greatest hits. That, admittedly, disappointed me a little at first, it would’ve been exceedingly gratifying to listen to him present images of, and discuss, some of his significant projects – but he made it clear he wasn’t going to do that.
So, rather than a step by step description of the great buildings produced by his studio over the last fifteen or twenty years, he discussed his preoccupation with atmosphere in architecture, or atmosphere in buildings – and specifically ‘atmosphere’ as a vehicle for provoking an emotional reaction. He explained that in many respects atmosphere (or ‘presence’) determines the first impression created by a building. He described the manner in which that reaction is informed not by the size, or shape, or materiality, or by any other detail of the building; but rather by a more intangible quality which relates to an awareness of the ‘whole’ building, or the ‘whole’ place.
He spoke briefly on the recently completed mining museum in Norway – specifically on how the building was intended to unlock the history that was “stored in the place”. The building was conceived as a device to stimulate that sense of history, and to help the ‘viewer’ see, and understand, the heritage that is ‘stored’ in the landscape. The project appears to be simultaneously broad in its emotional scope, while being modest and simple in its architectural resolution.
That fascination with history, which was introduced through discussion of the project in Norway, was scrutinised in much more depth throughout the more comprehensive examination of the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) project.
The architectural expression of the LACMA proposal is explained as a direct reaction to the place. The formal arrangement, being rather freeform and organic is, superficially at least, relatively unusual in a catalogue of work often characterised by rigorous linear treatments. However, Zumthor explained that just as his earlier projects were a reaction to their alpine environment, the flowing lines of the LACMA scheme react to (or contradict) the ubiquitous and relentless Los Angeles urban grid.
The black material treatment is intended to complement the naturally occurring tar pits which are evident on the site – which somehow, in the midst of an immense urban sprawl, give some allusion to the original, natural condition of the place. Blending this narrative with the contemporary reality of the site does create an exciting dialogue.
While it was interesting to understand the formal origins of the urban response, the primary focus of this part of the talk was on the artefacts that the building is being designed to contain. Zumthor explained the vast quantity, rich variety, and extraordinary beauty of the objects that comprise the Museum’s collection, and revelled in the idea that the building must create “happy places” to house those objects.
To enable a kind of ‘pure’ space for the curation of these artefacts, they have been liberated from what Zumthor described as the “profane” parts of the programme – the entrance lobby; the café; the shop etc – which are all relegated to the ground floor, leaving the upper level to make the home for the collection.
The exhibition space is described by the architect as “democratic”, in that the building layout doesn’t suggest or define the manner in which the space is experienced, preferring to leave the individual to navigate around the plan in whichever way they choose. He calls this open element the ‘Meander Space’ – a flowing, sinuous volume which connects the more precious parts of the plan, while allowing views to the outside.
Concealed within the depth of the plan are the ‘Chapel Spaces’ – which create a home for the most special artefacts. These “holy” spaces are only top-lit and have no views to the outside, they are intended to create a particularly “intense atmosphere” – and seem to become contemplative, almost monastic, moments where the only focus is the object contained within the space.
The threshold between the Chapel Spaces and the Meander Space, described as the ‘Cabinet Space’ articulates the special quality of the ‘Chapels’ from the rest of the plan. These spaces offer occasional views out while also providing self-contained and emotive gallery spaces.
The description of the proposals for this building clearly articulated the broader themes that Zumthor is obviously preoccupied with – a rigorous commitment to understanding the nature of every place where he makes a building; a relentless desire to examine new ways to translate that emotional reaction in a coherent form of architectural expression; and a hugely impressive ability to resolve that architecture in beautifully composed and delicately assembled detail.
Equally impressive to the exquisite beauty of the architecture was the way in which Zumthor described it. He spoke in straightforward terms about the architectural origins and aspirations of his work. He was very funny, and very humble. He spoke with such sensitivity about the beauty and joy of his work that it was simply a delight to witness.
Listening to Peter Zumthor, it’s clear that the spheres within which we each create architecture are profoundly different. It’s actually like we seem to function almost as a different species of architect altogether. In some respects that might seem depressing; but I choose to find it inspiring. It will drive me to try harder; and to be better; and to do everything I can to operate in a realm where I can do the best possible work.
One might worry that listening to a hero will tend to fail to live up to expectations. Well, Peter Zumthor did live up to my expectations, and then he tiptoed carefully and sensitively beyond those expectations, and in to a world of sublime, stunning, joyous beauty!
Before the lecture my wife suggested that I should take one of my books on Zumthor’s work to try to get it signed. I initially dismissed the idea, believing it would seem a tad sycophantic, even childish, in the grown-up atmosphere of this kind of event. But as I was getting ready to leave work to drive to the lecture I decided to shove my copy of the February 1998 Special Edition of A+U (a book that I have treasured since I purchased it as a student almost twenty years ago) in my bag.
Leaving my seat at the end of the lecture, I noticed that people were gathering around Zumthor, and that he was signing books. Approaching him like an awestruck schoolboy, I rather impolitely barged past some students and he signed my book. I suppose I should try to retrospectively play it cool, and imagine that I felt calm in his company – like he and I were somehow peers, but actually I don’t feel ashamed in the least to admit that I was utterly stunned just to be in his presence!
In the months following the lecture, it seems that Atelier Peter Zumthor have been revising the proposed scheme for the LACMA project – details of which have just been published, please refer to these articles on Dezeen and ArchDaily for further details.