Majority rules against Zumthor’s “Glass Underpants” in Isny

© Peter Zumthor

The votes are in and 72 per cent of the citizens in im Allgäu (Bavaria, ) have vetoed Peter Zumthor’s design for the new city gate commonly referred to as the “glass underpants”. As the Swiss architect is famously praised for his context-sensitive and timeless designs, the people of Isny initially felt “lucky” to have Zumthor design for their town. They had high hopes for their very own Steilneset Memorial – the Norwegian city of Vardo’s beloved installation that has brought a surge in tourism – but ultimately were disappointed. Continue reading for more.

© Peter Zumthor

There is no doubt that nicknames such as “glass underpants” and “molar” have assisted in the demise of the project. Critics claim the citizens were not bold enough. Reports quote urban development specialist Sonja Rube stating, “citizens were not able to realize what they were about to get.” Beyond the design, the people of Isny where also dissatisfied with the estimated 21 million Euro price tag, even though the mayor assured them the money would be provided by sponsorship funds.

Regardless, the citizens have spoken and their veto forbids the city administration to partake in any further involvement with the project. After losing the referendum, the mayor said, “Still, Isny is the world’s most beautiful city to me. And it will stay this way.”

Reference: Mapolis Magazin

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Majority rules against Zumthor’s “Glass Underpants” in Isny" 16 Feb 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • Tim

    Maybe if Zumthor put actual care and craft into making his models, people wouldn’t have to make up such silly nicknames.

    Without sophisticated models and images of his proposals, I don’t blame the citizens for not taking his word that the project will be beautiful.

    It’s an architect’s job to create images and models that explain their work properly. If Zumthor is too isolated up in the Swiss mountains to do create professional presentations, then that’s his own fault.

    His model and drawings look very crude and if I were a citizen I’d be worried too.

    Zumthor is competing with firms like BIG. I don’t mind that he takes an “Earthier” approach to his work, but that’s not an excuse for things to look sloppy.

    • Chris Carlton

      Can’t help but agree.. Zumthor’s models never do much for me.

    • Michael

      I completely disagree with you Tim. First, model making is one of many tactics in a larger strategy to state a case for a project. It has never been a make or break aspect of presentation outside of architecture school. You win clients based upon a well-planned strategy of verbal and visual elements. Much like Bjarke Ingles, Zumthor is a master story teller and will very easily communicate a rich and deep idea without needing expensive renderings.
      Second, while Zumthor is a high-profile architect, I’m sure you know he is very selective of where he decides to build his work. Specifically, he is usually opting to not compete against larger firms like BIG, OMA, Zaha, etc. When he does do a high profile project, it is usually because he is approached by a constituent, rather than him chasing them.
      Finally, Zumthor’s best asset is his close relationship he maintains with his clients. It’s a very old school (and, in contrast, different) methodology, but it certainly does not take away from the quality of his previous work. It ties back in to what you get from him: a labeled starchitect with the care and compassion for context sensitive, beautiful architectre

      • Chris Carlton

        I’m sure Zumthor had a good relationship with the figurehead client. I’m assuming by the majority vote of no confidence by the aggregate client mob that he didn’t have such a good relationship with them.

    • DJ

      It’s Peter Zumthor. Anyone who has seen his work will know what the end result will be, and that’s sophisticated and well crafted architecture. I don’t think his models need to be anything outside of what they already are and this is coming from someone who prides themselves in making sophisticated models. Like Sonja Rube stated, the citizens were not bold enough and they didn’t have faith that the economics of this project wouldn’t fall on their shoulders. Oh well.

    • Doug C.

      Hilarious you would mention Big as his competition. They have never produced a sensitive, well-wrought building while Zumthor has only done so. The fad for glib theory over results has to end in the 21st century, doesn’t it?

    • Konrad

      Have you ever actually seen Zumthor’s buildings, models or drawings? I am sure that if you did, you wouldn’t be writing such a comment. And if you did … well everyone has different preferences. But don’t accuse Zumthor of being unable to present a project. And no work of Zumthor’s is sloppy. There is a difference between liking something and acknowledging its quality. And it’s crazy how the definition of ‘beauty’ has gone totally south nowadays …

  • majchers

    Pity. Eifel tower would be built if we all were so conservative and cautious. Loosen up Isny !

  • Chris Carlton

    21m euro for a pair of installations? Wow. You really can’t blame Isny for having some reservations. Sometimes the people aren’t deserving of a project. But other times, common sense prevails..

  • Carlos Moreira

    Cannot unsee the pants, now, dammit!

  • martin w

    i’d have to agree with the theory that the models and the “earthier” presentation – which i gree is kind of refreshing – might be a problem.

    i live just a few km near Isny and i really can imagine that the people there are just a bit overwhelmed by this more abstract approach. zumthor stated once that his designs begin with a strong image. each further design decision in a certain project goes back to that first image.
    however, i do not think people in Isny really got that image, and myself.. I didn’t get it either. In essence they wanted to replace an old city tower that once was at the building site. they expected a tower. zumthor probably re-thought the entire idea and came up with something that is his answer to a question people *should* have asked – at least from his point of view.
    money is tight, Isny is very small and people didnt get what they wanted at first, but maybe they would have gottem something that they actually need!
    Nobody was talking about Isny. then they idea to invite zumthor popped up and all of a sudden there was world wide attention (at least in the architecture circles).
    they might have had the chance to take their town one step further. people come from all over the world to visit zumthor’s creations. it would have been a chance for Isny.
    They have now chosen a more silent, and calmer way of progress with their town.

    i cant even judge if thats good or not.. could be.

  • helen

    I like that Zumthor uses traditional hand modelling techniques to communicate his designs. It is refreshing to see an architect bold enough to shun the need to hide behind seductive digital images. His ideas are pure and strong and do not need to be diluted by a desire to succed on a commercial platform.

    • martin w

      definitely! i completely agree.

      on the other hand i think if he used more direct and bright imagery on this project – especially when presenting to the people of Isny – he might have convinced them.

      sometimes i think you have to translate your “initial strong design image” into something everybody can see and also enjoy! yes.. pretty pictures with happy people..
      the architecture crowd don’t need these pictures. but i think that you really have to speel things out for the people who are living there and who are making the decision. not making a promise of how your building looks but actually of how people will gather there and interact and bring more life into the area.
      well…. it has been an interesting process in Isny. local politics, local ideas, visionaries, 21 million for a really small town and really scary – for some – model pictures in the newspapers and articles / rants explaining the “pants” idea.
      an experience on its own.

      this might be a typical story. question is, what to learn from this. i ‘m very reluctant to blame the people living there. blaming the customer, the one who’s paying is easy.
      but i dont know for sure myself with this one.

      • Michael

        Depending on a large consensus of people to come to a conclusion usually has unforeseen ramifications, even if the mainstream design culture in Europe is much more progressive towards modern and contemporary design than in the US. There seems to always be some debate that happens which derails/delays projects like this. It’s probably why a lot of starchitecture is funded by private clients.

  • fan bao

    we crowned the CCTV headquarter in Beijing “big fat pants”, though its renderings couldn’t be more dazzling…

  • jeb

    their loss.

    the model comments above are ridiculous. one of the things that makes zumthor so good is this studios models. they have a wonderful material expression. they are actually a perfect representation of his buildings.

  • Pingback: Designing Glass Underpants

  • ahmad

    I’m not going to write much but dont the people realise that master zumthor is one of the hardest architect to approach, he does not simply say yes…..