Below is an excerpt of the cover story of this month’s Surface magazine: an in-depth look at Peter Zumthor’s recently completed Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum, featuring exclusive quotes from the architect himself.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the new Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum outside Sauda, Norway, is that it looks nothing like a museum—or at least, what we think of as a museum. On a steep site framed by elegantly rugged walls of dry stone, three black, shed-like and zinc-roofed structures look far too small to house exhibits, much less hordes of visitors. But this isn’t a museum in the conventional sense. Consisting of a service building with restrooms, a café, and a gallery—all perched on tall timber supports—it’s more a memorial to those who toiled in the zinc mine that operated on the site from 1881 to 1899 in the spectacularly beautiful Allmannajuvet Ravine. The mine and its accompanying trail were long ago abandoned, the original buildings a distant memory.
To followers of contemporary architecture, it’s no surprise that that the museum’s haunting trio of latter-day mine shacks was designed by Peter Zumthor, the Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect known not only for his focus on craftsmanship and the subtleties of a building’s site, but also for his sensitivity to what the eye can’t see. “Landscapes, cities—they store history,” he says. “If you have an awareness of history, it comes to be part of the now. I try to make the almost-forgotten history of a place part of my buildings.”
That history appears not just in the industrial aesthetic of Allmannajuvet’s architecture, but in small touches like the site map, cut into a cast zinc plaque, that greets visitors at the service building; the café gift shop’s array of wool scarves, caps, socks, and mittens, handmade by Aud Gloppen of Oslo-based firm Blaest Design and approved by Zumthor himself; and the oversize books that were commissioned for the gallery to complement the selection of tools and other artifacts from the mine. The books cover the site’s geology and vegetation, its history and its architecture, and include an anthology of underground-themed written works ranging from literary classics (Dante’s Inferno and Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt) to popular music hits (Barry and Robin Gibb’s “New York Mining Disaster 1941”) to a hybrid of the two (Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”).
The uncompromising darkness of the buildings was achieved by coating their plywood walls with black PMMA, a European-made waterproofing material, applied over a substrate of jute mesh—a more resilient echo of the tar that covered old industrial buildings in the area. Zumthor experimented with jute when he was designing the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in London, but Allmannajuvet represents his first use both for permanent exterior cladding and for the interiors. To his team’s knowledge, it’s the first time PMMA has been applied on vertical and overhead surfaces. The architect considered using color on the buildings, but ultimately decided against it. “The color is in the landscape,” he said, pointing to the view through window of the café.
The effect of jute on the interiors is intimate and welcoming rather than starkly utilitarian. In both the café and gallery, ceiling heights vary dramatically, from 15-and-a-half feet in some areas—to allow indirect light in through skylights—to just over seven feet in the gallery’s exhibition area and the seating areas in the café. In the latter, stainless steel-framed ribbon windows are located at table height so that visitors can admire the scenery while having lunch or coffee (on Zumthor-designed furnishings, under Zumthor-designed ceiling lights). All three buildings have a structure of creosote-impregnated, glue-laminated pine supports, which are attached to steel plates bolted to the rock in a pains-taking feat of engineering by Zumthor in close collaboration with Finn-Erik Nilsen and Jürg Buchli. Detailed dimensioning was done by Nilson and Lauber Ingenieure. The tallest of the vertical supports measures nearly 79 feet.