Multiplicity and Memory: Talking About Architecture with Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor - Courtesy of Marco Masetti

This interview was completely conducted and translated by Marco Masetti, done as his bachelor’s degree thesis in Italy.

The idea of multiplicity is innate in Peter Zumthor’s projects since his very first works: works of art surrounding us put on various meanings, which do not always remain on parallel levels combining well with dialectical relationships. The vague is planned strictly, holding by the rules of the architectural language. Beauty is in the undetermined, the multiple, but it is obtainable only through precision. Multiplicity of objects is shown only when who is living with them can distinguish their single parts and, at the same time, can see the work in its wholeness. This throw back to the “unitary” character of architecture, in which every part is in relation with the others and together they give a sense to the project. Zumthor’s planning is pure: nothing is pointless. In this society, as the architect says, «architecture has to oppose resistance», and react to the naughtiness of shapes and meanings, and return to talk its own language. Original shape invention or particular composition doesn’t take to the truth. Between multiplicity and silence there’s a tense and vibrational relationship, and the concrete idea is in their equilibrium.

Things determine the spatial dimension of the world, and therefore its knowledge and usability to us. The project triggers a linking mechanism between things, so they can assume a meaning to the user, becoming an efficient tool to know of the world. Things, objects, the world of references, transform our sensations in remembrance. The pictures that come to mind enclose Zumthor’s research heart. Shape is the result, not the reason. Beauty doesn’t come out of the shape alone, but of the multiplicity of impressions, sensations and emotions that the shape has us to discover.

For Zumthor there is a strong connection between reality and living. This brings him to be oriented towards the concrete, imagining “things” and not “theories”. Emotion reveals the “authentic core” of things.

Saint Benedict - Courtesy of Marco Masetti

From emotion he passes on to remembrance and memory, which are the central threads in Zumthor’s research.

«The world is overloaded of signs and information, representative of things – Zumthor wrote – that nobody completely understands, because they are in turn nothing but signs representative of other signs. The real thing remains hidden. Nobody can ever see it». Zumthor’s architecture has nothing to hide from us: It is a direct sign that doesn’t throw back to other meanings. His architectural gestures remain dipped into the surroundings and don’t subjugate them to disputable formalisms. It’s no accident that his work is frequently categorized as minimal. Minimalist work always depends on a spectator, therefore it isn’t autonomous (or best, self-referenced), and furthermore it gives the impression to contain something, to be empty inside. «At the center of architecture, there seems to be an empty space. You can’t plan emptiness, but you can draw its boundaries, and so empty comes to life». So architecture is emptiness, and if the architect wants to produce beauty, he has to work on light and vibrations (sonorous, tactile…) that spread in this absence. Zumthor gives particular importance to the “metaphysical silence” and its peculiar and precise characteristics, akin to poetry. As George Steiner writes, «silence is an alternative. When, in the polis, words are filled with barbarism and lies, nothing talks as strongly as non-written poetry».

The process used by Zumthor to reach the memory is the «architectonic dramatization»: maybe it’s the only possible way to remember, because it’s only through emotions that mankind can remember. The monument, as a symbol, is not conceived by Zumthor, who imagines the building as a real place, not a content falsification. «To build a monument, – as he said – where every politician put up his plaque or his wreath, is the first act of forgetfulness».

In the shelters for the Roman archaeological site in Chur, Zumthor decides to establish an architectural link between the ruins and the city. The building is a filter between internal space and the city, that can penetrate, in the form of air, light and sound, through the thin plates in wood. The impression is to enter a non-temporal field: the space of the memory. Temporality is realized when the work considers the space in its totality, without distinctions between in and out. It is perceived only to (and in presence of) a spectator of the work that lives its volumes, contributing to strengthen the relations between architecture and the spectator himself.

In his works, light writes silently on objects the poetry, that is the only way to reach the truth – as he wrote in Thinking architecture. Originality and oddness have no connection with poetry. Air, light, sounds, and materials are the alphabet of his architecture, which speaks of itself, without however stunning us. A case in which (finally) the content returns to be the subject. This is the center of Zumthor’s architecture: they aren’t built to amaze us, as a performance, but they are here for man, who doesn’t have to be «stunned with chatter».

Zumthor has never investigated the theme of the city. By the way in some case it’s possible to distinguish interesting characteristics of this topic. I think of the Kunsthaus Museum’s square in Bregenz, and also at the relationship between building, ruins and city in Koln.

Kunsthaus - Courtesy of Marco Masetti

Zumthor always prefers knowledge, thought, order, in a century when man is looking for simple pleasures, immediate and ephemeral. These are the reflections that motivated me to try interviewing Mr. Peter Zumthor.

9th December 2009, Haldenstein, Graubünden, Switzerland.

Haldenstein is a little mountainous village, but, unlike the others, it has no “in style” buildings, awful expression of lack of architectural culture: the stratification of what is old and what is contemporary doesn’t take from the first, but both these souls become reconciled and in a way they mutually contemplate, without perverting each other.

Zumthor’s Atelier is representative of this pacific cohabitation in the silence of Alpine landscape: its structure, the construction method, and the use of materials are modern and recognizable, but its presence doesn’t offend the historic dimension of the place.

Zumthor’s collaborator Olivia Schmidt receives me into the Atelier; light enters from the wide windows and illuminates the models which are on the tables. It seems like a perfect ambient for working. Then she brings me to the personal architect’s office that is contiguous to his house. The first thing I do, as well as anyone who enters the house, is to leave my shoes in a little room and put on slippers. Passing through a room packed with models and sheets, that proves the intense activity of the architect, I get to the room for the interview. I’m sitting in front of him, and while I’m preparing the recording equipment, I hear music coming from the next room: an unexpected drum, a few seconds of rock, then silence.

The interview can start.

You write that «the world is full of signs and information, which stand for things that no one fully understands because they, too, turn out to be mere signs for other things. Yet the real thing remains hidden. No one never gets to see it» [PETER ZUMTHOR, Thinking architecture, Basel, Birkhäuser, 2006, p. 16.]. How can architecture offer «resistance» to the «waste of forms and meanings»? Let me be more specific: what are the projects most inspiring to you that embody this concept of «resistant» architecture?

Peter Zumthor - Courtesy of Marco Masetti

There aren’t…

I don’t work in this way, with these references. I try to work like a normal person, like my mother for example, and I try to follow the needs of function and use: what does the place want, what does the place ask. It isn’t an academic work. These references upset me.

When you are in the planning phase, what is the first thing you do?

To feel, to think, to be careful… it’s nothing special, isn’t it? Just using common sense, to be bright, perceptive…

During the first planning stage, you think of the needs of the place and what it lacks. Then how does the planning evolve?

I don’t only think of the place: I visit it, because it’s a physical experience and all can be thought as being in the place.

In architecture, there’s always an underlying need. I think of the utilization: is what I do valuable? Do I like it? And what does it lack? I try to think and feel together the needs of function, use, and the peculiarity of the place. In the place physical appearance, when it’s observed, there is the whole history, because history shows in the world’s body, much more than in books. Also in books, certainly, but history, the memory, becomes narrative to be studied in university, where they need the book’s narration. But the true history, our families’ history, our people’s history, is here, and here, and there, and once again here, isn’t it? . So this is my work: to observe, and to understand what I see…or to try to understand.

In your work, emotion becomes memory. How is it possible to arouse the right emotion in those who live in architectural masterpieces, the wanted emotion connected to the remembrance that the architect would like us to feel in that specific place? I’m thinking especially of the residential house for the elderly in Masans…

Masans - Courtesy of Marco Masetti
Residential Home for the Elderly in Masans floor plan
Residential Home for the Elderly in Masans section

It doesn’t happen in such academic manner. It’s much easier. It’s to use common sense: what is beautiful? What would be the best thing to have? What does arouse a positive feeling? What are the things that you want when you will be elderly? This is because you can’t make an emotional project. If you’re looking for beauty and for emotion you will always be in the wrong.

It’s great when it happens, but you can’t plan the emotions. It isn’t a voluntary act, there is always something beyond, pertaining to the craft’s material. Architecture is always these two things: the place and the use. You can build something where you feel fine and where all is made in relation to use and function. Maybe beauty comes after that, if you’re lucky. I work in this manner. I’m really tight-knit with things, sensations, and experience. To bring together these things you need to be a little talented, it seems to me. Not everyone is a composer. You have to be talented to see these things.

So you don’t “plan” the memory?

Not directly. I work like this: you see something, and all the things on this world have their history, it’s inevitable. All has its history, even the bad things. All is recounting a long, long history for everyone, not only for architects. Therefore it’s very normal to work with memory. But you have to be aware about these things and you have to know how to see them without losing yourself in an academic field.

You said that «when you like some material and you approach it with an honest mind, you treat it well, warmly» [BARBARA STEC, Conversazioni con Peter Zumthor, in "Casabella" n.719, feb. 2004, pp. 6-13]. How do you choose the building materials for your works? In some cases, they aren’t in any relation to the construction site. For example concrete is, in a certain way, a universal material that, depending on the working process, can assume different aspects to the touch and to the sight. The building materials you choose for your architectural pieces are always exact and precise. What is the principle that determines this choice?

Therme Vals - Courtesy of Marco Masetti
Therme Vals plan 01

I think that every project has its theme. And it has to be formulated in a very strong way, so that the entire building and all things, can be explained by this principal theme. For me, the principal theme isn’t an abstract idea, but a physical one. The architecture which interests me is concrete architecture, not architecture as an abstraction. So there is already a body: the idea is a real body. I hope there will always be a logical reason for choosing the building materials. Even for this building we are in , I like it when Germans or strangers ask me where this concrete comes from, and I can answer “it comes from Tuscany”. It’s Michelangelo’s “pietra serena”!

Firstly we always talk about an idea for a building, about a structure with its materials. Then slowly, during the planning phase, it’s possible to understand and to know better its details. But upfront there’s an idea: it’s made of concrete, or it’s made of wood, or it’s made of concrete but inside there are a lot of wood things…

Architecture is also a language, it is especially a language…

I disagree. It isn’t especially a language. Architecture is something for living, not a language. My mother wants a house for living, not a language. It isn’t possible to live in a language.

In fact, you reduce the architectonic language signs to the fundamental signs…

Zumthor House - Courtesy of Marco Masetti
Zumthor House plan 01
Zumthor House plan 02

This subject is boring me. Because I’m very committed to making good houses, and I’m disturbed by all the rest. Maybe I’m too old. There is a language, as you well know. It is worth one’s while to be intelligent about all these things, but this isn’t the focal point of my work. I love philosophy, but not the architect’s one, the philosopher’s philosophy. For me it’s better.

Let me return one moment on the building materials. How do you develop in your work the research of the right ones?

When I have the first idea, the theme, I think about how the site’s elements react, like alchemy, with my emotions on the site and my personal idea about the use of it… it all fits together. The most fascinating projecting moment is the beginning. It’s always the most beautiful thing. When all things there are and aren’t, when all is possible. There’s no restriction, no building obligations, nor costs… All is light, all is dream, all is desire. It’s a splendid moment.

Tell me about this alchemy between the materials: does it come from a research or is it an accidental result?

No, it comes out of a great research. It’s always a new research. Because we have an idea and many times we don’t know how to realize it. In this aspect, I think I am courageous enough, because I’m not shy and I think that in the beginning everything is possible.

It’s important to me to be very generous and open to all possibilities, and afterward it becomes a research. Nothing is normal. This Atelier doesn’t produce commercial architecture, but “art-architecture”. Perhaps half of the details are standard, sometimes less, so we have to invent the other details. And there is a wide research activity.

All your works have an architectonic measure. You don’t seem to want to propel yourself beyond this dimension. You don’t worry about the city and the city planning. Also in your writings you rarely talk about it. Why? What’s the relationship between your architecture and the city?

Saint Benedict - Courtesy of Marco Masetti
Saint Benedict Chapel plan

I don’t know very much about the city. It’s beautiful to know the history of cities. Like in Aldo Rossi’s book, that is filled with emotions and also talks about the city of memory, not only about the physical city, like Benevolo, who makes a description. Now, when I read texts on cities written by architects, I think that after a while they become fictitious. “What does it mean?”. I have an image of the city, but it’s true: I never talked about it. Two years ago I did it for the first time, talking about landscape and architecture. It would be a good theme, which would allow me to be honest on what I know and what I don’t know…

Many things happen without architects, they are the result of economics, politics, and many other things, and architects can only observe what happens.

It’s true… it’s an interesting theme… for the next time!

For example in Bregenz, you added a museum into a city structure…

Also in Köln…

Exactly, also in Köln. What did it mean to introduce a museum in these cities, in these urban contexts?

The museum in Bregenz is very precise. I thought about its appearance and how it fits in this little town. In a certain way, no one built anything with an urban value on this site since the Middle Ages.

One of the most beautiful things about your architecture is that your works are built with a purpose. I have little experience in the architectonic field because I’m only at the beginning, but when I look around it seems to me that we are losing this working manner, and I think it’s a pity. Often architecture has become only invention, pure imposition of the architect’s mind, who instead should hold back, as you wrote…

In Italy, but also in the United States, there are academic architects who remain out of the market. Professors that maybe haven’t built more than a garage, but they talk very well and they have a culture that produces architects who can’t produce resistance into the world, into the hard business world. And this is a pity. Maybe it will change. We hope it will change. Someone told me that Ferrara has a good school, very connected to making things. When all is going wrong, a new movement emerges. Otherwise this profession will reduce itself to making forms and all the rest will be a task for others. It will be less important than drawing clothes. The architect who produces this kind of projects will be excluded by those who have to build the projects.

Can you tell us about the new projects you are working on now?

Peter Zumthor - Courtesy of Marco Masetti

Mr. Zumthor points to a blackboard in which are listed about twenty projects in progress, dispersed in all the world; among them the new LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He doesn’t talk anymore. His projects communicate for him. His character bashful and contained, but very helpful, lets me understand that our conversation has ended. His language remains intact in his architectonic production. After a formal goodbye, I put on my shoes and I leave the house, without being ushered to the door.

Snow covers the mountains around Haldenstein. A landscape from where comes the detailed sobriety of the architect. The Alpine surrounding is made of rock, water, light and silence, elements loaded with natural energies that are the essence of Zumthor’s architectonic body of work.

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About this author
Cite: Nico Saieh. "Multiplicity and Memory: Talking About Architecture with Peter Zumthor" 02 Nov 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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