Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Essential Zumthor

Peter Zumthor's lecture at the Guggenheim Museum tonight was a pleasant experience. It was not only the design sensibility which remains untouched by fads and trends, but also the occasional jokes that reveals the most recent Pritzker laureate's way of looking at things.

Zumthor presented only two projects, both in Norway: the Zinc Mine Museum in Sauda and the Memorial to the Burning of Witches in Vardø. There are some similarity between the two projects: simple geometry, wood exoskeleton, and a substructures that defines the space. In the Zinc Mine Museum there are actually four buildings: Service Building, Mining Cafe (where you can get mining soup), Mining Museum, and Mining Platform. But he kept referring to them as "four of a kind." There's only one primary material, one type of structure, and one type of joinery - oneness with variations. In the early stages, the boxes were part of the wood skeleton and helped structurally. Then he realized the boxes should be separate, and as light as possible. That keeps them true to their material and the structural clarity of the buildings.
Zinc Mine Museum, Sauda, Norway
Memorial to the Burning of Witches, Vardø, Norway

Zumthor compared the wood skeleton in Vardø to the long wood racks that the local fishermen built to dry fish. The tensioned fabric substructure is sailcloth, also linked to the local history of the fishing village. This reminds me of Therme Vals, where slabs of quartzite seem to naturally emerge from the landscape. Zumthor once said, “When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material.” I can see this impulse of materiality comes directly from the place.

The Magic of the Real
Like most other "old-school" architects, Zumthor believes in the power of physical models over the computer. The most impressive part of the lecture were the images of 1:1 detail models and mock-ups. His atelier would study wood structural joinery in full scale, finding the simplest one-screw solution. To try to test the atmosphere and the soft/mysterious lighting effects of the window boxes in the Memorial to the Burning of Witches, they built many iterations of 1:1 trial mock-ups in Haldenstein before the Norwegians started construction.

Letting loose
When talking about the placement of the windows, he told an interesting story. "I saw my project architect trying to design the windows and I said, that can be endless. Why don't you just let it happen by chance? Set six lines, and roll dice to determine the offset. He came back to me with the result and it looked great!" In fact, the project architect tried three rounds and picked the best one. Zumthor's comment was, "architects just won't let loose." I guess he himself is loose enough - he hasn't designed the door into the textile space yet. :)

The interior of the Zinc Mine Museum is very simple. In addition to a display of artifacts, there are three windows for three books, compiled by different collaborators on different subjects such as geology, history, and subterranean (mythology and world literature). Zumthor seemed to have had fun with those authors/editors, although he didn't remember their names. He enjoyed working with Louise Bourgeois on the Memorial to the Burning of Witches installation too. But when it comes to local engineers? Uh-uh. "I just realized structural forces are very different in Switzerland and Norway. I remember years ago when I crossed the border to Austria, I learned that the lightening there was completely different!"
Early version of the installation at the Memorial to the Burning of Witches by Louise Bourgeois

Initially Zumthor wanted to use old-fashioned light bulbs for the window boxes in the Memorial. He got frustrated when EU told him he has to use the new energy efficient ones. In the case of the Louise Bourgeois installation, the flame on the chair is always lit but the ring of fire around it will only light up when you get close. "To save energy they said. You can tell how much I like this kind of things... It just makes it (the installation) weak."

The citation from the 2009 Pritzker jury says, “In paring down architecture to its barest yet most sumptuous essentials, [Peter Zumthor] has reaffirmed architecture’s indispensable place in a fragile world.” I think the Pritzker has sent out a strong message: it's about time for architects to look back to the essentials of our profession. A return to the things themselves.

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