Wednesday, 28 April 2010

An interview with Peter Zumthor

This was my first interview with anyone, and to interview Zumthor to begin with was a daunting task, I was naive and fell down many pitfalls along the way, but here is the interview warts and all for you to read, I hope there is enough for you to enjoy.

As I climbed the road into the tiny village of Haldenstein, Switzerland, I was unsure what to expect. I had left my flat in London at 4am to fly to Zurich and several train journeys later I was a few minutes away from meeting Peter Zumthor.

His studio is obvious enough to find, a depature from the vernacular architecture of the village and a trademark cantilevered dorway, crafted from black metal greeted me. There was a doorbell and suprisingly a plaque in English asking to ‘please ring’ I was met by one of his studio workers, where, now I was not suprised that English is the first language of his office. As I walked up the stairs, his office was all too familiar. Details and elements probably tried out here first and repeated through his many buildings.

I was left at the end of the studio, observing a few members of his office working, left to leaf through a pile of Domus journals whilst I contemplated the interview, I had prepared a series of questions but I was unsure how Zumthor would react.

After nearly an hour of waiting his secretary led me over to the other building that comprises of his studio. I entered and was asked to take off my shoes, they were replaced by slippers (probably designed by Zumthor himself!) then led through studios full of models I had seen in previous exhibitions, finally I sat down in the meeting room, and waited; a short while later Zumthor enters, and this is where the interview begins.

NH I have a series of questions I’d like to run through with you if that’s ok?

PZ What are your themes?

NH My themes are, Models, Process, Representation and Materiality.

PZ How long will this take?

NH There are about 20 questions, is that too many? Or do you want me to speed through them?

PZ Ok, lets go.

NH First of all I’d like to start by reading you a quote, which is a definition of a model, it’s from a book by Albert C Smith, entitled ‘Architectural Model as a Machine’

‘Of the multiple definitions associated with the word ‘model’, the French word maquette is proably closest to the concept of what this study refers to as the architectural model. Literally a maquette is a demonstration designed to gauge the general appearance or composition ofthe thing planned. The key to the significance of a maquette is the concept of demonstration. The word ‘demonstrate’ comes from the Latin monstrum, and means to divine, portend or warn. A demonstration offers a foreshadowing of coming events and allows a certain prophetic indication of meaning through marvel, prodigy and wonder.’

Would you agree with this?

PZ No.

NH No? What would you define a model as?

PZ My definition of a model is, you can read in a little red book called ‘Thinking Architecture’.

NH Ok.

PZ And you will see a chapter on representation, for me this is working with materials and less representation it is part of the work already and I work like a sculptor. I think it’s a beautiful definition but it is not my way.

NH So your way is more of a process, rather than a means of representation?

PZ The model is part of the work, its process but it’s not abstract. We do the buildings! Then we look at them, how high is it? What could it be and so on, our models always have to do with the building, you see you are surrounded by models (laughs…)

NH Which comes first the model or the drawing? I know from my own experience, I have an idea I tend to build a model first, it’s not to say that I don’t draw, I draw whilst modelling. But it’s usually an idea I have in my head and I build the model to articulate the idea. What is your design process?

PZ The model comes soon, the drawing…you know…in order to explain the thing, you sketch, you make a sketch, you talk about this, it is to do words, sometimes it is to do with sketches. We always talk. And then we start to build. The model comes early, very early.

NH And is the model the final way of representing the

PZ It’s not representing it. It’s not representing. This is not representation (PZ points to a model in the room). This is it for me. It’s for me to look at and imagine, and see and read. To see how the light comes. It’s not representation, it’s like Giacometti making a sculpture. He is not representing something with the first sculpture, it is the work, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger! It’s physical that’s what it’s about.

NH The next question goes back to a conversation I had with one of my tutors, the conversation went something along these lines.

NH Patrick, I was wondering if I need to actually produce any drawings for my design work this year, I mean I would just like to model the whole thing, but doesn’t the RIBA require me to demonstrate that I can draw a plan, section and elevation?

PL I think it would be great to only model it, models and sketches, as for the RIBA, think about if you were an architect at a design team meeting. You the architect, project manager, engineer, environmental engineer, quantity surveyor etc. If you presented a 1:200 site, 1:50 of the building, 1:20s of various parts and 1:5 or 1:1 details in model form, there isn’t going to be anyone at the meeting saying ‘I don’t understand the model can I see a drawing!’

NH Yes, I agree there is no way you can’t understand a model, just obviously no one does them because it would be time consuming to represent a building in full through modeling.

Conversation with Patrick Lewis in Cologne October 2008

Have you ever considered designing a building with out working drawings?

For example I could see how your Bruder Klaus Chapel could be built without the need for drawings?

PZ I think for me these questions are too academic. (laughs…) For me they are not that interesting, because I am a passionate architect. I love buildings, process; whatever helps me to make the building I do. I would fly through the air or whatever! I want the building so I don’t care what I have to do. Usually my Mother or everyone with common sense will say there is a convention of sheet music, so people can play the ideas of Mozart, because there is a convention of these notes and that’s the same how we execute drawings. There is a convention, that if I make a proper working drawing or execution drawing that everyone in the world can read it. There (laughs…)

So why should I make a model that they will have to measure to work out the size of it, go to the shop measure materials, its sort of like and academic question, could be, could not be. It doesn’t interest me.

NH With this question I was thinking about the Bruder Klaus Chapel, I could see how this could be built without the need for any drawings?

PZ It’s completely drawn up at the end, its made like this, very physical with samples and models, but at the end you always have plans. So it is easy for the workers, they can measure etc.

NH The Bruder Klaus Chapel is beautifully elegant in its simplicity form and construction. Having seen the models before visiting the Chapel I noticed that most buildings do not have such a clear connection between model and building. How do you view the Bruder Klaus Chapel?

PZ How?

NH Do you view the Bruder Klaus Chapel as an architectural model in its own right, or is it a building or more appropriately (as I believe) the culmination of a series of experimental processes?

PZ The Bruder Klaus Chapel?

NH Yes

PZ It’s a chapel for Bruder Klaus, a building obviously. (laughs…)

NH But the end of a process of experimentation with ways of building?

PZ These questions are very academic, and I’m sorry to have to tell you I am not interested in this. I’m interested in buildings. I only do buildings. Everything I do is a building. I’m like a craftsman’s I do buildings. So… obviously the building is the end of a process… not the beginning (PZ laughs…)

I know for me this is probably a negative reaction to your question. I’m so much concerned with all the pain and labour and things to make a building and when I see that young architects are dealing with academic questions, is the end or the middle or the beginning of a process I get kind of confused! Come on, Come on, Come on! Learn how to do concrete or something!

I’m sorry (PZ laughs…)

NH No, to be honest I’m probably of the same opinion as you, it should just be about buildings

PZ Yes it, should! But lets go on

NH Ok, I would say that the model you had in your book atmospheres of the Bruder Klaus Chapel with the light falling down and the reflection in the pool of water, I would say it was a demonstration of both process and atmosphere, is that what you were aim ing for in that model?

PZ I can say yes, see I can tell you something, your questions, you make bad questions, they are full of pre-assumptions, you know. There is this and this and this, I thought this, this and this and my teachers thought this, this and this! God Damit! Make a simple question. What does this image do, you don’t have to tell me what you think or what this person thinks, this is bad questions, good questions leave everything open to me and I can answer how I want.

I am sorry, they are sort of like closed questions, so you don’t learn, you get people mad, isn’t it like that, how I thought it was, how brilliant that I am!

In the future don’t do this have the people show you how brilliant they are because everyone knows we are all brilliant and that you understood already everything.

Because you are brilliant, we are all brilliant (laughs…)

You see this model (PZ points to a model in the room…) we try to see this looks, is it working, if the light comes and so on. Then we look at it and think hey this looks great lets do it! It’s very simple.

Shorten your questions!

NH I will do.

PZ (laughs…)

NH My next question, are you careful with what you show a client?

PZ No, I tell the truth

NH But, how much influence does that client have?

PZ Well it comes to use, he has a lot of influences here!
(PZ laughs…) He is the expert…he is the expert on what he wants So if he wants to have a house for the British Army, I’ll say, you’re an expert but I wont do it, because I am not doing buildings for military purposes. But if I accept the purpose, I’d like to talk to him, not about forms but about use.

NH And where do your forms come from?

PZ The forms?

NH Yes.

PZ Well I guess that they come from a lot of things,they come from the level of use, the level of place, the level of history, everything you know, maybe this is too academic everything you know about the place, the history, the specific use and so on. And then there is the…there’s imagination. And suddenly I have an image of the talking, looking and so on, and so on, but there is this image. And this is like a spark. Everybody knows this is the image of something and then you look at this inner mental image, and I look at it, and I start to talk about it. If its good and I’m excited I go on, but that’s where ideas come from, the basic idea comes from the person I guess, from each person. It’s some kind of beautiful human reaction, which is called imagination.

NH I wanted to go back to that conversation that I
had with my tutor, but it’s about the reason why people don’t model everything, my argument is probably different from what you said earlier, and it’s about time, but from reading previous interviews with you time is one thing you seem to allow with buildings?

PZ You know…I observe how I work, I want to workfast but I need some time to mature things, I’m very honest with myself when looking at the thing, and when something doesn’t feel right I’m not building it. Sometimes I know when something is wrong but I don’t know what, then I will have to find out, if everything feels right then I do it. But if this happens very quick then I’m really happy! But usually it takes time, sometimes you think it looks great and then all of a sudden a couple of months later it looks wrong. I think because I have an image of my building, I’m not doing drawings; I don’t have time to dimension them. I have images so, the inner images are generated of what I want to do…sometimes…unconsciously the angle of my inner camera changes and I see something I never saw before and then I look at this something I didn’t know before I look at it and see it is wrong.

I would like to be as fast as hell, but it needs time!

NH I noticed in your models you show materials and
processes to be used in the built work, but you never fully reveal the building, is it exciting to leave part of it to the imagination, to not fully explore everything in the model?

PZ No, this is very pragmatic, I explore with one model what I can only explore or a couple of aspects of the building, then I isolate them and look at them. And the in order to get all the people excited to give me money or permissions and so on, I’m not going to shown the resolved parts but the great parts and say hey look at this, other parts are not this beautiful yet, but this is how it’s going to be, what do you think?

This is my profession to do this, and also for ourselves so that we look at something, it’s nothing mysterious, its very pragmatic.

NH I was just wondering whether part of the fun of building something is the fact that you’re not sure how it will end up when it’s finished?

PZ No, I try to know everything, I try to have no surprises, there will be surprises always but this is model building, in kinetic images, to be sure to look and take time to be sure I know what I am doing.

NH I think I read somewhere that you build a model, photograph it and then try to recreate the atmosphere in the photograph and I found a quote by Walter Benjamin that I think fits in quite well this that. ‘In photography process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unobtainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will and photographs reproduction with the aid of certain processes such as enlargement or slow motion can capture images which escape natural vision. Is the atmosphere that you see in the photograph of the model something you’re attempting to recreate in the building?

PZ Definitely, of course it is nice what he says, but I think maybe he…I’m trying to do the building so I photograph the models because I don’t believe in computer aided design renderings and we need to make models and put them into real sunlight to learn from that. I know what he means but it is on another level, it maybe that some of our photographs of the models show the atmosphere and this is what we want to do, it maybe very hard then to get that, the atmosphere we have there. The photograph helps me to take away the scale so if I look at this (the model) I look at the model; if I look at this (the photograph) I look at reality? So the photograph takes away the stupid model scale.

NH So they make the models become real.

PZ Right. If I show this to an audience they can say
‘This looks real’, this is good because I want to make real things.

NH There is another quote by Walter Benjamin. ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element, its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the where place it happens to be.’ Is that what you are trying to get?

PZ For sure (PZ says something in German)

NH I read also that when people photograph your buildings you don’t view then as representation of your buildings but as works of art in their own right.

PZ That would be nice that the best photographs they are secret Benjamin works, they are of course this would be the best, but it happens, everything’s happens also, they are just snapshots.

NH I was going to ask you how you viewed a photograph of your model, but I think you already answered this in a previous question.

PZ Yes.

NH I have here a photograph of the model of the Therme Baths, it’s an amazing image, unfortunately when I saw the model it was indoors in the Kunsthaus, so the sun was not shining through and casting the shadows shown in the photograph, was it your intention to achieve this when you were building it and is it that successful?

PZ I think so, it was the stone and water and the build-
ing is the stone and water and sun, if you visit the building you will see this!

NH I also noticed that with this model you also used thestone you obviously used in the building.

PZ Of course

NH But you used it at a different scale, to that of the model?

PZ At this time we didn’t know how to do this with this gneiss, so we did it like this, this is the basic idea, only later on we can see how we can produce this in the building

NH Yes, and with the floor in the model, were you using it to experiment with the layering of the stone?

PZ Yes, exactly this.

NH Recently I saw an exhibition by a German artist,
Thomas Demand, he found photographs of a crime scene of a murder case in Germany and he built models of the photographs he found, and then photographed the models and then exhibited the photographs

PZ These are of crime scenes???

NH Yes the ones I saw were of crime scenes, he has done other works too, would you ever….it’s quite an odd form of representation, but would you ever view a building as a representation of one of your models?


NH I have more questions about representation but I’m not sure after what you said earlier I should ask you!

PZ Up to you? (laughs…)

NH (also laughs…)

NH Ok, I read in Thinking Architecture that you talk
about the balancing act of materials, choosing 3 grams of a certain thing and I also understand your material selection comes from your memories of opening a door handle etc. Do you see this as a representation of your past in your buildings?

PZ No, just this is working with materials.

NH And it’s just your experiences of these materials?

PZ I’m not so special about the atmospheres and the reactions of the materials, I think I share this with most people, I have a certain feeling that most of the people have the same feeling as me.

It has absolutely nothing to do with representation, but about making

NH Ok, I wanted to move on to how you are repre sented in the architectural media, and people almost see you as a mystic figure in architecture and I wondered whether that was your own doing or people reading into what you do and making their own assumptions?

PZ I do my work, I am completely focused on my work, I’m not money driven, I have no networking, I do not usually want to publish interviews like this (I only do one in ten!) this gives some kind of representation. It’s nothing special, I just want to concentrate on my work, you cannot control the media. They do this and that and sometimes it’s stupid. It’s maybe how people can understand the way I work?

This we have nice work to do, and I’m very happy I can do this, I’ve never made a phone call to anybody, I’ve never made a phone call to anybody to publish or anything. The work gets recognised and seen as beautiful, although I don’t care.

NH I wanted to ask you about the same subject, theBruder Klaus Chapel, being a religious building, a spiritual place, but because of its publicity, it’s become almost an architectural tourist attraction, for want of a better expression. How do you feel about this?

PZ I have mixed feelings you know, if my colleague architects, most of all young architects, if they are inspired to do something on their own which is to do with real matter and real space and real use, dealing with use and function and space and all these things, then I think it’s great! But just the other day I was in Frankfurt and the director of the Kolumba Museum, he said a lot of people go there and comeback and they spend their hours very quietly and comeback, there are people writing me letters, their best friend died in early age, people I don’t know, they tell me they go there to recover. They go to the Kolumba museum for half a day and stay there and recover. They thank me for this, of course beautiful. This happens with many, most of the buildings we do. And then this guy the director says there’s one type of visitor I hate, they don’t understand anything, and this is these architects, their professors walking them there taking snapshots all over the place, so that’s the bad part.

It depends.

NH Would you say then that you almost wish architects or architecture students didn’t visit this building?

PZ I told you if architects go there to be inspired to learn, that’s fine, but if they go there just to photograph the details so they can make their next study work in school, then this is unbearable.

It’s like real life, there are good things and bad things

NH I think I just wanted to finish with this last question here, I’ve been reading an article called Material Presence and Mystery of Objects by Pamela Self.

PZ By who?

NH Pamela Self

PZ Should I know her?

NH No, I’ve got a copy of the article if you would like to have it?


NH And she describes the work of the sculptor Richard Serra as

‘Serra encourages us to consider the effect of human action on materials, rather than contemplate static form: the work and the process used to create are unified’

In the baths at Vals you used the stone from the local quarry, for our atelier trip last year we visited the quarry and Pius Truffer was kind enough to show and explain the amazing process the stone goes through to arrive at the state in which it is used at the baths. Do you feel it is important for people to acknowledge the process the materials go through in you buildings?

For me this is particularly evident after visiting the quarry, but others surely can appreciate the workmanship.

PZ It’s not the primary thing I want to do I guess, the building has to be beautiful for it’s use, and has to resonate of its place, so everything that helps me do that is ok.

What was the question, so that you can see how the material is processed?

NH Yes, exactly that.

PZ That’s not my starting point, I don’t start there, and I have no actual starting points. I want to create an architecture of atmosphere and many times I find that it helps me, that the material helps me, like it helped Beuys to make sculptures, he uses this, and this and this tree trunk to make his sculptures, to make his statement. It is quite similar in architecture, I deal with real matter. So… the concrete, this is usually much better to be abstract to create the atmospheres.

NH And lastly I wanted to mention another person she quotes, Victor Sklovskji who defines art as

‘means of experiencing the making of a thing’

Would this apply to your architecture?

PZ Art is not architecture, architecture is architecture and I’m doing architecture as architecture not art. I have space to use and so on, you know so this is outside my real (laughs…)

NH Well that’s it.

PZ Done?

NH Yes

PZ Good.

NH Thank you for your time.

Peter Zumthor exits to the left of the room, calmly walking away, from what I get the impression has been a slight annoyance on his day, I sit there and tidy my notes, I wanted to leave a copy of A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan there as a thank you. Inside was a photograph of an installation that myself and fellow students had built on the Columba Museum, Cologne, but after Zumthor’s answers to my questions it seemed inappropriate perhaps even offensive to do so. I left the room to my right, replace my slippers with shoes and left feeling slightly empty. Realising that Zumthor may not be the mystic that everyone protrays him as, but instead very good at what he does.


  1. Nick,
    I appreciate your enthusiasm and am jealous of your opportunity to speak to him, but I must say you did set yourself up for failure.

    I think the mistake most students (including myself many years ago), acedemia, and media make is that we tend to deify those practitioners of what we feel are the best and most inspirational works. This veneration is a completely subjective and self-defeating act.

    It is not that appreciating the architect and the work isn't important, but making the architect and the work out to be more than the real case - inferring more emotion, intellect, theory, didacticism, pedagogy, than the reality - is insulting to the subject as well as the audience.

    It is not that the depth may, or may not, be there, but that the interpretation may be completely off. And many an author of many a work are often confused or annoyed when their intent or meaning are misconstrued.

    No "star" architect should be seen as holding the intellectual keys to the design universe. In fact, the "star architect" system is total crap. Often times words and marketing are hyped over reality and today's heros become tomorrows pariahs (e.g. Michael Graves, deservedly a pariah).

    This is denigrating to the student and the rest of the profession. Everyone should be able to reach for the best in design, but should also be subject to the same criticism when they don't. I, for one, have many mixed feelings about many of my "favorite" architects, only because I am disappointed by their failures in light of some of their immense successes.

    When we, both public and peers, give too much credence, even infatuation, to a designer as intellectual beacon, or sublime aesthetic savior, we risk the subject becoming caught up in that artifice and begin to believe all their own BS as well as that directed toward them. They then really stray from what they were doing in the first place, which was making stuff they felt was good and their clients liked. Most times it is as simple as that, or should be.

    In the end, your final conclusion was right. He's not some buddha-design mystic tied into something ethereal no one else is. He's just good at his job. He has is own perspective about how to do architecture. He's entitled to that, it is HIS work after all. Any critique, analysis, or discussion that is not from his own mind, or referenced by himself is meaningless.

  2. I disagree. Great architecture is so only because it is made by a great architect. It's always a man (or woman) who makes something great, so don't discount the man.

    Zumthor is a Master Maker. Don't discount the sensibility, sensitivity, judgment, and rigor it takes to achieve that, and don't diminish it. Excellence does exist. It is rare in the world and difficult to pursue, more difficult to achieve. I may never.

    The man is the real thing. Therefore the architecture is also. He and it deserves respect. I'd argue to not lump it in with the lowest common denominator, as unpalatable as it may be Jeffery to swallow.... He and his work are exceptional.

    Matt Jarvis, Architect

  3. Thanks for putting this interview online. Obviously Zumthor didn't like some of your questions but the responses are still interesting to read, particular after he tells you to make the questions shorter and less "closed". I would be hugely intimidated speaking to him so I can't criticise your missteps too much! He always comes across as an anti-academia architect, proceeding from intuition and experience about the qualities of materials rather than from any guiding theoretical ideas, which was maybe part of the problem with the first few questions you asked him.

  4. This is a great interview, it helps to understand what realy matters in making architecture. Thanks.

  5. Thanks a lot for this thread
    yours faithfully

    شكراً على هذا الموضوع

  6. There is obviously a lot to know about this. Thank you! Keep posting! interior painting ideas

  7. I agree with you that this is a great interview.Great architecture is so only because it is made by a great architect.

  8. This is really is a great interview, although it may have been painful for you. I feel like I understand his process more from this than thinking architecture. But your questions were closed and I could sense your feelings of inferiority in the beginning which must have maddened him. It is true that the man shouldn't be put on a pedestal either; he is clearly a great architect, but that's all the public know or need to know really.

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