Learning from the Swiss master

The Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was recently completed. Planning and construction of the building took ten years. Zumthor’s archaic, crafted architecture is the result of his individual way of working and endless patience. How does he work? How does he operate his office? A personal account.

Peter Zumthor’s studio is located in the village of Haldenstein in the Swiss Alps, 100 km south of Zurich. It is surrounded by the rocky slopes of the Calandaberg. Here in this unusual idyll, far from city life, his staff of around 20 works on his much-discussed projects. The hectic nature of the international construction projects is nowhere apparent however: the pure alpine air and the studio garden filled with Japanese cherry trees give a misleading impression of calmness.

Zumthor’s small ‘campus’ comprises two buildings, both designed by him: a timber studio structure dating from 1981, and a U-shaped concrete studio-dwelling located a stone’s throw away and completed in 2003. The proximity of the private and work spaces characterises the life of Peter Zumthor and of his staff. Many come from abroad and have their rooms or homes close to the studio. Since this rural canton offers little in the way of distractions – apart from occasional receptions, farewell parties, raclette evenings and Christmas dinners – staff have little choice but to concentrate on their work while they’re there.

In the first weeks of my five-year sojourn, Zumthor made it clear to me that I had better quickly forget the Dutch ‘academic’ way of working I’d picked up while studying in Delft. He couldn’t do anything with colourful concept ideas or programmatic analyses. In Haldenstein you design in a pragmatic manner using elevations, plans, sections and details. From the outset, you design in a visual and constructive manner. ‘Thinking architecture’ as Zumthor calls it. And thinking is done not with the computer but with an empty sheet of paper and a soft 6B pencil.

The architecture of Zumthor is consistent and honest. The structure and form of construction are legible and a logical follow-on from the design idea and choice of material. A good design, says Zumthor, convinces in all its manifestations: as a building and a structure, yet also on paper, in section and in its detailing. The hallmark of his architecture is a carefully considered, almost aestheticised treatment of materials and accumulation of elements. He can talk endlessly with staff about the tiniest details. Many colleagues are exposed to a new dimension of perfection in this way. Even matters that later remain hidden are carefully thought through: ‘Der liebe Gott sieht alles!’

At the start of the design process Zumthor searches for an ‘atmosphere’. He tries to find the right words to express a visual image for the assignment at hand, defined in terms of space, colour, light and sound. The architecture is described as precisely as possible in structural elements, materials and construction methods. In these discussions with team members, Zumthor stresses the importance of using the correct terminology. As a result, Swiss colleagues turn out to be true vocabulary fetishists. The lingua franca of these design discussions is German. And that’s good thing too, for there’s probably no better language to express his architecture than German, in which everything is so wonderfully direct, concise and precise.

Zumthor shares his thoughts with the team and explains the design to his architects using 6B pencils and paper. Models are then made. Interns are constantly making models of all sizes and sorts out of cardboard, wood, foam, plaster and wax in the basement of his studio-house. Zumthor can stand for hours at the models as he questions, analyses and refines all facets of a design. It’s a process that is only allowed to be disturbed by his tennis lessons or by an appearance of Roger Federer on television. This design phase can last weeks and only ends when all alternatives have been weighed up and everyone agrees about the approach to the design task at hand. He searches for der harte Kern der Schönheit.

The office is organised in a traditional, hierarchical manner, with architects, interns and draughtsmen. The last group makes the digital construction drawings. Working drawings are also prepared by the office. In elaborating the details, when the aesthetic ideals often clash with practicality, Zumthor displays as much determination as he does during the design stage. He possesses unlimited reserves of patience in encouraging his architects find ways to build something as it was designed. In this phase, too, the design is regularly adjusted and improved. Even during construction, Zumthor trusts his architectural convictions to such a degree that he’s willing to defy all the rules of the building process. His uncompromising attitude demands a lot of understanding and loyalty from clients, contractors and staff.

Despite the numerous job offers, Zumthor does not want his studio to grow. Architects work in small teams on the different projects. Calmness is needed for his patient, atmospheric design methods, and his uncompromising way of developing and detailing projects demands control and order. He selects his commissions on the basis of their architectural potential, his personal interests and the time available to him. A perfect idyll.