A Saint and an Architect
Two Swiss (a saint called Bruder Klaus and the architect Peter Zumthor) and a German farmer (the project’s commissioner) converge in the construction of a universal piece of architecture for meditation. Design by Peter Zumthor. Text by Stefano Casciani. Photos by Pietro Savorelli. Peter Zumthor is sitting at 550 metres above sea level in the quiet of his stube (the most beautiful one I’ve even seen) as rain pours down on Haldenstein towards the end of June. There is no truth to the legend of him living the life of a stylite on top of a Swiss peak as he emits sensual oracles of stone and cement that define the condition of architecture. Between his office and his home/office, he smiles, listens, plays music and receives friends. He is preparing for projects and buildings that are bigger (if not more important) than the concentrated, distilled pieces of textural architecture he has produced over the extended amounts of time it takes for work to become art.
A plan sketch by Zumthor [from domus]
Entrance [from domus]
The 112 tree trunks that were used for the wigwam-like structure were taken from a wood belonging to the client. The trunks were then positioned in a cone shape, leaving an oculus at the top. Concrete was poured onto the wooden structure at the rate of one level per day, making 24 layers for a total height of 12 metres. At the end, the wood formwork was burnt out. [from domus]
Rain falls inside the Chapel through the opening in the roof and collects in a sunken basin. [from domus]
“After we built the Chapel, a few Swiss people came to me and said, ‘Of course this dark emptiness with only a few strips of light comes from the fact that Bruder Klaus’s life ended in a cell dug into the rock!’ And I said, ‘No, that’s not the reason.’ And they said, ‘Oh, well then it’s like a tower in reference to Bruder Klaus’s career as a soldier!’ And I said, ‘No, that’s not why, I wasn’t thinking of that.’ Rather I was thinking that it would be important for the Chapel to rise up vertically in order to stand out from afar against the open, level fields with their few undulations. It needed to mark out its territory.” “And what about this circular plan inside, and the cusp-shaped exterior? Doesn’t that have to do with the wheel of Saint Nicholas, the symbol he meditated upon daily?” “No, it’s not related to that”.
Ground floor plan [from domus]
Zumthor smiles. Of course it happens that an author writes, paints or builds things that he doesn’t know about, hasn’t seen or heard of, but that are still worth one, three or ten different interpretations. But not because he spent days and weeks studying symbols and symbolism. It makes it better, more interesting, unless you’re not prepared to believe in premonitions, visions, and the poet as a prophet. The only vision that Zumthor believes in is that of architecture. The only language his buildings speak is that of their construction and materials. The hours of the day and the sleepless nights of Bruder Klaus have nothing to do with the 24 visible layers of cement that were applied and compressed by hand on top of a structure made of branches and treetrunks that would later be burnt, leaving its dark mark and intense odour of charcoal inside forever. The layers of cement are 24 because that’s the number of days it took the commissioner and his helpers to make them.
Cross Section [from domus]
Long Section [from domus]
And then: what “expert” would not see Gaudí in this rugged vertical appearance, in the convergence of its walls way up high, in the small marks of light in its cement? Yet Zumthor is no mystic, he’s not like his Catalan colleague who some would like to see canonised, he’s not like Bruder Klaus. He laughs when I ask if it bothers him that people consider him to be a mystic. “Those are just things they’d like to write in the press.” Even so, he did not want to be paid for this project. Even so, his Kolumba Museum in Cologne is about to be inaugurated: a cement castle for contemporary art built on top of religious ruins. Even so, Norman Foster wants him to build the church for the Santa Giulia development outside Milan. Zumthor smiles. He, the layman saint of absolute architecture.
... "A secret garden, stone ruins, a uniquely dense archaeological site: the ruins of the gothic church in the centre of rebuilt Cologne are the most impressive symbol of the city’s almost complete destruction during the Second World War. In 1949 the chapel of “Madonna in the Ruins” was created within the church ruins by the architect Gottfried Böhm as a near improvised shelter for a gothic Mary figure that had remained unscathed. »Kolumba« is intended to be a place for reflection. The occasion is the new building for the Cologne Diocese Museum, which was established in 1853 and which features an extraordinary collection spanning from early Christianity to contemporary art. A museum as a garden continually bringing a few alternately selected works of art to bloom. The guiding thread of the collection is the quest for overarching order, measure, proportion and beauty which connects all creative work. This quest is the precious material for an aesthetic laboratory which studies the anthropological connections lying beyond mere chronology. Kolumba allows visitors to immerse themselves in the presence of their memories and offers them their own experiences on their way.