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April 13, 2009 - 2:59pm



This year's winner of the Pritzker architecture prize, Peter Zumthor, has a rare ability to convey in words the spirit of buildings.

Even rarer, this spiritual disposition accompanies a carpenter's pragmatic sense of materials. (His father was a cabinet maker.)
A short slide show from the Washington Post evokes the eerie, otherworldly feel of his work, work which nonetheless manages to establish a strong sense of permanent emplacement on the earth. There's also a photo of the architect, looking appropriately monkish.

To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.
This is altogether different from the tumbly edgy self-conscious postmodernity of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman; it's got some alliance with Heideggerian notions of rootedness in time and space.... though when you look at the work, it's not nostalgic in the way, say, Leon Krier can be. Instead, Zumthor seems able in some of his buildings to retrieve and revive basic forms and feelings.

Living in Key West for my sabbatical year, I'm most strongly taken with what Zumthor says about light:

Materials react with one another and have their radiance, so that the material composition gives rise to something unique. ... Thinking about daylight and artificial light I have to admit that daylight, the light on things, is so moving to me that I feel almost a spiritual quality. When the sun comes up in the morning - which I always find so marvellous, absolutely fantastic the way it comes back every morning - and casts its light on things, it doesn’t feel as if it quite belongs in this world. I don’t understand light. It gives me the feeling there’s something beyond me, something beyond all understanding. And I am very glad, very grateful that there is such a thing.

The modesty of this admitted lack of understanding, and the conviction that there's much beyond him, expresses itself in work that transcends the maker's ego and makes itself everyone's possession. Zumthor makes a similar point here:

The idea of things that have nothing to do with me as an architect taking their place in a building, their rightful place - it’s a thought that gives me an insight into the future of my buildings: a future that happens without me. That does me a lot of good.


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