Architecture on Experience 17
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    By Senior Manager – Cost & Controls Eugene Chang


    Peter Zumthor's architecture is about experience.


    "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. The sense that I try to instil into materials is beyond all rules of composition, and their tangibility, smell, and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language we are obliged to use. Sense emerges when I succeed in bringing out the specific meanings of certain materials in my buildings, meanings that can only be perceived in just this way in this one building." Peter Zumthor.


    The renowned Swiss architect, the winner of the 2009 Pritzker Prize and the 2013 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, has operated from a wooden barn studio in the small village of Haldenstein in the Swiss Alps since 1979. Despite his international fame, he chooses projects carefully and has "only" built fewer than 20 projects. The media portray him as a mysterious man from the remoted Swiss mountainside. Yet, this does not stop his projects becoming one of the most "sort-after" among professionals and lovers of architecture. His works are not about the so called "architecture style" or bounded by the latest trends of the profession. "I'm not mainly interested in what buildings mean as symbols or vehicles for ideas" Zumthor said. His architecture is about the "experience of a building, not the theory behind it"; his projects often possessed a deeper sense of sensibility and poetic quality.


    Born near Basel at 1943 to a large Catholic family of a cabinet-maker, Zumthor apprenticed as a carpenter when he was 15. In this early formative years, he learned from his father how to work with his hands, and "how to be exacting and uncompromising". In 1963, he studied at the Kunstgewerbechule , an arts and crafts school modeled after the Bauhaus, where he learned "all the basics of design, the craftsmanship of drawing and looking, of mixing colors, white space and negative space – form, line and surface". In 1966, he moved to New York City to study industrial design at the Pratt Institute. When he returned to Switzerland 2 years later, he chose to work in conservation and restoration for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments of the canton of Graubünden. The influence of his training in furniture and industrial design, and his deep understanding of buildability and material from his time in historic restoration, were evidenced in his own works – the ability to create sensory and experiential architecture through attention to detail, treatment of spatial quality and the use of rustic materials.


    From Zumthor's writing on his aunt's house, it says, "Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me… Memories like these contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmosphere and images that I explore in my work as an architect."


    Zumthor's best known work is the Therme Vals in Switzerland not far from his studio (many of his works are within one-hour driving radius from his office). Built into the mountainside, the spa was composed by a series of "cave-like" baths, almost like a maze, with bespoke heavy wall cladded with fine cut greenish striated stone slabs, each positioned to the Swiss Alps in a way that is at once monumental and deferential. The baths, all positioned carefully with different sizes and different levels, requires visitors to explore and experience, often resulting in surprise. In Zumthor's words, it is the "longing of spaces to be discovered". The projects has attracted over 40,000 visitors annual since it's opening in 1996, and helped rescue the once bankrupt hotel (the Vals was an addition to the hotel complex).


    In recent years, Peter Zumthor has taken more international projects, most notably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) extension in California, USA. Just like most of his other projects, the design process is expected to take some time. The USD600 million and 37,000m2 museum project was first revealed in 2013 with completion tentatively scheduled in 2023.

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