Wilshire and LACMA are a new world for Peter Zumthor
HALDENSTEIN, Switzerland — The architect Peter Zumthor has arranged his personal and professional lives so that the divide between them is vanishingly thin.
The offices of his firm, Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partners, are housed in a charmingly simple if overstuffed two-story wooden building in this tiny Swiss town, which rests on one side of an Alpine valley about 70 miles southeast of Zurich. The house he shares with his wife, Annalisa, is next door.
In the mornings, it’s not unusual for Zumthor to check up on one project or another directly after his daily game of tennis, padding in black socks through a crowded labyrinth of architectural models. Most of his acclaimed buildings, a body of work that includes a mountainside spa, two museums and a pair of small chapels, are within a short drive.
This summer, Zumthor and his colleagues have been finishing the design of new offices for the firm, a four-story building with a glass facade and a pitched roof. It will be directly across the street from the current studio, a distance of about 15 feet.
This approach makes the 70-year-old Zumthor something of an exotic creature by the standards of contemporary architecture. Most architects who have won a Pritzker Prize, an honor Zumthor collected in 2009 for what the jury called “buildings of great integrity — untouched by fad or fashion,” oversee huge and prolific practices.
Zumthor, who employs a staff of about 30, has accepted a small number of foreign commissions in recent years, including a temporary pavilion built at the Serpentine Gallery in London two summers ago, but has turned down many more.
Visiting Zumthor’s studio and his most important buildings, as I did during a trip to Switzerland recently, feels in that sense like a journey very much against the grain: a study of the stubbornly local in the age of globalization.
It also gives great insight into the sensibility of the architect the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has hired to design a large new building along Wilshire Boulevard, a project for which LACMA aims to raise $650 million and complete in roughly 10 years’ time.
In particular, seeing Zumthor’s buildings up close exposes a central paradox of his project for LACMA. It makes clear that the qualities that made his work so attractive to Michael Govan, the museum’s director — its human scale, its attention to craft and detail and its deep connection to the dramatic European landscape where Zumthor has spent essentially his whole life — are precisely the characteristics in danger of being lost as the architect makes the transition to Wilshire Boulevard.
In L.A. he will be overseeing the largest project of his career by far — in a setting that is entirely different from the Alpine valleys and lakeside sites where he has typically worked. And in a climate that is drastically different too.
Zumthor has come to know Los Angeles well. He taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture for a year in the late 1980s, and since he began working with LACMA he has been making regular trips to L.A. He is also designing a house for actor Tobey Maguire and his family.
“The openness of the design, the easiness, the looseness, you can only do in L.A.,” Zumthor said about his fluid, biomorphic proposal for LACMA during a conversation in his light-filled kitchen.
Still, sensing the deep connection to place in Zumthor’s buildings by seeing them up close prompts obvious questions for anyone familiar with the star-crossed history of great foreign architects making their debuts in Los Angeles. Most pointed of all: Is an architect’s sensibility to site and landscape a portable talent, something that can be deployed anywhere?
Will Zumthor’s building for LACMA have the appeal of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in San Diego, the West Coast masterpiece of an East Coast architect? Or will it more closely resemble Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels or Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art, both on Grand Avenue — subpar designs by talented architects who were ultimately flummoxed by Los Angeles?
‘Anchored in its site’
There is a reason that Zumthor, the son of a cabinetmaker who grew up near the Swiss city of Basel, about 125 miles northwest of his current home, and founded his firm in 1979, has been compared to the pioneers of the slow-food movement.
He embraces rather than chafes against how long it can take a design to fully mature. (He and Govan have already been working on the LACMA project for more than five years.) Zumthor prefers to say he is more like a novelist or a sculptor than a “service provider,” the dismissive phrase he uses to describe corporate architecture firms.
Yet there is nothing provincial or cloyingly “artisanal” about his work. What he’s after is a tension between small concerns and bigger ones, details and grander gestures, the local and the global. In fact, something about the LACMA commission seems to have drawn from him a new interest in organic and undulating lines, a sweeping aesthetic that recalls the work of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and the artist Jean Arp.
“When an architectural design draws solely from tradition and only repeats the dictates of its site,” Zumthor (pronounced ZOOMP-tour) writes in his book “Thinking Architecture,” first published in 1998, “I sense a lack of genuine concern with the world and the emanations of contemporary life. If a work of architecture speaks only of contemporary trends and sophisticated visions ... this work is not anchored in its site, and I miss the specific gravity of the ground it stands on.”
Zumthor’s newest project, which was about six weeks from completion when I saw it, is the Werkraumhaus, a community center and gallery for a guild of craftspeople in the small Austrian town of Andelsbuch, about an hour’s drive from Haldenstein. It is a single-story pavilion, wrapped entirely in floor-to-ceiling glass and topped with a flat roof framed in wood that has been stained nearly black.
The project has obvious echoes of the German modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But it is also full of classic Zumthor trademarks, including a careful emphasis on the tactile quality of the concrete surfaces inside, some polished and others rough.
Renate Breuss, the director of the guild that hired Zumthor to design the building, gave me a tour of its exterior and its open, high-ceilinged main floor, which will include space for exhibitions and classes. She also made a point of showing me the basement.
Some of the underground space will be open to the members of the association, but much of it is dedicated to mechanical equipment and ductwork. Zumthor himself, Breuss told me, insisted on drawing plans for the route of every pipe and conduit in the basement, along with the location of every light and every acoustical tile on the ceiling.
The result is a precise landscape of concrete columns, fluorescent tubes and copper pipes that suggests the artists Donald Judd or Dan Flavin working at an architectural scale.
“He’s chosen where every wire will go,” Breuss said. “The electricians and the plumbers, they didn’t understand this way of planning and working. But now they see what he was aiming for, they don’t complain anymore.”
The same level of attention is evident in nearly all the Zumthor projects I saw. He designed the floorboards just inside the door of one of his early buildings, the 1988 St. Benedict Chapel above the small mountain town of Sumvitg, so that they creak in a particular way when you step on them, as if the building were 250 years old rather than 25.
The 2007 Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in western Germany, built for a local farmer and his wife, has no roof, and the floor is shaped so that when rain falls, water collects in precisely the same shape as the opening in the ceiling.
Somehow this approach manages to stop just short of precious. Both chapels are simple, profound pieces of architecture, richly layered but not at all fussy. Still, the masterful way Zumthor pulls off those designs may not say much about how the new LACMA will turn out, since if he insists on choosing the location of every wire or creak of every floorboard in that project he will go crazy, or drive Govan crazy, or both.
For a more useful comparison, there are Zumthor’s two museum projects to consider. Zumthor’s first ground-up museum was the Kunsthaus, a center for contemporary art in Bregenz, Austria, on the shores of glassy Lake Constance. Finished in 1997, it is not far from the site where he would later build the Werkraumhaus.
A four-story box with stark concrete walls and floors in the galleries, the museum is covered in a skin of frosted-glass panels that look a bit like scales — a high-tech update of the traditional wooden shingles that cover the St. Benedict Chapel. The panels give the museum an opaque, mute personality, but they also have a major practical role: Along with skylights on the roof, they help bounce daylight into the galleries.
The effect is startling. When I visited the Kunsthaus, the quality of the light on the middle floors stopped me in my tracks. I assumed that Zumthor and the lighting engineers had devised some new system to mimic daylight with artificial light.
But much of the light in those galleries is natural. After it streams through the glass panels it is redirected into an empty space, or plenum, above each gallery. From there it filters down onto the artwork on display.
Light is also the star performer at Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum, in Cologne, Germany, which opened in 2007. The museum is built atop very different historical remnants: the ruins of a Gothic church, bombed near destruction during World War II, and a small octagonal chapel designed by German architect Gottfried Bohm after the war.
Rising above all of that, wrapping it together, is a new museum building by Zumthor, a blocky collection of towers made of light-gray brick, with unusually thick bands of mortar. On its lower levels some of the brick façade is perforated with openings, giving the outside of the building a striking but low-key, almost humble kind of decoration.
Inside, the spaces are calm, vast, church-like. At ground level, a zigzagging walkway runs directly over the ruins of the church. In the galleries on the upper floors, tall light wells collect the sunlight and deliver it serenely to the artwork below. It is an entirely different approach to illuminating a museum than the one Zumthor tried in Bregenz and equally impressive.
Kolumba, in the center of Cologne, is Zumthor’s most urban building and his biggest. It shows little strain in making the leap to that size. But the LACMA design is another scale altogether: It will stretch nearly 800 feet along Wilshire.
On my final night in Switzerland, I joined Zumthor and two young associates from his office for dinner in Chur, the small city just below Haldenstein. (In person Zumthor can be reticent — classically Swiss — but once he warms he is talkative and surprisingly funny.) Early in the meal I asked him about the LACMA project and how starkly different it is from the rest of his work.
He didn’t answer directly. Later, near the end of dinner, he circled back to the topic obliquely, sharing an anecdote about tennis that seemed plainly allegorical, a veiled criticism of architects who develop and then rely on a repeatable, signature style. Zumthor trains every morning with a tennis pro from Eastern Europe who, in the architect’s description, is demanding and hard-charging.
“This is what he tells me,” Zumthor said. “When you hit a great shot in tennis, a solid shot, the feeling is so perfect that the temptation is to try to re-create it. You think you should swing exactly the same way. But that is a recipe for failure. The thing to do is to watch the ball. Watch the arc of the ball in the air. And respond to that.”
When I returned to his studio the next morning, I tried again with another version of the same question. This time he ditched the tennis reference and was more direct.
“I like L.A. because it’s different from Switzerland,” he said. “I hope you can feel that the designer of this museum likes L.A., likes the horizon, likes the big sky. It would be a missed opportunity not to design a building that fits into the landscape in that way.
“Many of these buildings at LACMA are designed around old European academic concepts,” he added, referring in particular to wings by William Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates that LACMA hopes to demolish to make way for Zumthor’s structure. “You go inside, you’re under the artificial light, and you could be anywhere. So it’s time to maybe change that.”
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