Peter Zumthor - The Phenomenologist: Bold yet Humble Architect

Aug 05, 2021


When architecture has served as a language of design, the swiss architect Peter Zumthor has stood on his firm belief that architecture cannot be a language; instead, it is something for living.

From an apprentice carpenter to the most revered architect in the world, Peter Zumthor’ works have been standing out for their purity, honesty and austere construction. He was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in 2008, the Pritzker Prize in 2009 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 2013.

Peter Zumthor, The Humble Architect


Zumthor’s bashful and contained persona has been exhibited in all his unparalleled craftsmanship. His audacious creations reflect brilliant compositions of materials, light and shadow, multiplicity, and timelessness. In order to transform emotion into memory, Zumthor has captured the five senses (visionary, auditory, haptic. olfactory and vestibular) into all his designs. He focuses on the experience of a space more than what it represents. Therefore, the ease of moulding intangible emotions into tangible structures has been defined in most of his creations.

Daylight ceiling, the reflective terrazzo, and the velvety stone shell of the walls.

Peter Zumthor while explaining “presence” in architecture. He referred space could make one feel the sensations of the now, their present time. If time slows down or even paused, one must recapture the sense of awe and wonderment of their childhood. This notion has led the architect to craft spaces through a holistic approach towards design and coaxing the elements.  The captivating nature of all his designs lies beneath the sensuous materiality and thus, it brings forward the enigmatic spatial quality which in turn helps the emotion to become a memory.

Peter Zumthor, Koluma Museum

What Inspires him!

Zumthor always strives for the kind of architecture that is fused with concrete, physical elements, nothing abstract. His bold designs cemented on the history and context of a place are the definition of his approach and perspective towards conceptualizing a design. According to Zumthor, Structures are the tools that connect the city and its citizens. They are the examples of the present time of an urban fabric epitomizing the identity of a city. Although the stratification of Zumthor’s designs proves their suitability as the finest urban entity, they also achieve the shine of timelessness. The superior designer does not want his visitors to gasp at the wow factor of the structures but to associate it with a memory. In addition to that, Zumthor’s buildings do not project a definite style but showcase the selflessness of the architect.

The Allmannajuvet zinc mines

His interesting lifestyle & Studio Practice

The sought-after architect relies more on the philosopher’s philosophy and not the architect’s one and takes it into account while designing. Along with his poetic and sumptuous creations, he never fails to accept that architecture and architects also have a limit. The limitation of the power to prevent climate change has been acknowledged by Zumthor and his deliberate mind has come to a solution where he can avoid international travel as much as possible. Perceiving architecture in his very own way has also led him to draw a difference between the synonymous contemporary designs and his own style. The renowned architect is also very selective in the commission he gets. In order to keep his studio small, he does not propel himself before undertaking commercial commissions.

Peter’s Project Showcase - Therme Vals

“For me, architecture is not primarily about form, not at all.”  This is what the architect had to say about “Therme Vals”

The most praised and visited work of Zumthor has been this wellness centre.

Therme Vals

The space has been formulated on its own and it incites the visitors’ or the spectators’ curious mind.

Now the question is what is that X-factor of this space?

The enticing and mysterious factor hides under the wholeness and in each part of the project. The moment one steps in, it welcomes with its expressive quality in scale, texture, light and color.

The spatial quality is sensed when one proceeds towards the core. The degree of visuals folds and unfolds and proposes new sensations with each step, thus creating new potentials for movement. Here, the immaterial essence of the space has been carefully crafted with the quartzite stone, balancing the light and shadow, the relationship between stone and water and the tactile sensation of warm stone and naked skin. To sum it all up, the arrangement of the elements set a tone for this luxurious space.

The notion with which Zumthor has visualized the space has been successful while one is grasped by the sight during his movement inside the therme vals. This offers choices of either taking a pause to feel the presence or create the curiosity to take the next step forward. Although the visitors navigate their own movement, it is consciously controlled by the architect’s vision of the space.

Therme Vals, Striking Solid - Void Space

The reasons behind Therme Vals to be the most visited place is because of the significance it gained through the communication with its observers. This has been achieved through the articulation of the movement, impairment of the experience and sequencing of the right materials at the right corner. These all have been possible due to Zumthor’s expansive research; that results in establishing a dual content in the form of the expressive, bold nature outside and a very calm, soothing effect inside.

Therme Vals, A complete sensory experience

Peter’s Project Showcase - Saint Benedict’s Chapel

In an interview with The New York Times, Zumthor once said: "When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It's not about paper, it's not about forms. It's about space and material.”

Saint Benedict Chapel

Saint Benedict Chapel is another example of Zumthor’s sensible personality and an eye for details. The chapel is in the remembrance of a baroque-style chapel destroyed by an avalanche. The new chapel sits amidst the mountains. surrounded and guarded by a dense forest.

The church is accessible by an old path winding up from the settlements. The exterior is made of overlapping pieces of wood. While the entrance is inviting and human in its scale, it opens up to an interior, glazed with wooden frames of several heights and thicknesses. The welcoming factor does not lie only under the scale of it but also the material choice, the wood; the region’s traditional material.

Saint Benedict Chapel. Amidst the mountains. surrounded and guarded by a dense forest.

The interior reveals a leaf-shaped plan. Although the dynamic geometry juxtaposes the typical form of a church, yet, the function of a sacred place has been well demonstrated in the interior. By this, Zumthor again has proved, the form is not the utmost important characteristic of a building.

Saint Benedict Chapel, Built from wood, a traditional building material in the region.

The spatial quality is explored when one moves towards the altar. The predetermined movement is guided by the natural light pouring in from the vertical slits of glass placed just beneath the roof. The interior is embraced and soaked into the light perforating through the glazing. The architect’s humble mind has also curated focus on the inner world, thus, eliminating any distraction of ornamented design.

He extended his creative mind in crafting the birch leaf shaped roof, sustained by the long beams, where the later are strengthened by the wooden rafters.

The perspective of the visitors is driven by the silence Zumthor was able to instill with the use of materials and evoking the ethereal beauty. While the 37 stand-alone wooden columns on either side confine the possible movement of the visitors, it also forces one to look upward at the flying pane and the natural light entering in, there to feel a physical release, an attainment of the higher self.

Concluding Statement

I visited & visualized Zumthor’s spaces in my head looking through his project pictures and interviews. He made me realize there is no fixed style to his contemporaries and that has been possible due to his strong, bold statement of design that stood firmly against all the other synonymous structures.

Capturing feelings in architecture is rare and Zumthor has been successful in achieving this. It never fails to dig into the abyss of one’s mind. Not only that, but it also always fetches new information and new realization in every revisit. I certainly feel, for Zumthor, timelessness is a goal, space is an extension of one’s body.


Ranjinee Mallick

The pen is mightier than the sword. I take this very personal. I read more books, articles and write more than designing spaces. Got all the passion to keep up the zeal till I’m able to hold the pen!!