Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor Wins Pritzker Prize

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect whose work is distinguished by exquisite craftsmanship and a profound respect for site, is the recipient of the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Zumthor, who for 30 years has worked in the remote Swiss mountain village of Haldenstein, joins an elite club of architects, such as Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer and Zaha Hadid, honored with the $100,000 prize.

He is one of the least flashy of architects ever honored by the Pritzker jury. Zumthor's work, much of it built in Switzerland, is remarkable for its visual simplicity, its reliance on pure and sensuous materials, including wood and local stones, and for its careful integration into the natural or urban landscape.

His thermal baths project, built for the Swiss village of Vals, is frequently cited as his masterpiece. Zumthor, 65, set the building into the side of a mountain, covered it with a green, grassy roof, and faced its walls with thin horizontal bands of gray stone. The pools seem to exist inside a quiet, gray cloud, though the space is sharply rectilinear. Like many of his buildings, most of which are in Europe, it is meant to feel older and more rooted in the earth than its sharp modern lines might initially suggest.

Zumthor's writing stresses a purist, even Zenlike approach. It stands in sharp contrast with the exuberant architecture of iconic shapes and high-tech materials that has defined so much of his contemporaries' work in the past few decades. Instead, he prizes long meditation, and emphasizes a phenomenological approach focused on deep experience of place, careful use of materials and a tactile, spiritual engagement with the finished product.

"When I concentrate on a specific site or place for which I am going to design a building, I try to plumb its depths, its form, its history and its sensuous qualities," he has written.

In selecting Zumthor, the Pritzker jury emphasized the humility and integrity of his approach, and his emphasis on basic architectural principles: "His architecture expresses respect for the primacy of the site, the legacy of a local culture, and the invaluable lessons of architectural history," they wrote in a citation.

In 2007, Zumthor built a small chapel in Mechernich, Germany, that may be the purest embodiment of his thinking. Outside, the Brother Claus chapel is a bare, windowless concrete rectangle, rising 40 feet out of a grassy field. The interior was created by pouring the concrete around a wigwam-like structure of thin wooden tree trunks, fastened together. When the concrete set, the wood was burned, leaving a charred impression of the original trees. The building, lit by a single tear-shaped skylight, is severe and modern on the outside, but natural, rustic and hermitlike on the inside. It is a perfect expression of Zumthor's ethos -- joining the organic and the modern together in a harmonious whole.

Zumthor will receive the prize on May 29 in Buenos Aires.

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