ExperimentaDesign Lisboa/Amsterdam

The presentation in Lisbon of Peter Zumthor: Buildings and Projects 1986 – 2007, the Swiss architect’s first major exhibition, is the culmination of a project initiated in 2006 with Peter Zumthor and Kunsthaus Bregenz and is undoubtedly a moment of great significance for Experimenta.

By systematically approaching the work of a leading figure in contemporary architecture, Peter Zumthor: Buildings and Projects 1986–2007 focuses on the creative process and this architect’s complex relationship with the time, sites, atmospheres and inhabitants of his projects. It is an immersive and intense journey into his work, a subtle disclosure of his particular way of thinking and making architecture.

Set in LXFactory, a century-old industrial complex and a venue chosen by Zumthor himself, the exhibition design conceived by Thomas Durisch proposes an itinerary across the main building and part of the adjoining one. Durisch has carefully worked the space, thus allowing a particular vision of it and a narrative that, while respecting the original design for Bregenz, relates to the context found in Lisbon.

Peter Zumthor is a singular and distinctive creator, both in his eye and in the way he performs his architecture, in the restraint and depth of his gestures. Drawn in a motion and tempo of his own, we feel in each of his works the time that guided them and the time that exists in them and belongs to them. Quoting Fernando Pessoa, a poet that Zumthor knows well, we feel like saying, ‘Make your look last, and forget your look lasts…’
The presentation at the KUB covers Peter Zumthor’s buildings and projects from 1986 to 2007 and comprises materials on the design process, working drawings, models, and detailed plans, as well as a film installation by the artists Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch, which features almost all buildings completed during this period. Peter Zumthor and Thomas Durisch, a longtime co-worker at Atelier Zumthor and curator for this part of the exhibition, are responsible for the selection and presentation of the works on the ground floor and third level.

It was Peter Zumthor’s express wish that the filmic form ofcooperation between the artists become the core concept of the exhibition. Six and Petritsch were proposed because their approach is closely related to fundamental issues of architecture. The works they are known for consist of simple actions and interventions which they document on film or video and stage as installations. They realized a film installation for the exhibition “Tu Felix Austria” at the KUB in 2005. Shooting lasted six days, during which time Paul Petritsch stayed on the bare third floor of the Kunsthaus, filmed at eye level and in real time by six stationary video cameras facing in various directions.

Six and Petritsch applied this stringent artistic concept in the documentation and projection of all of Zumthor’s buildings. Again, six stationary cameras were used and the same distances maintained throughout. Again, there are six projection surfaces. Six and Petritsch do away with the usual camera movements, editing, and montages. Each building seems to present itself matter-of-factly on six projection surfaces for 40 real-time minutes in the changing daylight, surrounded by everyday sounds and embedded in the landscape. What the viewer sees is tied to his movement within the room. The screenings are staggered, so that every 20 minutes a new film begins on one of the floors; thus, the viewer can experience all the buildings in four real-time hours.
“Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music,” wrote the Romantic philosopher Schelling, a statement reflecting the pride of the master builder who sees his calling not merely in that of a service provider. Where architecture is to live up to its proud lineage with music it must leave behind visible design marks to demonstrate the superiority of ordering reason over the chaos of natural forms.

Peter Zumthor’s buildings have nothing triumphalistic about them. They seem to be free of the gestures of repressed arrogance, of the grandiosity of contemporary prestigious architecture, free from the urge to have to attract widespread attention in public space. Not that they timidly avoid anything that inspires awe. Not at all. And they are definitely not lacking in personal style and individuality.

Almost all of them have become sightseeing attractions, tourist destinations for art lovers. Zumthor’s architecture is distinct, stands out from its surroundings, and needs no extravagant gesture to be noticed. It simply stands there, striking, self-confident, and somehow as if it had always been there – as if it could not be any other way. This architecture is permeated by a strong sense of dignity that includes respect for the vulnerability of the building site, for the preciousness of the building materials. [...]

With Peter Zumthor one finds oneself in spaces that really do want to be interior spaces, that signal where the world ends, that do not use large glazed facades to pretend that inside and outside are one except for the temperature difference. These walls are much more than just the walls of a building, they have their own hermetic quality for which there is no comparison in contemporary architecture. But they are hermetic not in the sense associated with captivity, they do not arouse the instinct to flee. It is a hermetic quality that makes one feel at home and safe. That is why even without the artwork one feels quite comfortable on the three exhibition floors of the Kunsthaus Bregenz. Wherever one happens to be, it feels like the right place and one has no urge to leave the middle of the room and retreat to the safety of the walls. Even in the middle one can hold one’s own with the monumental proportions. [...]

I have yet to come up with the right word for describing Zumthor’s architecture. In part it involves the indestructibility of archaic building forms. It involves the nobility of Japanese lacquerwork. It involves the rightness of the use of forms that are perfectly concentrated on themselves. Would “right” be the right word? Peter Zumthor’s architecture: the most convincing contradiction to the inconsolability with which Adorno refused to acknowledge the right life in a false life. Where the right place exists, life cannot be so false.