Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor
Born (1943-04-26) 26 April 1943
Basel, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss
Occupation Architect

Carlsberg Architectural Prize (1998)
Praemium Imperiale (2008)
Pritzker Prize (2009)

Royal Gold Medal (2013)
Buildings Therme Vals
Kunsthaus Bregenz

Peter Zumthor (born 26 April 1943) is a Swiss architect whose work is frequently described as uncompromising and minimalist.[1] Though managing a relatively small firm, he is the winner of the 2009 Pritzker Prize and 2013 RIBA Royal Gold Medal.

Early life

Zumthor was born in Basel, the son of a cabinet-maker. He apprenticed to a carpenter in 1958 and studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in his native city starting in 1963.

In 1966, Zumthor studied industrial design and architecture as an exchange student at Pratt Institute in New York. In 1968, he became conservationist architect for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments of the canton of Graubünden. This work on historic restoration projects gave him a further understanding of construction and the qualities of different rustic building materials. As his practice developed, Zumthor was able to incorporate his knowledge of materials into Modernist construction and detailing. His buildings explore the tactile and sensory qualities of spaces and materials while retaining a minimalist feel.


Kolumba Museum, Cologne

Zumthor founded his own firm in 1979. His practice grew quickly and he accepted more international projects.

Zumthor has taught at Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles (1988), the Technical University of Munich (1989), Tulane University (1992), and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (1999). Since 1996, he has been a professor at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio.

His best known projects are the Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997), a shimmering glass and concrete cube that overlooks Lake Constance (Bodensee) in Austria; the cave-like thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland (1999); the Swiss Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover, an all-timber structure intended to be recycled after the event; the Kolumba Diocesan Museum (2007), in Cologne; and the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, on a farm near Wachendorf.

In 1993 Zumthor won the competition for a museum and documentation center on the horrors of Nazism to be built on the site of Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Mr. Zumthor’s submission called for an extended three-story building with a framework consisting of concrete rods. The project, called the Topography of Terror, was partly built and then abandoned when the government decided not to go ahead for financial reasons. The unfinished building was demolished in 2004.[2] In 1999, Zumthor was selected as the only foreign architect to participate in Norway’s National Tourist Routes Project, with two projects, the Memorial in Memory of the Victims of the Witch Trials in Varanger, a collaboration with Louise Bourgeois (completed in 2010), and a rest area/museum on the site of an abandoned zinc mine.[3]

For the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York, Zumthor designed a gallery that was to house the “360° I Ching” sculpture by Walter de Maria; though the project was never completed. Zumthor is the only foreign architect to participate, with two projects, the Memorial in Memory of the Victims of the Witch Trials in Varanger, a collaboration with Louise Bourgeois (to be completed in June), and a rest area/museum on the site of an abandoned zinc mine (completion date 2011). In November 2009, it was revealed that Zumthor is working on a major redesign for the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.[4] Recently, he turned down an opportunity to consider a new library for Magdalen College, Oxford. He was selected to design the Serpentine Gallery's annual summer pavilion with designer Piet Oudolf in 2011.[5]

Currently, Zumthor works out of his small studio with around 30 employees, in Haldenstein, near the city of Chur, in Switzerland.[6]


In 1994, he was elected to the Academy of Arts, Berlin. In 1996, he was made an honorary member of the Bund Deutscher Architekten (BDA). In 1998, Zumthor received the Carlsberg Architectural Prize for his designs of the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria and the Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland (see below). He won the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 1999. Recently, he was awarded Praemium Imperiale in (2008) and the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2009). In 2012, he was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal.[7]

Zumthor and Heidegger

The Vals spa—famed among architects for its evocative sequence of spaces and exquisite construction details—presents intriguing correspondences between Heidegger’s writing and Zumthor’s architecture. Writing in his architectural manifesto, Thinking Architecture, Zumthor mirrors Heidegger’s celebration of experience and emotion as measuring tools. A chapter entitled “A way of looking at things” begins by describing a door handle:

I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt’s garden. 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 gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of waxed oak staircase. I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen[...].(1998:9)[8]

Zumthor always emphasises the sensory aspects of the architectural experience. To him, the physicality of materials can involve an individual with the world, evoking experiences and texturing horizons of place through memory. He recalls places he once measured out at his aunt’s house through their sensual qualities. Zumthor’s Vals spa recounts the thinking he describes in his essay, making appeals to all the senses. The architect choreographs materials according to their evocative qualities. Flamed and polished stone, chrome, brass, leather and velvet were deployed with care to enhance the inhabitant’s sense of embodiment when clothed and naked. The touch, smell, and perhaps even taste of these materials were orchestrated obsessively. The theatricality of steaming and bubbling water was enhanced by natural and artificial light, with murky darkness composed as intensely as light. Materials were crafted and joined to enhance or suppress their apparent mass. Their sensory potential was relentlessly exploited with these tactics, through which Zumthor aimed to celebrate the liturgy of bathing by evoking emotions.


Zumthor's work is largely unpublished in part because of his philosophical belief that architecture must be experienced first hand.[9] His published written work is mostly narrative and phenomenological.

Thinking Architecture

In Thinking Architecture Peter Zumthor expresses his motivation in designing buildings that speak to our feelings and understanding in so many ways and that possess a powerful and unmistakable presence and personality. It is illustrated throughout with color photographs by Laura Padgett of Zumthor's new home and studio in Haldenstein.

“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. When I concentrate on a specific site or place for which I am going to design a building, when I try to plumb its depths, its form, its history, and its sensuous qualities, images of other places start to invade this process of precise observation: images of places I know and that once impressed me, images of ordinary or special places places that I carry with me as inner visions of specific moods and qualities; images of architectural situations, which emanate from the world of art, or films, theater or literature.”


Atmospheres is a poetics of architecture and a window into Zumthor's personal sources of inspiration. In nine short, illustrated chapters framed as a process of self-observation, Zumthor describes what he has on his mind as he sets about creating the atmosphere of his houses: Images of spaces and buildings that affect him are every bit as important as particular pieces of music or books that inspire him.

From the composition and “presence” of the materials to the handling of proportions and the effect of light, this poetics of architecture enables the reader to recapitulate what really matters in the process of house design. In conclusion, Peter Zumthor has described what really constitutes an architectural atmosphere as "this singular density and mood, this feeling of presence, well-being, harmony, beauty...under whose spell I experience what I otherwise would not experience in precisely this way."

Peter Zumthor Therme Vals

Therme Vals, Switzerland
Therme Vals (Peter Zumthor)

Therme Vals is the only book-length study of this singular building, features the architect’s original sketches and plans for its design as well as Hélène Binet’s striking photographs of the structure. Architectural scholar Sigrid Hauser contributes an essay on such topics as “Artemis/Diana,” “Baptism,” “Mikvah,” and “Spring”—drawing out the connections between the elemental nature of the spa and mythology, bathing, and purity.

Annotations by Peter Zumthor on his design concept and the building process elucidate the structure’s symbiotic relationship to its natural surroundings, revealing, for example, why he insisted on using locally quarried stone. Therme Vals’s scenic design elements, and Zumthor’s contributions to this book, reflect the architect’s commitment to the essential and his disdain for needless architectural flourishes.[10]

Seeing Zumthor

Seeing Zumthor represents a unique collaboration between Zumthor and Swiss photographer Hans Danuser, containing Danuser’s images of buildings created by Zumthor. More than twenty years ago, in a milestone event of twentieth-century architectural photography, Danuser photographed, at Zumthor’s invitation, two buildings: the protective structure built for archaeological excavations in Chur and St. Benedict’s Chapel in Sumvitg. When first shown in exhibition, those photos ignited a lively debate that has been revived with a recent exhibition of Danuser’s photographs of Zumthor’s most famous work, the spa at Therme Vals. Seeing Zumthor collects these three important series of Danuser’s pictures and includes essays by leading art historians exploring the relationship between the two seemingly different disciplines or architecture and photography.[11]

Principal works



  1. NEWEL, CONRAD (13 September 2013). "Dear Architecture Journalists: Stop Worshipping Peter Zumthor!". Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  2. Robin Pogrebin (April 12, 2009), Pritzker Prize Goes to Peter Zumthor New York Times.
  3. Cathy Lang Ho (February 5, 2010), Peter Zumthor Speaks ARTINFO.
  4. Lifson, Edward (November 24, 2009), "A Bolt of Zumthor", The Architect's Newspaper
  5. Jonathan Glancey (4 April 2011), Peter Zumthor unveils secret garden for Serpentine pavilion The Guardian.
  6. Michael Kimmelman (March 11, 2011), The Ascension of Peter Zumthor New York Times.
  7. Press Release (September 27, 2012), Peter Zumthor awarded 2013 Royal Gold Medal for architecture The Royal Institute of British Architects.
  8. From "Thinking Architecture" by Peter Zumthor, published by Birkhäuser Verlag
  9. Nico Saieh (November 2, 2010), Multiplicity and Memory: Talking About Architecture with Peter Zumthor
  10. Archived June 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  12. Steilneset minnested (engl.: Steilneset Memorial) – Information about the memorial from the commune of Vardø. (Norwegian, English)
  13. Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011 – Information about the 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
  14. Waite, Richard. "Breaking news: Zumthor wins Royal Gold Medal". RIBA, Architects Journal. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
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