Peter Zumthor (b. 1943), the Swiss architect, who was a resident here at the Academy for a few months, left yesterday. He is perhaps best known for Therme Vals (1996), which, for those of you have ever experienced the likes of the Russian bathhouse in the East Village, is another world all together.
He and his wife, Annalisa (who now manages the thermal baths), made a big impact on quite a few of us. He is a big, gruff mountain man. She is elegant, polished and warm. Both filled our days with their insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge. They took part in everything from the very beginning, when we invited Peter to our studio to watch a screening of Mannequin and he actually stayed until the end.
They went to concerts, exhibitions. They ate with us. They played tennis and soccer. They talked to us about life, not just about work.
He told me several times that music is the supreme art form and that one of his great regrets is that he did not become a professional musician. He often talked about leading his architecture firm like a composer or a conductor speaks of a score. It wasn’t the first time I heard non-musicians speak like this (the ex-CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabek, would take his top executives too see orchestra rehearsals), but this Peter’s relationship to music is extraordinarily profound. He used to be a jazz bass player, and over the years has developed a taste for challenging European composers: Xenakis, Ligeti, Rihm, Stockhausen.
On his last day here, he gave me a copy of his book Atmospheres. He writes simply and directly in a way that doesn’t obstruct the clarity of his message—much like his architecture in spirit. The book attempts to answer a problem of “architectural quality.” What is it about a building that can move someone? The title, Atmosphere, refers to first impressions:
“We are capable of immediate appreciation of a spontaneous emotional response, of rejecting things in a flash. That is very different from linear thought, which we are equally capable of, and which I love, too: thinking our way through things from A to B in a mentally organized fashion. We know all about emotional response from music. The first movement of Brahms’s viola sonata, when the viola comes in—just two seconds and we’re there! (Sonata No. 2 in E Flat Major for Viola and Piano) I have no idea why that is so, but it’s like that with architecture, too. Not so powerfully as with that greatest of arts, music—but it is there nonetheless.” (Atmospheres, 12).
Zumthor’s office in Switzerland has a sign on the wall, the words taken from an encyclopedia entry about Stravinsky: “Radical diatonicism, forceful and distinctive rhythmical pronunciation, melodic clarity, harmonies plain and severe, a piercing radiance of tone colour, and finally, the simplicity and transparency of his musical fabric, the stability of his formal structures.” These words exemplify atmosphere for him, the ability to immediately make an effect.