Photograph by Gary Ebner
The Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation has named the revered Swiss architect Peter Zumthor the 2009 Pritzker Prize Laureate. Zumthor, 65, will receive the medal and a $100,000 prize at a ceremony on May 29 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He lives and works in the village of Haldenstein in Switzerland.
With an office of approximately 20, Zumthor is known to be selective about the commissions he accepts. His most recognized project remains the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, completed in 1996. A timeless building, with stark modern geometries that simultaneously recalls ancient precedents, it is faced in slices of local stone and has become an architectural pilgrimage site. Other prominent recent projects include a field chapel at Wachendorf, Germany and the Kolumba Museum of Art built atop the ruins of a late gothic church in Cologne, both completed in 2007.
Regarded as the profession’s highest honor, the Pritzker was awarded by a jury that commended Zumthor’s buildings for their “commanding presence, yet they prove the power of judicious intervention, showing us again and again that modesty of approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive,” according to a statement from the foundation. In his work, the jury added, “humility resides alongside strength.”
AN spoke to prominent architects, scholars, and design patrons about Zumthor’s work, his influence and contribution to the field, and his method of practice.
John Pawson Architects
People say he’s done well to keep his office under 20 people and to only do things that he thinks he’s got a good chance of making great. In any case, doing good buildings is as much about choosing good projects and good partners as about anything else.
He has an amazing portfolio. It may be only a few, but how many good buildings do you need? It seems to me that his career is exemplary. He puts that extraordinary energy into a rigorousness and an ability to keep on it. It’s what everyone should do. He just keeps going. The spa at Vals took 14 years, and he had a client and a town council that planned it that way. Usually clients are a lot less demanding of a project than architects themselves are.
If I could know only one living architect, it would be Zumthor. The thought, the materiality—his work is physically very pleasing and just gorgeous.
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
It’s great and inspiring news. There is a difference between his work and our work, but he does inspire us. He’s not commercial. It’s about an individual’s sense of his role as an architect. You have the sense that this is right, that this is good. He’ll continue to be kind of a cult figure. His work is hard for people to understand. It’s his blessing and his burden.
Allied Works Architecture
He is, unequivocally, the most important architect working today. He mines the realm of the spirit, of profound meaning. He works with the visceral elements of building, which is extraordinarily rare in contemporary architecture. Much of his work is a commentary on the poetics of making.
When I heard the news, I thought: My god, he hasn’t won it already? It’s an affirmation of a deeper investigation in architecture, one that is not so concerned with image and form. He’s had a greater impact than many, if not most, of the international superstars. His work is like a tuning fork in the chaos.
Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture & Design
Museum of Modern Art
In a certain way he’s very singular. But there is a certain history of a sensibility. He’s a sort of modern-day version of [British arts-and-crafts architect] Philip Webb, with the same incredible integrity and a desire to keep the office small.
Stylistically he fits into the school of austere minimalism, but he also understands effects of light and materials. When I went to the Thermal Baths, I thought, here’s someone who really understands what the Roman Baths were, as social environments and as public spaces.
It feels very much like a zeitgeist thing. But he’s not a new discovery. It’s an acknowledgement of a different kind of architectural superstar.
He’s such a great architect, the feeling is that it is his time. He’s had two exceptional projects recently [the Kolumba Museum and Wachendorf Chapel], and there’s a sense that there are incredible works yet to come.
Ian Schrager Company
We tried working with him [at the Roxy Club site on West 18th Street] but it didn’t work out. He’s brilliant; he reminds me of Louis Kahn—not the work, of course—but the way he’s obsessive about details and stays with it. Like Herzog & de Meuron, every project is different and exciting; he’s the anti–Richard Meier. The fact that he’s aloof and doesn’t play the game has nothing to do with the work. And that he still gets the recognition and success, in spite of himself, is refreshing.
He’s built some multiple story buildings, all beautiful and all different, and I would really love to work with him. But on big projects that are already intense and politicized, it could be treacherous. I would consider him for an interior. Mostly I think that it’s just really great when someone like this comes along every once in awhile.