Peter Zumthor’s recently completed project in Norway was fourteen years in the making, due in part to its challenging site and to the Pritzker prize-winning architect’s highly deliberate way of working. Consisting of a gallery building, a café, and a comfort station perched on the sides of mountains overlooking a riverbed, the project, called Allmannajuvet, commemorates the history of zinc mining on the site, which helped fuel the development of the nearby town of Sauda in the late 19th century.
Commissioned by the Norwegian government for the country’s National Tourists Routes—a series of landscape-based interventions designed by architects, artists, and landscape architects to highlight the country’s dramatic natural beauty—the project is a hybrid of an art installation, historic site, and a rest stop, using an architectural language inspired by utilitarian structures of the mining industry. “I like to guide people to understand a place and to connect to local history,” Zumthor says.
Visitors access the site by winding mountain roads to arrive at the comfort station and a small parking area. Zumthor’s trio of toilets hang off the side of a massive hand-built dry-laid stone retaining wall. Zumthor initially planned to build all three of the buildings out of stone as well, but opted to construct light structures just off the edge of the precipices to heighten the awareness of the steep cliffs and mountainsides.
For each building, a series of laminated pine beams supports a simple corrugated metal roof. This structure encloses a rectilinear plywood volume—structurally independent from the timber frame—covered in burlap and finished with a black waterproof coating. By separating the enclosure from the roof structure, visitors can feel the structure swaying slightly in the mountain winds. Small square windows offer views out over the ravine and a working farm in the distance.
Leaving their cars behind, visitors begin their ascent up either stone stairs or a gravel path to the second structure, a large square black box on stilts anchored in the cliffside housing the café. Remnants of the foundations of an old mining office and a small outlook building flank the building, left unmarked and unexplained, as if it were a recently discovered archeological site. Inside are short blond wood stools and tables and the windows, at sitting height, offer wraparound views of the crags, peaks, and river below, enlivening the otherwise all-black interior.
Winding further up the hill, the slim, rectangular gallery building comes into view. The thinnest, most dramatic of the three structures, the gallery building acts as a viewfinder for the overall site. Entering the building’s dark interior from a rear entrance, the viewer encounters a pair of day-lit vitrines; one containing salvaged mining implements, like metal spikes, a shovel, and a weathered wooden shoe; the other, a set of books containing mining documents, site diagrams, and maps, and Zumthor’s sketches. No signage or wall texts identify the objects or tell viewers what to think. Natural light guides visitors to an off-center floor-to-ceiling picture window, offering dramatic views out but also—more interestingly, and unexpectedly—views down, revealing a series of stone channels and pools used in mining operations.
Zumthor is the only non-Norwegian to ever be asked to participate in the Tourist Routes program. “I’d seen his buildings in Switzerland and I thought he could do something different than a Norwegian architect,” says Knut Wold, a consultant for the Tourist Routes involved in commissioning the participating architects and artists.
The project is Zumthor’s second commission on the Tourist Routes. His previous project, completed in 2011, is the Steilneset Memorial in Vardo, a collaboration with the artist Louise Bourgeois and historian Live Helene Willumsen commemorating a spate of witch burnings in the 17th century. The two projects are unusual within Zumthor’s body of work, as both use thin wooden structures that are meant to move with the wind. Steilneset, which consists of a timber frame with a sailcloth enclosure, dramatizes the fragility of human life as it marks the brief lives of the witch trial victims. The sturdier Allmannajuvet’s sense of movement is subtler, but still gives the visitor a feeling of the perils of working in the mines. Zumthor gives the players in these small histories—anonymous women who were executed centuries ago or largely forgotten miners who helped usher in the industrial development of the region—dignity and recognition through an architecture that frames history and landscape and brings new perspectives into view.