Peter Zumthor, the reclusive Swiss architect widely revered for a small yet powerful body of work, is the 2009 laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Hyatt Foundation, which administers the award, announced his selection today.
“Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising, and exceptionally determined,” the jury said in its citation. “He has a rare talent of combining clear and rigorous thought with a truly poetic dimension, resulting in works that never cease to inspire.”
The Pritzker, established in 1979, is bestowed annually to a living architect who has made a consistent and significant contribution to the built environment. Reached by phone on Friday, the 65-year-old Zumthor, in keeping with his reputation, spoke modestly of receiving the profession’s top honor. “It’s a beautiful recognition of what we’ve been doing here for the last 20 to 30 years, and without me having to do a lot of ‘networking,’” he said. “It shows that the buildings speak for themselves.”
Zumthor has painstakingly, and sometimes with his own hands, completed projects within a limited geographical radius, mainly for community, religious, residential, or cultural uses.
His best known projects are the Bregenz Art Museum (1997), a shimmering glass and concrete cube that overlooks Lake Constance in Austria; the cave-like thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland (1999); the Swiss Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, an all-timber structure intended to be recycled after the event; and most recently, the Kolumba Diocesan Museum (2007), in Cologne, Germany. In a world of short attention spans, Zumthor is known for the time he takes to listen to his clients, and also for demanding from his clients the time he needs to develop his designs.
Born 1943, in Basel, on the Swiss border to Germany and France, Zumthor studied first in his home city, and then at the Pratt Institute, in New York. On returning to Switzerland he was a conservationist architect for historic monuments before opening his own atelier in 1979 in Haldenstein, near Chur, where he employed both architects and carpenters. His staff totals around 15 people.
Zumthor’s reputation as an architect’s architect brought him guest professorships at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Munich’s Technical University, and his present post at the Architecture Academy of Switzerland’s Italian University. But, despite his international teaching, Zumthor’s own work is rooted in a philosophy of locality and regional culture, in which time and continuity are important aspects.
His design philosophy can perhaps be explained by the fact that he only decided on architecture after an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker, under his father. Like Renzo Piano, the Genoa-based 1998 Pritzker winner, who also started out in his father’s building workshop, Zumthor sees architecture as handwork. He refers to his design office as an atelier and, in comparison to other internationally known architects, has resisted becoming a company director or opening global branch offices. By concentrating on only one or two projects at a time, Zumthor has acquired the aura of a hands-on spiritual environmentalist, rather than that of a star architect.
Zumthor’s devotion to each project, along with his meticulous craftsmanship, earned him praise from the eight-member Pritzker jury, which this year included Lord Palumbo, Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban, Rolf Fehlbaum, Carlos Jimenez, Juhani Pallasmaa, Renzo Piano, and Karen Stein. The New York-based writer and consultant Stein, who has served as a juror since 2004, said of selecting Zumthor: “I think, overall, we admire the fact that he shows architecture is both an art and a craft.”
In Europe, those who have followed Zumthor’s work over many years were delighted with the news. Peter Cachola Schmal, director of the Frankfurt-based German Architecture Museum (DAM), who presented Zumthor with the 2008 DAM Prize for Architecture in Germany, said: “After Kolumba it was clear that this is the kind of architecture we need now. It’s real and it lasts. Sustainability at its best.” In previous speeches, Schmal has called the architect’s works “meaningful and aesthetic experiences on which everyone can agree.”
In Switzerland, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, a professor of architecture and theory at the ETH Zürich Institute of Architecture, also welcomed the decision. “The Pritzker Prize jury has honored a master who has always deliberately ignored any sort of fashionable extravagance, pursuing a very personal, stubborn research stemming from solid, even perfectionist craftsmanship and quietly leading to a poetry of substance,” Lampugnani said. “This is courageous and appropriate to our epoch: a really good signal.”
This is the second time the Pritzker has been awarded to a Swiss architect (Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were the 2001 laureates). The prize includes $100,000 and a Louis Sullivan-designed bronze medallion. Zumthor will be honored on May 29 at a ceremony in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It will be a late birthday present for Zumthor, who celebrates his 66th birthday on April 26.
Layla Dawson, RIBA, is an architect and writer based in Hamburg, Germany. RECORD’s news editor, Jenna M. McKnight, contributed to the story.