July 18, 2012

Okay, so I may have looked like something of a stalker, skulking around the tiny Swiss town of Haidenstein, but the off-chance of locating the Atelier of my idol, Peter Zumthor, was worth any potential embarrassment. After scouring the village and nearly giving up, I caught a glimpse of beautifully finished, off-form concrete and a lovely roof/wall glazing junction sitting delicately between the clustered vernacular buildings. Like the man and his work, the studio is modest and quiet – yet unmistakable in its sense of presence.

Human in scale, modest in gesture, comfortable whilst side-stepping ‘cosy’, the Atelier is the summit of the Zumthor aesthetic. Underscoring this apparent simplicity, though, is an intensely rational sophistication.

Inside the front door, there is a small reception area with a seat to take off ones boots – a shoe brush and shoehorn hung on the wall are testimony to total attention to detail. Behind this, the kitchen addresses the back yard and it’s a wonderfully honest space – open wooden shelves (a reminder of the fact that Zumthor started out as a cabinet maker) mean all accoutrement are plainly visible – clearly, effacing traces of the everyday is not what the Atelier is about.

The Atelier, in fact, is part of a compound that includes the Zumthor family home, an old workroom (from 1986) and the newer one (from 2005). It’s charming to think that, despite his massive success (he won the Pritzker in 2009), one of the world’s finest architects has stayed so true (and close) to his roots.

What could be perceived as cold, reductive timber or cement boxes are in fact volumes made to convey a sense of life, and the lived. At moments, tired yet happy looking young staff would pop out of one box and into the other as they moved between studio work and meetings, or other functions around the practice.

I saw no sign of the man himself however, his presence was felt.

Author: Nick tobias