”In order to design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction.” Peter Zumthor.
Zumthor’s prestigious, and international reputation for creating “highly atmospheric spaces through the mastery of light and choice of materials” began in Switzerland in 1979, when Zumthor began his “small yet powerful and uncompromising practice”. From his rural chapel of Bruder Klaus that immerses the beholder into a world of awe and wonder, to the Therme Vals Baths that soothe the body both physically and psychologically, the Zumthor experience sparks every sensation with “every detail reinforcing the essence of the building and its surroundings.” Peter Zumthor’s works renews the link with the traditions of modern architecture that emphasizes place, community and material practice while still engaging in a rich dialogue with architectural history, in his design process.
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Gottfried Böhm, combines traditional architectural styles with modern techniques, to create Expressionist sculptures that are nevertheless gracefully immersed within the landscape. His approach is characterized by clear concepts and conscious realization of building type, materials and structural systems as the natural basis for architectural code. His artistic passion bleeds into his architectural works, as his approach emphasizes the structural aspects of architecture, both on large scale and in detail. Gottfried Böhm demands for an integration of art and architecture, without jeopardizing human desires, needs and construction to enhance life and communication in an open society.
As seen in Peter Zumthor’s and Gottfried Böhm’s works, both architects are more introverted individual artists that are always extremely personal, original and transcendent in their approach.
PETER ZUMTHOR’S THERME VALS
Peter Zumthor, a Swiss master that is admired for his focus and uncompromising and exceptionally determined nature designs buildings that are alien to the fashion trends. As his works reveal, the architect pays close attention to his phenomenological philosophy, that to stimulate a unique atmosphere, emotions and therefore communicates with the person that interacts with it, but also harmonizes with the surrounding architecture.
More than a hundred years ago, hot springs were discovered in the village of Vals, in Switzerland and German developer, Karl Kurt Vorlop built a hotel complex with over 1,000 beds to take advantage of the natural source, which provides water for Valser mineral water. Eventually the hotel was bought by the village, and Peter Zumthor was commissioned to develop a new separate spa building at the source of the thermal springs to replace the bathing facilities of the hydro hotel which were too cramped and in need of repair. The architectural language of the new spa underlines the essential context; emphasising the special relationship of the new Therme to the primordial forces of nature and the geology of the mountainscape, reacting to the impressive topography of the valley and the position of the warm spring which rises out of the primeval mountain just behind the new spa.
Zumthor’s design flow was not bound by architectonic ideals, and was in fact moulded by a process of playful discovery and patience. His fascination for mystical atmospheres was fuelled by the play of light and shadows, the world of stone within the mountain, the harmonious relationship between stone and water, the pleasures of steam, warm stones against the naked skin, the unique sounds of bubbling water, and ultimately the ritual of bathing. All these elements make for a highly sensuous and restorative experience which leads to Peter Zumthor’s intention: to create a space for visitors to luxuriate and rediscover the ancient beliefs of bathing. The architect interprets the construction as a hollowed out mountain, much like a bath born of the mountains frozen in a natural form and transmits this in his design to create a building monolithic and timeless in appearance that asserts itself as a singular block of stone. At quick glance, almost childish and naÃ¯ve looking, however not a single element is haphazard or incidental. The commission declared that the building should be built upwards to avoid building a wide barrier that damages the view from the hotel, so Zumthor immersed the building into the slope like a quarry where the blocks of stone still remain. The structure blends seamlessly with the landscape as the roof is covered in grass and the only façade that is visible, is built of stone gneiss from a local quarry used for centuries.
One does not enter the baths in a conventional fashion. A cave-like corridor found in the basement of the main hotel passes below the mountain surface and leads to a series of bath chambers that each instigate a different experience for the bather. Zumthor creates a world of waiting, imaging and walking to the unknown as various stone blocks hold a micro world, only discernible within inside each one of them. The visitors venture within this enchanted labyrinth that contains rooms with ‘surprises’. These array of bathing spaces provide fluctuations of sensations through variation of temperature of water, colour of the stone, acoustic control, intensity of light and shadow, where their main purpose of existence is not simply just that of the cleaning of the body but relaxation. The stone rooms do not compete with the body, but flatter the human form and gives it space to be. Each stone box carries a section of the roof which all fit together like a puzzle, which gives the dual impression of weight (stone) and buoyancy (cracks between roof sections). Light enters the mass through the gaps in the ceiling that evokes a misty humid environment with playful stripes of light. Therme Vals is a distinct link with conceptual architecture and reality.
What seems invisible to the eye and perhaps unnecessary by convention, is far from overlooked by Peter Zumthor. The work affects humans physically and becomes self-evident on a spiritual level through combinations of clear and rigorous thought flow and a truly poetic dimension.
PETER ZUMTHOR’S BRUDER KLAUS CHAPEL
Peter Zumthor created the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Germany as a universal piece of architecture for meditation to honour hermit patron saint of Switzerland, Bruder Klaus. Despite its lack of plumbing, bathrooms, electricity, and shelter from weather, this chapel is still considered as a basic landmark in Germany’s natural landscape and remains an anticipated destination for many. This architectural piece is almost sculptural in essence; as chapel plumbing is absent and rain enters the structure from the opening above. One may consider it as a large sculpture that you can enter to pray to God or the saint Bruder Klaus, or simply meditate in. Peter Zumthor says that ”in order to design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction”.
The attraction of the tower alone standing in its rural landscape would be compelling enough, however a narrow gravel path leads directly to the chapel’s massive triangular steel door. The modern tower seems impenetrable and very simplistic in form, but it is far richer in its significance and more complex in its making than first appears. The interior of the chapel consists of 112 trees cut from a nearby forest assembled like wigwam-like structure position in a cone shape, allowing an oculus at the top. Concrete was poured onto the wooden structure and eventually the inside was burnt out, leaving behind a hollowed blackened cavity and charred walls. The unique roofing surface of the interior is balanced by a floor of frozen molten lead.
Upon entering the chapel, one is immersed in darkness, until a few paces along, a tear-shaped oculus bursts into view and the gaze is pulled up by the leaning walls to the sky and night stars. Intense light flares downwards upon the molten lead floor, illuminating the surrounding burnt-out tree trunks. This opening creates different ambiances very specific to the day and season. Three hundred and fifty holes punctures into the concrete exterior and filled with plus of mouth-blown glass; the light winking through them, dancing and sparkling out of the charred walls.
Many people interpret the design of the structure in terms on Bruder Klaus’ life. The dark emptiness and strips of light are compared to the saint’s cell dug into the rock, the tower associated with Klaus’ career as soldier or the oculus resembling the flare of a star that can be attributed to a reference of Brother Klaus’ vision of the womb. Yet, all these symbolic connections were what determined Zumthor’s design and believes that all these interpretations make the piece even more interesting. His only vision is that of architecture. He believed that it is important for a chapel to rise up vertically in an open plane, to mark out its territory, and as seen from inside, the shape directs our attention towards the heavens. Zumthor’s intention was to create a place of meditation, solace and reflection. ”To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.”
GOTTFRIED BÃ-HM’S NEVIGES MARIENDOM CHURCH
Gottfried Böhm is known as an expressionist and post-Bauhaus architect, but he prefers to deem himself as the medium that abridges the past and the future, between the world of ideas and the physical works, between a building and its urban surroundings. He forges these ‘connections’ by manipulating of colour, form and materials without resorting to arrogance by disrupting the flow of the relationship between the structure and its setting.
In 1960, the church decided to construct a building in Neviges, to honour a miraculous engraving in copperplate of the Immaculata which would stand as a pilgrimage centre for the religious. The architect Gottfried Böhm won a series of competitions and got chosen to design the church that accompanies a Franciscan monastery and other late-baroque architecture.
Despite initially considered as exaggerated and mannerist in design, the façade of Mariendom humbles visitors, with its jagged and furrowed mass, it is considered as one of the most monumental manifestations of a modern church building as a castled crystal mountain, which evoked a feeling of safety. The church is often interpreted as a tent, referring to the pilgrim’s wanderings. However the architect disassociates himself from this comparison since he could have hardly chosen an emergency accommodation, such as a tent, to represent the house of God. It may have tent-like nature about it due to the addition of a multitude of folded elements and the forgoing of a waterproof covering. Bohn intended for the jagged church to fit in the landscape of the Bergische Land, not necessarily with the surrounding architecture but more with the immediate landscape that is graced by hills. Also there is a clear association with the trademark of the catholic papacy, the first pope, Peter, meaning the rock. Churches were Gottfried Böhm’s preferred architectural goal. He was the same time a musician and trained sculptor. His sculptural mode of thinking is evident in many of his architectural designs.
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The church holds two spaces: the outer ones is a pressed block of moderate scale fragmented into irregular walls, angles and slopes, while the inner one soars upwards into new directions with a volume perceived twice its size. This space has no ceiling and no vaults; it closes like a crystal with several ridge points at the height of thirty metres. The material he preferred over many years as building material was concrete – moulding them in such a way to transmit the idea of flight, and buoyancy. The chapel niches are formed by jointless folds of concrete, and the inside is featured with fanning bricks, street lights and façade like galleries that surround the entire space. Unfortunately, as in the case with many buildings built in experimental materials, the church suffered some issue of heating since the sand-blasted and site-poured concrete did not have any insulation of damp-proofing upon installation as the church was purposed for summer use only. The act of procession and the relationship between the space and the human body are essential in the creation of a sacred experience.
The Via Sacra at Neviges was designed from the perspective of a flexible architectural model, which was not based upon urban design ideal of the modern building as a detached sculpture but the view of people moving through space that inherently become the ultimate creators of the architecture. In regards to functional and symbolic aspects, Böhm’s church recalls the topology of a pilgrimage church. A group of stairs, comprising of 15 steps (representing Mary’s age at the time of Annunciation) lead to a long spatial pathway connected to a centralized church, flowing into a piazza which intensifies the physical impression of the church behind it. The piazza, a centralized space, acts as a peripheral zone of circulation where pilgrims obtain spiritual reinvigoration after undergoing catharsis along the path of repentance.
The pilgrimage church in Neviges is exceptionally complex and contradictory and described as a ”memory of another epochâ€¦ disturbing and magnificent”. A building that despite its eccentricity, does not conflict with the surrounding environment, clearly linked to its time and also deeply rooted to the traditions of the pilgrims. “As safe as the Romanesque, as elevated as the Gothic,” that is how a church should be, Böhm once formulated.
GOTTFRIED BÃ-HM’S HANS OTTO THEATRE
Gottfried Böhm created interiors that seemed like exteriors and vice versa. This is the only characteristic that remained constant throughout Böhm’s works, since his style was in constant flux and every structure was different from the one that preceded it. He felt that buildings must ‘have meaning’ which somewhat clashed with the Bauhaus decree of functionality. Despite his buildings’ explosive nature, Böhm never built ostentatiously, never with the will to dominate, and when he built on a large scale, then with a smile.
His most recent creation is the Hans Otto Theatre in Potsdam. The architect sketched a 5-storey theatrical building with bowl-shaped, cantilevered roofs making use of concrete and glass. The theatres is situated on a land on the banks of Havel and the Tiefer See lake. It has been a many time associated with Jørn Utzon’s opera house in Sydney because of its fantastic waterside location and shape of the buildings. The expressive architecture of the theatre evolves from the former barracks Schiffbauergasse. The shells are the most significant feature of the building, which graces its surroundings by providing Potsdam with an iconic image. What was for a long time a scabby city backyard is today a district that offers everything an architect could wish for: water, ships, imposing trees, picturesque industrial monuments, which can all be cleaned up in a wonderfully nostalgic fashion.
The roofs curve up on top of each other above the auditorium in a dynamic fashion, giving the illusion of petals from an orchid, with the fiery red colour contrasting with the surrounding old trees and reflective water surface. The lowest shell, atop the foyer creates a pleasant location of interaction with the surrounding landscape and the higher shells integrate with the theatre hall, which can be lit by daylight.
One enters the theatre through a purposely staged route at the rear of the building, leading to a dark and narrow cloak room which then throws you into a brightly-lit, fully-glazed foyer. The view on the left hand side opens out to the water and the right-hand side, if not curtained, daylight enters and illuminates the building right up to the stage. Gottfried Böhm injected flexibility in his design, as the theatre can also be used for balls and congresses. The auditorium, which holds 470 non-tiered seats, can be completely lowered at the level of the stage. Böhm’s orchid is considered at the new trademark for the city, and truly creates the impression of red petals rising from the waterline to anyone that beholds it.
Peter Zumthor and Gottfried Böhm both create architecture with its own ‘atmosphere’, and a ‘beautiful form’ which focuses on the consistency of the place, use and form in the architecture. This may be considered as the phenomenological approach: the distinction between the natural and manmade, the awareness of the structure’s resonance with the environment, and the ambition to land an awe-inspiring impression within the viewer. The architect calculates the body of the architecture, material compatibility, the sound of space, surrounding objects, composure and seduction of movement, tension between interior and exterior, levels of intimacy, and the projection of light.
Critics argue that “design which is purely infatuated with phenomena (for the sake of consciousness) often lacks the sufficient pragmatism necessary for the creation of coherent, efficient, and economical architecture”, as seen in Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, which lacks plumbing and shelter, or Böhm’s Neviges church which does not provide enough heating due to experimental manipulation of material.
Though these faults are evidence that this approach is so complex it sometimes grows beyond the architect’s reach and asserts its own existence as something more than just a roof over someone’s head. This is the reason why Peter Zumthor and Gottfried Böhm are more than academic architects. They are architects that strive to not simply surround the architecture around the human, but to infuse it within the person to the very core.
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