There cannot be many architects who have a building listed as a protected piece of heritage in their own lifetime, let alone within two years of its completion. But Peter Zumthor is no ordinary architect and it was hardly surprising when his Thermal Baths at Vals won this honour in 1998.
For some, Zumthor is the greatest architect alive today. His works are few but achieve a transcendental and austere beauty that comes from the regional tendency in his work (the majority are around Graubunden, the easternmost canton in Switzerland) and an unmatched connection with material and the craftsmen who make his buildings possible. He is the most important figure on the Swiss architectural scene, despite having a fraction of the profile of the likes of Herzog & de Meuron. The main reason for this is his unwillingness to allow his buildings to be published internationally and his somewhat cantankerous reputation. And he has only recently begun to build outside his native Alpine context.
Zumthor was born in Basle in 1943 and trained first as a cabinet¬maker. His father was a master joiner and had planned that Peter should take over the family business. Zumthor rebelled against this, continuing his education in design at the School of Applied Arts in Basle and then at the Pratt Institute in New York. In 1968, Zumthor got his first job as an architect in the Department for the Preservation of Monuments for the canton of Graubunden and set up his own office in 1979 in Haldenstein.
Early buildings included a school in Churwalden (1983), a two-family house in Haldenstein (1983), his own studio in Haldenstein (1986) and the enclosure for the Roman archaeological site at Chur (1986) with its austere timber facades – his first major public building. Real recognition came in the early 1990s with the Sogn Benedetg Chapel, Sumvitg (1989), and the Residential Home for the Elderly in Masans, Chur (1993).
The staggering Thermal Baths at Vals (1996) are his major work so far, catapulting Zumthor into the major league of world architecture. The rectangular building, cut into a steep mountain, is an adjunct to a 1960s hotel building. It is made from the dark black rock of the mountain above, carved into a cave-like set of thermal baths – a seemingly timeless presence on the hillside and a deeply introspective and moving building. It is at one with its context to the extent that the concrete slab of the roof has been allowed to grow with wild flowers, punctuated only by skylights that let shafts of light into the dark interior, animating the stillness of the stone blocks and forming another elemental presence alongside the splashing and gurgling of water.
Zumthor talks often about the need to ‘do the thing that is obvious but difficult’, and to produce buildings of this quality takes years of design work, meticulous supervision on site, an intimate knowledge of materials and real bloody-mindedness. Zumthor has all of this in spades. It has meant that two of his projects that have been planned for some time are still not complete: his Kolumba Diocesan Museum in Cologne, Germany, now on site; and his Topography of Terror Holocaust memorial in Berlin, projected for completion in 2005. We can be confident that they will be worth the wait.