Work of Peter Zumthor Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3182 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Architecture

Peter Zumthor: Therme Vals

One of the best examples of a relatively recent application of phenomenology in architecture is Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals in Vals, Switzerland. Examining how Zumthor transformed an aging spa resort into the unique structure that exists today helps one to better understand how theoretical ideas may intesect the practice and production of architecture. In particular, considering Therme Vals in the context of certain texts discussing architectual phenomenology by Christian Norberg-Schulz, Juhani Palasma, and Zumthor himself reveals the way in which Zumthor's particular design choices, from the locally-sourced materials to the intentional timelessness of the interior, exemplify the phenomenological ideals of simplicity, personality, and individual reflection. The building presents itself as a kind of suggestive, creative space, in which the formal details of the design serve to nudge the individual towards certain ideal experiences.

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In order to conduct a succesful analysis of Therme Vals, one must first understand some of the basic theoretical and ideological underpinnings of phenomenology. The theory of architectural phenomelogy developed over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, and one of the central figures in its creation was Christian Norberg-Shulz, who consolidtated his various ideas in the seminal work Genius loci: towards a phenomenology of architecture. In it, he proposes "the understanding of a place as a phenomenon," an understanding which forces a fundamental reevaluation of architecture's role in the creation of meaning, because it highlights how architecture may serve as a kind of liminal space in which objective reality and subjective experience meet. (Castello 2010, 89).

Term Paper on Work of Peter Zumthor Assignment

Norberg-Shulz takes his cue from the philospher Martin Heidegger, proposing "a phenomenology of place [that] comprise[s] the basic modes of construction and their relationship to formal articulation" ( Norberg-Schulz 1980, 15). Thus, Norberg-Shulz is arguing for an architectural practice that seeks to address the space of a structure with an eye towards the way that structure tranforms objective space into a subjective place through the interaction between sensory information and individual consciousness.

As such, the ideal architectural practice for Norberg-Schulz is one that focuses on the most essential elements of any structure; namely, the materials, shape, and context, which results in an apparently simple, clean structure that nonetheless produces a complex personal experience for the viewer. While this neccesarily means that phenomenological arhcitecture avoids ornamentation, one should not confuse architectural phenomenology with the ideals of the international style, because the latter values an almost industrial fetishism of elementary materials that have been molded and cast, thus celebrating an almost Vulcan (the god, not the alien species) pride in human power, while the former is largely concerned with expressing and celebrating "the dependence of man upon nature" through the use of certain materials and a particular attention to embedding the structure into its immediate, local context (Norberg-Schulz 1980, 129). In this way, architecture is not viewed as a triumph over nature, but rather as the process by which humans are able to work with nature in symbiotic fashion.

Zumthor attempts to embody this characteristic in his work, as he notes when he states that "all my buildings are sort of in a critical dialoque with the site, with the place," so that "if you have a good result, then it's a nice metaphor to say that the building looks as if it has always been there because then [...] you have reached some kind of rapport between the place and the building" (Spier 2001, 16). Thus, the goal is not to recreate elements of nature through the use of ornamentation, but rather to integrate with nature by providing a kind of bridge between natural, emergent processes and the intentional ordering of material and space. In a way, one may view "place" as the meeting of space and consciousness, with the particular architecture of a place serving to guide consciousness towards the most productive interaction with that natural, objective space.

In addition the choice of material and lack of undue ornamentation, an architectural practice embodying phenomenological ideals must take into account the personal experience of the viewer, because a recognition of a specific place as a phenomenon means that the architect is responsible for taking the entirtey of the that subjective experience into account by designing a structure that successfully engages the whole range of human sensory perception, because "architecture needs to be expereinced to convey meaning" (Castello 2010, 89). This statement may appear obvious at first, but it is worth pointing out because of the way in which it highlights the importance of the individual in the role of architecture. At its core, phenomenological theory simply agrees to acknowledge that architecture is the process of structuring physical reality according to human perception and experience, and as such should be approached as a kind of intermediary between individual meaning and the totality of existence.

Obviously, while the architect cannot take every possible individual expereince into account, a phenomenological practice will nonetheless "defend the autonomy and emancipation of individual experience" by organizing a structure in such a way that a multitude of complex individual experiences may arise from the set of relatively simple formal characterstics (Palasmaa 2010, 31). Again this demonstrates a divergence from the rote simplicity of the international style, because as Zumthor notes, the "attempt to generalize" by proposing universal standards of structure regardless of context "rob[s] the individual buildings of their splendor" (Zumthor 1999, 37). Phenomenological practice does not focus on simplicity for simplicity's sake, but rather begins from the assumption that any given space suggests its own essential elements, and it is the job of the architect to recognize these elements and expand upon them in a process of multiplication, rather than addition.

One may see the phenomenological ideals of material and formal simplicity coupled with an attention to the individual subjective experience in all of Peter Zumthor's work, and perhaps most easily in Therme Vals, a spa nestled in the mountains of eastern Switzerland. Pointing out how these theoretical ideas have been exemplified in Therme Vals may be done simply by providing a description of the structure, because each detail may be seen as the practical application of a phenomenological theory of architecture. Beginning with the exterior and moving through the interior along the same path as a potential visitor, one may see how the building serves as a kind of implicit guide, suggesting certain behaviors and connotations that allow the visitor to appreciate an individualized emotional, intellectual, and physical experience without the building or architect's intention explicitly intruding on the emergence of this experience.

Zumthor's structure is "actually a self-contained addition specifically designed to revive the failing fortunes of a tired 1960s hotel spa, which by the late '80s was verging on bankruptcy," and the design seems intentionally opposed to "the traditional alpine cottage" (Reuber 2002, 25). However, this is not to suggest that the building presents any kind of contrast to its surroundings, because visually it represents the symbiotic relationship between the overwhelming force of nature and human attempts to structure some small portion of that force into a habitable space. The exterior is composed of at least "60,000 Valser granite slabs from stone quarries further up the valley," thus exemplifying Norberg-Schulz's "dependence of man upon nature," which he argues "is first of all expressed through the use of local materials" (Henry & Taylor 2005, 47, Norberg-Schulz 1980, 129). It is worth mentioning that this focus on local materials is not necessarily borne out the same kind of environmental concern which has made locally-sourced food so popular, but rather a belief that the integration of a building into its context is made all the more seamless through the integration of contextual materials. Thus, the use of local stone serves to highlight the particular character of the place in the same way that the use of local spring water in the hotel's restaurant does, because both serve to centralize the uniquer character of the place itself.

The stone is "not mere facing, but is wholly structural," and it gives the structure the appearance of having been carved out of the mountain rising up behind it, as if the "rectangular structure has been chiseled into the slope" (Henry & Taylor 2005, 47, Reuber 2002, 25). The stone marks the building as a place of eternal transition, in that it seems to be forever locked in a process of emergence, blending the human with the natural and creating a space in which the two may safely meet. In addition, while the individual slabs allow the viewer to see the grain and detail of the stone, they also serve to paradoxically create a sense of airy lightness due to small slits in the roof and certain walls which "emit dramatic slivers of light, creating a changing tableau throughout the day" that reflects the integration of the structure into the natural processes of its environment, both on the micro-scale of a single day and the macro-scale of the millions of years necessary to form a mountain (Henry & Taylor 2005, 47).

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