"Architecture is not about form"
- Peter Zumthor


Peter Zumthor

News: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor rejected architecture as form-making in his Royal Gold Medal lecture at the RIBA in London yesterday, explaining that he believes that light, materials and atmosphere are the most important aspects of architecture.

"Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things," he said. "The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on. I think form is the easiest to control, it can be done at the end."

Zumthor, who is best known for designing material-led projects such as the Therme Vals thermal baths in Switzerland and the Kunsthaus Bregenz gallery in Austria, told an audience that his ultimate goal is to "create emotional space". He insisted that the "condensation of emotion" can be created in any building, from a humble railway station in Berlin to a house in countryside. "For me, they should all have atmosphere," he said.

Thermal Bath Vals

Above: Thermal Bath Vals, photographed by Hélène Binet

This notion of a "presence in architecture" provided the subject of the lecture, as Zumthor described his quest to find an architecture that is free from symbolism and all about experience.

Reflecting on a childhood recollection of running through a village in springtime, he said: "This is my first memory of something which I think was pure presence, with no meaning and no history." He then discussed how these ideas influenced the design of projects such as the Steilneset Memorial, a tribute to suspected witches who were burned at the stake. "Meaning of course can never be avoided," he said, "but I like to work as long as possible on use and structure and materials, to avoid premature meaning."

Steilneset Memorial

Above: Steilneset Memorial, photographed by Andrew Meredith

The architect recalled how he once asked students to design a house without form, while his latest project is a holiday retreat with rammed concrete walls, intended as a haven of calm and reflection. "It's about creating emotional space," he added. "If I can do that, if I can create a space which is just right for its purpose and for its place, I think that is the greatest achievement. That's my goal."

In a question and answer section, Zumthor described himself as more of an isolated artist than an architect; someone who is not inspired by other architecture but instead tries to do everything without precedent. "I start from scratch, I guess I work more like an artist," he explained. "I'm not a typological architect, I'm more of an architect of place. I always start completely anew."

But with this emotional and personal approach to architecture, how does he find the right team of architects and trainees to work with him? "When you work in my office, this is a big family - you are helping me." he said. "So this is not about your buildings, it is about my buildings!"

Kunsthaus Bregenz

Above: Kunsthaus Bregenz, photographed by Hélène Binet

The Royal Gold Medal, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects, is presented annually to an architect in recognition of a lifetime's work. Previous recipients include Herman Hertzberger, David Chipperfield and I. M. Pei.

See more of Peter Zumthor's architecture, including his 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London. You can also hear more from the architect in an interview we filmed at the pavilion's opening.

  • Romain

    I don't understand how you can "divorce" symbolism from emotion.
    Phenomenology is tricky I guess, and I hope the comment section will enlighten me :)

    • Ema

      Symbols provoke impulse reactions. Other “tools” provoke emotional experience.

    • anant

      All is summarised artistically in his architecture, including social aspects.
      One suggestion: words take away or reduce the essence of architecture, which by its nature is mute. Let it be mute, and hear if you can the silence.

      • Jorge A. Silén

        We can’t deny communication and there is no communication without memory or sign, the meaning behind a sign is predefined socially for the user. Architecture is not mute, it can’t be, nothing is mute –everything communicates to us humans.

        I can’t seem to grasp this idea of non-communication. In reality there is no intrinsic meaning to things, I get that much. But we are producers of meaning, and thats inescapable.

        I think what Zumthor tries to explain about his process is that he is not intentionally figuring out the message he aims to deliver. In focusing on other aspects the message escapes such obvious categories and enters a dialogue with the user that aims at abstraction or some kind of subjective reading, therefore an emotional one. Emotional but still tied to multiple echoes of the subjects past (Gaston Bachelard).

        To tell you the truth I sometimes fear (only sometimes) you can only find the beauty of his projects if you know how to read them. Even then experiential meaning is not outside the realm of history. Darkness and light, may have predetermined tendencies beyond history but are still defined by social notions of those spaces.
        We could never revisit the silence of childhood if there really is such a thing.

        Architecture aims to communicate and there is no communication without history, there is no communication without meaning. If anything, Zumthor has the sensibility to communicate at a lower frequency than most, he does not scream but he most definitely speaks. And language is historical and carries meaning, even if the experience of space can be interpret whiting the boundaries of some subjectivity/emotion.

        In any case his favorite experiential motives are those full of history and myth. His architecture is almost religious and porous in that sense.

    • brooklyndesigner

      He said the meaning is unavoidable and comes later. He doesn’t start with meaning.

  • AsWicked

    What about social aspects, Mr. Zumthor?

  • Andjela

    Perhaps if you take the symbolism literally and do not attach intellectual emotions to it? Symbolism is not about the present moment, and you in that moment, rather it is about some past connections evoked by your mind, and not your self, in the present space around you.

    • Romain

      To be truly free of any cultural or historical bias and engage the present so candidly would take huge efforts of meditation wouldn’t it? I mean, you really would need to be enlightened to be able to approach anything without a hint of forethought.

      I appreciate your answer :) It gives me food for thought. As a trade off, may I suggest giving Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” a quick glance? I was always under the impression that the author was trying to prove that architecture could have symbolic meaning in and of itself. As an example he cited a chimney hearth as a symbol for any home. Am I on the right track?

  • Marcel

    I agree. It is not about form, but about the endless amounts of money he gets for making his designs ;)

    • blah

      He doesn’t for his architecture anymore, what he gets for bad cruet sets I dont know.

  • buildingahillsidehome

    Would it not be possible to collate all of Zumthor’s forms and arrive at some taxonomy of emotional space that’s relatively narrow in scope? I love his work, his research, his insistence, but also wonder about the prospect of such complete defamiliarisation that would cause one to ultimately experience wonder. This entrance/threshold seems very religiously dogmatic and formally I wish it weren’t so isolationist.

  • Albina Gode

    To Andjela:

    What is intellectual emotion? I think that’s a fair question for one to ask back to themselves, more so to an architect striving to produce intellectual spaces. “Intellectual” and “emotion” sound beautiful when put together, but it’s just that in reality one of them is part of what we seek to be as a whole and the other one is who we are individually.

    I don’t doubt for a second that there are a lot of emotions presented during the design and build process of the completion of a building, but these emotions are personal; very personal to the architect working on the project. They reflect back to their memories and even to those memories that appear to no longer exist. This is also what makes one’s work recognisable and different from others. It is the reason why one can look at a building design by Perter Zumthor and a building design by Frank Gehry and know the difference. This indeed does not mean that an architect is capable of understanding the emotions that every single person experiencing the spaces will be faced with. It only means that an architect can deliver emotions and that they are only a reflection of the architect’s perception of the world they live in.

    On the other hand the intellectual part of it could be thought of for a second as a rigid geometrical shape. How well one understands that shape and what its capabilities are at a given time and location is what’s intellectual about it and not the shape itself.
    See, when I started architecture school, all they wanted to hear from us, was a concept. Something that was symbolical and it connected back to some sort of way of thinking or at some point in history. I believed it all. I thought it was so critical for a building to have a concept that was symbolic and all. In reality, no one will ever know about that concept, nor will they ever experience it, because that symbolism belongs in one man’s head and it’s almost like a memory, may that be a memory of an experience or a memory of a told memory.

    The truth is that it is all about striking an emotion and a memory, and shape is not capable of doing that, but material, light, air, water, sound and smell are all capable of doing that, and it is their intellectual presence on a building that makes great architecture.

  • Peanuts

    My hero. I wonder what he does in his free time. Do you think he farts and picks his nose like the rest of the mortals?

  • Robert

    Zumthor’s basic premise that architecture is ‘not about form’ is, of course, in itself, very broadly speaking, true. If architecture is about anything it is about that which CREATES the atmosphere, light, emotional space, intellectual space, spiritual space etc, but these come OUT of the forms, materials, smells etc. that are constructed into the whole. These qualities are those which any good architect will create and produce for whatever uses the final structure is required to be put to.

    I seem to remember that ‘form follows function’ and ‘architecture is the play of masses brought together in light’ as being the founding statements of modern architecture.

    What is so new about what Zumthor says or proposes?

    • dafdsf

      There is nothing new about what Zumthor says or proposes. Every architect has thought of it and uses it when designing. However, not many architects bring light to how important these simple and often over-looked qualities are when it comes to designing spaces with soul. The majority know its important but still choose not to dwell on it or give it much priority.

    • ddbb

      When Zumthor says his architecture is ‘not about form’, I think he means he does not create architecture using a formal ‘a priori’. He does not consider that a particular forma has a particular power in architecture. The form is the result of the process of design and not a mean in itself. On the other hand, he considers materials, smells as having a power in themselves to stimulate or produce emotions.

      That means to me that he is a sensualist. He does not differ much from XVIII Century sensualist architects. His sole particularity is that he does not consider that the form has a power on inhabitants while he consider that other elements have.

      Considering his sensualistic approach, we can understand why he rejects ‘symbolism’. Indeed, what I think he means here, is that he rejects the idea that architecture is supposed to deliver a message ‘intellectually’. Architecture is supposed to be experienced by the senses and provoke emotions by means of its material qualities only.

      If my interpretation is correct, we can say that his approach is partial and not perfect, and even not right. I do not consider the human being as a purely sensual animal. Architecture is experienced through the mind as well as through the senses. Whatever the architect says. Zumthor is apparently a better designer than a theorist. He should probably leave his architecture to interpretation and do not comment any more.

      • Varuo

        I don’t think that Zumthor implies that human beings are a purely sensual animal but that they are primordially sensual beings.

        If you try to read more about the philosophy behind his principles, specifically phenomenology, you’ll understand that in order to fully experience a piece of architecture without any form of bias, you should design in a way where everyone will have the “key” to these qualities, and one way to do that is to consider the starting point of every human being.

        It is then incorrect to assume that his approach is not right for his principles, which relate to every being in a deep and unconscious part of our minds and emotions rather than the shallow, premature part of it.

        Do you think that children and the intellectually disabled people are not humans? Would they ever be able to understand these “intellectual messages” that an architect tries to deliver through his architecture? If not, then that I think is the incorrect approach.

  • I appreciate Zumthor’s comments almost entirely, except for the “artist more than an architect” malarkey. The age (and mythology) of the architectural messiah needs to die. He perpetuates so many falsehoods that generations of architects will have to fight everyday to undo in the mind of the general public.

    I do not mean to infer that he is alone in this effort. But to boldly proclaim this autonomy from the world around him on the eve of that world (yet again) celebrating his work is a slap in the face and demonstrates how little he thinks of his fellow “workaday” practitioners. Have a bit of grace, Pete.

    • Yes, and also, artists don’t really work like he thinks they do! I know no artist that works isolated or “starts from scratch” (what does that even mean?!) – nor does he. His work has a lot of linguistic consistency (straight angles, asymmetric play, preference for certain materials, colours, etc) and responds to his particular view of architecture (which occurs in post-postmodernist rhetoric). I admire Zumthor, but I hate when architects talk about art without knowing.

  • billb

    Why be respectful of ‘workaday’ peers that totally whore themselves out to hack developers?

    PZ is a Master, he has given his life to being out on the edge of the art/architecture envelope. Revel in his words as few like him will ever come our way.

    • He is a master. And I admire his work more than any other living architect. That said, there will always be someone at the pinnacle, someone we all anoint. I don’t contest that. But there is a large spectrum of practice of great architecture that is made less hermetically, and without whoring to developers, that deserves recognition.

      Not everyone can “have a PZ”, but there are noble alternatives, created by teams of skillful designers that navigate public process and consensus-building to offer many communities damn good buildings.

    • Tellsitlikeitis

      Your black and white world view is astounding yet predictable. You really believe that architects like Zumthor = good, but developers = bad. It will require a lot of therapy before we can discuss a cure.

  • Stephany

    The ULTIMATE STARCHITECT has spoken: “It’s not about form, not about money, not about me, but about emotion.” Yep, I always wondered how he could fit such BS in social housing, boring commercial buildings or shopping malls.

  • zizi

    Right, and music is not about sound (yeah I know John Cage’s 4′33″). On the other hand he admits he’s not an architect.

  • Isn’t architecture about giving form to many other things?

  • One of my heroes in architecture.

  • I agree with PZ: a great architect.

  • fernando

    The form is essential in architecture. If architecture wasn’t art it would be boring.

  • dUMB

    Good to hear Mr Zumthor rejecting the current obsession with architectural form making – it’s a CAD thing and possibly a BAD thing. However, and more importantly, Monsieur Zumthor looks as cool as his designs! Respect.

  • Alexis

    #Emotional, yes. But such dark emotions alone?

  • To say that one can ‘start from scratch’, artist or architect, is absolutely absurd. Think, even when we are born, we do not ‘start from scratch’ but are hardwired with certain DNA, traits, we are born to parents with ideologies and views of their own, within a physical setting.

    A true artist does not act in some fabled pure isolation, but instead operates the exact opposite – almost unconsciously, to create a true reflection of the society, condition and context he is within – and it is no different for the architect!

    While I have visited and greatly respect the works of Peter Zumtor, the works are too inwards, and do not reflect the ever changing global nature of society, which the professional architect must stretch and adapt to serve. Zumthor’s works are luxuries that only a few privileged individuals and us as architects will get to experience and have effect our lives.

    I would argue that if Zumthor manipulated his thinking or ideology to embody the inevitably growing global society it would look strikingly similar to that of OMA, whom I also fully respect. While this prospect seems irrational at first, I think what I am saying is.. their methodologies are similar, but their scope is drastically different.

    In short, our goal as professionals is not to take a position against society, but to serve and reflect it.. as if nurturing a child in its totality – ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The architect is only a midwife, helping the baby to be conceived, and passing it off to live a life of its own – not controlling it fully.

  • RaytoInspire

    I don’t know if Peter would agree with me, but I’ve been reading a lot of his writings and about phenomenology for my thesis. Phenomenon, defined as indefinable yet understood, I’ve found is clear only if you don’t try to think about it too much.

    Instead, what I’ve been trying to find is what that special state is that your mind goes into when you experience phenomenological spaces, or writing, or understanding, and what I’ve concluded so far is something I’ve been referring to as a “mind-opening state” and this is when something is entirely understood yet intriguing enough to keep your attention.

    I’ve had the clearest understanding of this in regard to what I’ve decided must be phenomenological writing (Peter Zumthor, Steven Holl, David Buege, Juhani Pallasmaa at times). They seem to have a way of dancing around the bigger picture with words and examples and stories, leaving every sentence satisfying in itself and yet a piece of a bigger picture. The bigger picture as you read becomes clear, yet you can’t quite put words to what it is you’re understanding.

    Here’s a quote that’s really helped me almost understand, its from The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa, but the quote itself is written by Colin St John Wilson – “It is as if I am being manipulated by some subliminal code, not to be translated into words, which acts directly on the nervous system and imagination, at the same time stirring
    intimations of meaning with vivid spatial experience as though they were one thing. It is my belief that the code acts so directly and vividly upon us because it is strangely familiar; or is in fact the first language we ever learned, long before words, and which is now recalled to us through art, which alone holds the key to revive it…” (Pallasmaa 38)

  • Augusto Quepe

    My professor said one time that architecture can’t be fully understood just by seeing pictures, you have to be there to understand the place and space. I think this makes more sense now.

  • arch.cl

    Mr. Zumthor is a resultant off being born in a country with minimum social hazards – a wealthy country indeed – where craftsman is bounded with idiosyncrasy. Personally I think he sounds like he is living in a bubble.

    If we compare the realities in other countries and Mr. Zumthor’s comfort zone, as he describes the way he works, it is not so difficult to deduce. And it is okay! We need colleagues like him, who work like him and maybe someday the value of our profession is put right in place, but I can’t avoid thinking that his generalisations are wrong.

    All generalisations indeed are, because it is just the way HE works and sees our profession in HIS reality. It’s very circumscribed. I love his work by the way…