Swiss architect Zumthor wins coveted Pritzker

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a designer who spurns the limelight while creating a handful of meticulously crafted buildings at his alpine retreat, won his profession’s top honor on Sunday, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor as seen in this handout photograph. REUTERS/HO/Gary Ebner

Zumthor, 65, becomes the third native of Switzerland to receive what is sometimes described as the architecture world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Many of Zumthor’s works dot the mountainous canton where he has lived and worked for the past 30 years, including his best-known project, Therme Vals. The luxury spa, which opened in 1996 after a decade of work, consists of 60,000 precision-cut quartzite stone slabs built into a hillside surrounded by soaring peaks.

A pair of works in Germany evoke a similar spirituality: the Kolumba art museum in Cologne and an austere chapel on a nearby farm. In Austria, he designed the lakefront Kunsthaus Bregenz museum, which looks like a lamp from the outside.

But Zumthor has no completed projects in either the United States or Britain. And he eschews large commercial buildings and high-priced vanity projects.

“If I ever do a mountain lodge for a wealthy person, for him it’s just a mountain lodge, and for me it will be three years out of my life. So I have to be careful,” Zumthor told Reuters.

The scarcity of his oeuvre, and the years of work that he puts into each project, has made him something of a hero in an industry where celebrity architects win headlines and lucrative commissions for what he described as “beautiful images.”

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“I’m more about the real stuff, about substance,” Zumthor said. “That’s why I take a little bit longer.”

Indeed, he spent a decade transforming a bombed-out church into Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Cologne Archdiocese. It was finished in 2007, the same year he completed the Brother Klaus Field Chapel for a couple in Mechernich, Germany. The tiny building consists of a concrete shell layered over a conical tent of 112 tree trunks that were later dried out and removed, leaving a blackened interior.


The Pritzker Prize was established in 1979 by the Pritzker family, the Chicago-based clan that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, as a means of honoring a living architect whose built works, among other things, produce “consistent and significant contributions to humanity.”

The inaugural winner was American Philip Johnson. Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the designers of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, shared the prize in 2001. Last year’s winner was Jean Nouvel of France.

The prize -- a bronze medallion and $100,000 -- is handed out at a different location each year. The ceremony for Zumthor will take place in Argentina on May 29, at the legislative palace of the Buenos Aires City Council.

“His buildings have a commanding presence, yet they prove the power of judicious intervention, showing us again and again that modesty in approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive,” read the citation from the eight-person Pritzker jury of international architects and arts patrons.

Zumthor is based in the village of Haldenstein, in the canton of Graubuenden, a world away from the hectic pace and lifestyle of architects such as Britain’s Norman Foster or Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, both Pritzker laureates.

He is often described in complimentary terms as reclusive or an outsider. Zumthor countered that publicity was important, but he was disinclined to put out a press release “as soon as I make two walls and a roof.

“I say, let’s wait a little. Let’s do some work, and the buildings should speak for themselves. That’s how I am.”

Editing by Eric Walsh