Conrad Newel is an opinions contributor to Architizer. The views expressed here are his alone. Interested in having your opinions heard? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Architectural Critics and Journalists,
I have had enough of your fanaticism with Peter Zumthor. He is a fine architect and an even better self-promoter. And while I don’t dislike the guy, I do seriously dislike when journalists—and especially critics—keel over and act like star-struck teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert when confronted with the man or his work.
Specifically, I am ticked off with your constantly using the word “pilgrimage” in describing your visits to Zumthor’s sites.
When I think of the word pilgrimage, I think of a deeply spiritual and religious journey—the type that devout Muslims make to Mecca, for instance, or the trips that Christians take to Biblically-significant sites such as Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, or Calvary, where he was crucified.
Mecca, the destination of an actual religious pilgrimage. Photo: Rex Features
Zumthor's Vacation Homes, site of architectural "pilgrimage"
The Catholic encyclopedia defines “pilgrimage” as a journey made to a place to venerate it, ask for supernatural aid, or discharge some religious obligation. So I thought it rather strange that I kept finding the word being used in relation to ... an architect.
I have compiled just a sampling of recent quotes from notable critics writing about visiting Zumthor or seeing his work in the flesh. Their descriptions typically begin with the word “pilgrimage,” the size and location of the sacred radius, and finally the term “seminal” to describe the works found within its boundaries. This sets the tone for the rest of the article, which can be summed up in three words: Praise, Praise and Praise.
Here, from Dwell Magazine:
I recently made a Peter Zumthor pilgrimage to Switzerland, where many of his seminal works sit within a 40 mile radius [of] one another in the northeastern part of the country. An architectural journey surely not for the faint of heart, it took a day's harrowing drive through the northern Alps with steep cliffs and crazy European drivers, but in the end, it was well worth it.
This one from ArchDaily was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me:
Our friend and architectural photographer Felipe Camus recently embarked on an architectural pilgrimage to the valley of the Rhein. Located in the Graubünden region in Switzerland, the valley boasts many of the seminal works of Pritzker Prize Laureate Peter Zumthor, all within a 60-kilometer radius. Born in Graubünden himself, Zumthor designed the works in relation to their location and time by paying special attention to details and materials. As a result, the works all present Zumthor’s unparalleled skills of craftsmanship and his uncompromising integrity.
A Photographer’s Journey Through Zumthor Valley, ArchDaily, August 28, 2013
“Unparalleled skills of craftsmanship” and “uncompromising integrity”? This type of language should forever be entombed in fine furniture catalogs, or in the “Our Approach” sections of contractor websites. Take out the word “craftsmanship,” and you could find this on the back label of a wine bottle. This is sales, not journalistic language! If this were an isolated combination of adjectives used by one or two of you, it would be just cute; however this is an industry-wide pathology. To wit:
Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined
He has a mythic reputation as a reclusive mountain-dwelling hermit, a monk of materials, with standards so exacting that few clients have the patience, or deep enough pockets, to indulge his uncompromising approach.
The Guardian, February 5, 2013
Ask any architect about Peter Zumthor and you will most likely see them get weak in the knees, or at the very least laden with envy. He embodies an almost wizardly wisdom and uncompromising integrity.
ArcSpace.com, July 1, 2013
Known for running a small yet powerful and uncompromising practice, Peter Zumthor founded his award-winning firm in 1979 in Switzerland.
Architecture.com September 27, 2012
His exquisite but uncompromising buildings do seem to be wrought from the living rock but perceptions of human need are also important in their shaping.
Zumthor's "uncompromising" (whatever that means) Chapel of St. Benedict
Zumthor's Vals Thermal Spa
The repetition seems almost orchestrated or choreographed. Did you just copy and paste these terms from Zumthor’s press release without filtering it through your noodles? You could have at least used a thesaurus. Some other great words are: steadfast, unbending, determined, relentless, pigheaded, firm, resolute...OK, maybe not pigheaded, but you get what I am saying.
Furthermore, “uncompromising” isn’t exactly a virtue I would exalt when talking about an architect. The process of making architecture is more like a cha-cha—you give a little and you take a little, you listen to the unspoken words of your partners, you respond with a playful and delicate flexibility, and you apply a healthy dose of creativity until the music stops. (Your partner in this metaphor being your site, the surrounding nature, your client, the project’s economy and all the other variables that you come across as an architect in the creative process.) Who wants to work with an architect—or anybody for that matter—who is uncompromising?
Back to the subject of pilgrimage, the quote below reminds me of the scene from the Last Supper:
As the evening wore on and Zumthor kept the wine and beer coming, the architect from London began pouring out his heart – much to our embarrassment - about Camden Council and its failure to recognize and support great architecture. We were all glad when he staggered off to bed and at that point two of us (myself and the late Giles Worsley) decided we’d skip Botta and go on a Zumthor pilgrimage starting with his office, and meet the group in Basel the next day.
Perhaps a more fitting comparison for this is a scene out of True Blood where Vampire Eric cons Sookie into drinking his blood, which has powers to make humans high and infatuated with the vampire of whose blood he/she has been intoxicated with.
Then there’s this:
Everything Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, and his elemental work has a broad church. His Therme Vals baths in Switzerland is Mecca for architects, but full of ordinary folk too. His chapels, St Benedict and Bruder Klaus, satisfy visitors seeking either the spiritual or material sublime.
If wherever Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, then no matter what he creates, it will become an object of worship. An object of worship cannot be taken apart, analyzed, scrutinized, or be discussed in an objective manner.
Whether we worship Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, or Zumthor, as journalists and writers we need to maintain a healthy separation between our personal religious beliefs and our journalistic work. Of course, suppressing our beliefs and who we are is not desirable either. The best we can strive for is a reasonable balance between the two.
NOTES ON BECOMING A FAMOUS ARCHITECT
Liberating minds since August 2007
In a world filled with architects of immense egos, frightening moral characters, slicing ambition, stealth branding, cunning strategies, audacious attitudes and incredible talents Conrad Newel will be a force to be reckoned with. He blogs over at Notes on Becoming a Famous Architect.