10 nov. 2013 | The rhythm of silence (on the work of architect Peter Zumthor / DAY 2)

door diaryandthoughtsonarchitecture


I didn’t finish day 1 completely. We arrived late in Lindau to spend the night and still went to see the nocturnal Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB). During the day this building is what I should call translucent and absent, but in the night it starts glowing in these magnificent grayish, frozen and moonlight white colors. Beamlights inbetween the double-skin façade illuminate the glass cube itself, the separate panels becoming fluorescent grisailles. A silent lighthouse with immobile vertical searchlights, next to a vast lake of which the dark surface mirrors the universe.

I tell the students about the military searchlights at the end of the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin. How Hitler, ignoring the advice of his generals, ordered to bring all the searchlights the Nazi’s had to Berlin, leaving the borders unprotected, in order to bluff and suggest they had more. But also, how beautiful and overwhelming the effect was, the vertical focused beamlights on the outside walls of the Olympic stadium, suddenly moving with their rays of light towards one central point and by that creating a kind of monumental dome, a dome of light. In “Olympia, Das Fest der Schönheit”* we can still see how Leni Riefenstah frames these touching lightbeams as if they were a bright shining star, a blinking carbon arclight*, an “arc of light”.
We know, the whole thing was meant as propaganda and Speer, Hitlers architect, knew of course the intimidating power of flags and symmetry, of fake symbols and rituals, what I would call visual rhetorics. The art to convince with just formalistic means. How dangerous this empty formalism can be and how it transforms easily into empty nationalism we know, we should know.
But after all these years, the light dome, this ballet of beamlights, the images of Riefenstahl, still look breathtaking. Apparently this kind of moral issue also stays actual considering the fabulous scenography of Yang Zhimou for the opening of the Chinese Olympic Games of 2012 …

Back at the Hostel in Lindau we still drink a Fohrenburger beer, an Austrian one and brewed according to the “Reinheitsgebot”. Dating from 1516 this “Bavarian Purity Law” defines beer just to be made with the natural ingredients water, barley and hops. In the coat of arms of the Fohrenburger beer a white unicorn is depicted, this fabulous creature standing for untamed power and innocent purity. As pure the animal is, the beer should be. Finally the unicorn leads me into a dreamy world of medieval bestiaries, the Hortus Conclusus, of stars and constellations,

An open sky accompanies the cold night. The Bodensee nearby, the Rhine leaving the mountains and taking a break. One cannot see the mountains from here, but somewhere on the other side of the lake they are silently present. The night is peaceful, the featherbed warm. The celestial globe of Coronelli comes to life. “See, even Night herself is here”*

I have difficulties to wake up because the morning is as silent as the night was, the blinds down leaving the room completely dark. Coffee helps.

As the morning is young, I would like to assume another way of looking opposing the formalism, the visual rhetorics, we talked about yesterday, a more introvert and dialoguing language versus the will to convince. The unicorn being a metaphor, I would like to talk about integrity.

When I see Zumthor talking in his kitchen and atelier (in the documentary “Notes from a Day in the Life of an Architect” made by Wim Wenders), I see an old but integer man. But what does it mean ? How to define integrity ?
I see a man that is not stressed by time, who takes his time to understand “the feeling of things”, as Adam Caruso explains in his essay*. To understand context and content ; on the one hand communicating with the genius loci and on the other hand to premise human expectations and emotions. I see a man who questions his own “imagination, inspiration and intuition”*, who reflects while persecuting the path of experiment, of try and error. I see somebody who thinks out of the projects themselves and develops them with a childish, open minded, spirit. Wandering in the architecture of Zumthor is experiencing processes, how “things” were made and how they grow organically out of the human mind and out of the physiological characteristics of the “things”.

Thinking with the heart creates “Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition”. Through heart thinking we can experience the truth in a moment of intuition, for it is in this moment that truth stands within the human being as a reality, as an objective human experience, and not as some abstract theory”*. Perhaps a bit ethereal said, but Zumthors thinking and craftsmanship roots in the ideas of Goethe, Rudolf Steiner and Joseph Beuys. Approaching Zumthors work from this point of view, this “historical line”, is also a way to define integrity.
Opposite to the entertainment, the glamour and the vanity stands the “Gebrauchsmusik”, in a manner that J.S. Bach, as a craftsman, wrote his music to be functional for specific occasions. Opposite to idolatry and the star statuses of architects and artists is the anonymous character of the work itself, which makes the difference between consuming and throwing away, and experiencing, identifying and absorbing. “Things” that need some time, buildings as a Gestallt.

The temporary exhibitions of the Kunsthaus Bregenz show contemporary art. The concept of the building is simple and regarding the way artists, as Hiroshi Sugimoto and now Barbara Kruger, worked in these spaces, very efficient and inspiring.
Apparently Zumthor wanted the spaces to be abstract and absent. The Kunsthaus consists of a square ground floor and 3 other levels, which slightly differ. Each level being one open space, marked by a  terrazzo floor, either a concrete (ground floor) or glass ceiling (3 levels), either concrete (3 levels) or glass walls (ground floor). Three concrete offset walls parallel to the facades guide or hide stairs, elevator, deposit space.
The skin of the building is doubled ; rectangular shields in glass at the outside, glass (ground floor) or concrete (3 levels) at the inside.
There are a lot of links in this design, the grid referring to the Roman origin of the city of Bregenz, Brigantium, – the grid organizing the Roman Castra -, the square and open space inside being a reference to the National Gallery of Mies, ….

The magical trick however is at the first sight not visible from the inside. Also the ceilings of the 3 levels are doubled into a constructive concrete part and a lower suspended translucent ceiling. At the height of this internal “technical” space, the concrete walls of the inner skin is replaced by glass, allowing natural daylight to enter the spaces.
As fluorescents are attached to the concrete ceiling, daylight and artificial light mix up and illuminate the space through a diffusing ceiling. Along the grid of the square glass panels some 220v.-rails are integrated allowing to add spotlights and by that compensate this diffuse light with more focused light.
The wonder however accomplishes when staying a bit in these spaces and noticing how the light changes according to the daylight conditions outside. So by means of light, the way the sun softly infiltrates, Zumthor transformed these neutral and abstract spaces, the art and people again into a continuous vivid perception and experience.

Barabar Kruger is an American artist (b. 1945) who works with graphic techniques of advertising and marketing. She combines found photographs from magazines with strong quotes or slogans in her very specific black-white-red style. “I shop therefore I am”.
Visually text and image are integrated, but contentwise there is a clash that obliges us to halt and to question.
In the Kunsthaus she implements her work in a conscious spatial way, the three floors becoming each a part of an ABA-structured sonata. On the first level the complete floor is covered by black and white-text divided in two parts by a red and white-text line segment in the middle. In addition with the vast surface of the floor, small work is presented on the concrete walls. On the third floor one quote “Der sinn des lebens besteht darin, dass es endet” is stretched out over the complete length of the walls, again in the same black, white and red colours, being a “variation on the theme” (of the first floor). In contrast with the “silent”, static and illuminated floors, the second level, the B-part of the sonata, is darkened for 4 continuously and simultaneous projected videos, creating some confusing fuss.

We see again, after beautiful installations of Sugimoto, Olafur Eliasson, … how an artist takes profit out of these balanced spaces and how architecture can be present in a peaceful way and serve the artist and his, her work. This can only be the case when the architect creates a kind of no man’s land, a very functional space which lost its function, an “empty” space.

Next to the KUB, in the former Post Office building, hundreds of Zumthors models are exhibited. They are functionally stored in industrial metal racks, one on top of the other. All kinds of models, big and small, detailed or rough, focusing on the environment or on a technical matter, on scale or more sculptural, professional or childish, … All of them meant a certain question and a successive step in the developing processes of Zumthors projects. We get a better insight in the way Zumthor thinks by constantly materializing his thoughts. Thinking and making, questioning and craftsmanship go integrally together.
As a teacher being involved in the education of (interior) architects, I cannot emphasis more that the research issue should NOT be separated from the designing, To research, or better said to look to the world with curiosity, should be an attitude, not a preparatory study. In these models of Zumthor we can pretty well see the reason why.

So it is a pleasure for the eye to see how, even on the scale of the model, Zumthor tries to express and translate the characteristics of construction, the tactility of materials, the sculpturing of the light, …, how our sensibility is already so strongly addressed by these small exercises.
There is no method in the making of these models, but every serie shows a continuity and a certain uniformity. Step by step we can see how the pigeonholes in the thick walls of the Kolumba museum were developed. We can see the primary hut which functioned as the formwork for the rammed concrete for the Feldkapelle, …
It is not allowed to take pictures of the models, a pity yes, but Zumthor wanted us to look with our eyes and to be aware. Through the lens of the camera we see “snapshots”, just fragmented moments and of course Zumthor wants us to see the whole working process, also the long labour. I sit down and wait till all the students saw the documentary by Wim Wenders. My eyes dwell around all these models. I’m glad we could witness how these marvelous buildings took shape bit by bit, model after model.

We continue our way to Vals, Switzerland, on the same day. Vals, a small alpine village at the end of a winding road, top of the valley, at the altitude of 1.250m. Half buried into the hill side, surrounded by sixties hotels and on top of a thermal spring, Zumthor created the “Thermen”.
Every Sunday there is a midnight session allowing the hotelguests to use the Thermen between 11pm and 0.30am, in full silence. The day has been long and exiting, so I will write about the Thermen tomorrow. Lets end the day by swimming in silence. Swimming outside, next to the flanks of these huge mountains that one can barely see through the fog of the hot water. The cupper fountains outside stopped spitting the hot well-water. It starts snowing, I worry a bit for the way back tomorrow.
It is strange to see how tactile and touchable everything and everybody becomes, the stones in Valser Quartzite, our skins. How intimacy and silence get interwoven, becoming one. How intimacy nestles in silence.
Floating around in the water with no aim, nor purpose, the water relieving all weight. A submarine that carries some sailors, taking a breath at the water surface, floating around in the night. Whirling snowflakes, intimate silence.

Jan Dekeyser | Sunday Nov. 10th 2013



*1Olympia, Das Fest der Schönheit“, movie by Leni Riefenstahl (1936) ;
*2 The carbon arclight :
*3The Fairy Queen“, semi-opera by Henry Purcell ;
*4The feeling of things“, essay by Adam Caruso /
Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona 2008 (ISBN : 978-84-343-1186-2).
*5  “Wisdom of Man, of the Soul and the Spirit“, Rudolf Steiner / GA 115 1911.
*6A thinking heart for the 21st century“,  essay by Ian George /
National Gallery of Victoria 2007
(Joseph Beuys & Rudolph Steiner : “Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition.” /  ISBN 9780724102914).

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