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dark side of the moon - peter zumthor

bruder klaus kapelle, germany, completed 2007.

architect: peter zumthor, b.1943


by nature architecture is a spiritual discipline, reflecting our values, ideas, aspirations. to the trained or sensitive eye, buildings give their makers away, expressing even their greed, opportunism, their base materialism if nothing better is on offer.


we perceive this instinctively for the most part, but with religious buildings everybody looks for meaning. in answer, zumthor offers a refined little riddle of a building, at all stages offering us clues, at no time displaying overt symbolism.


the interior concrete surface of the chapel makes the old brutalists look a little timid by comparison. as they would have appreciated, it reflects the process of construction, an aspect of architecture neglected by most architects today.


in life, we are judged by our actions, and architecture, as ruskin taught us long ago when he established the moral superiority of gothic based on the working conditions of its artisan builders, is no different.


for the chapel, zumthor developed a primitive building technique which could be - as I have understood it - executed by the people expected to use it afterwards.


trees felled in the vicinity were tied together in a tee-pee shape which became the inner formwork, triangular in section. the outer formwork was a much simpler vertical slipform. a dry concrete mortar was stamped into the cavity between the two forms. finally, a slow-burning fire was lit on the floor, drying out and shrinking the tree trunks, disengaging them but at the same time blackening the walls.


the process is explained much better here.


the building you meet is less primitive than its construction. I was immediately struck by the concrete. the technology of using dry mortar is roman in origin and that seemed a perfect starting point for what is essentially a roman catholic shrine. when the door was opened, the dark triangular space seemed to tell a very different story. "gothic", was my first thought but then, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, the imprint of the tree trunks took on an overpowering presence, reminding me of roman descriptions of meetings with their germanic neighbours and how the kings would hold court in simple log houses.


I don't believe there is a linear narrative waiting to be uncovered in the succession of apparent contradictions but there is a sense of being connected with the entire history of architecture, of witnessing a dialogue through time, in the way some of louis kahn's or utzon's buildings do.


if anything, the almost violent texture of the torched concrete brings us closer to certain conditions in modern art - zumthor has mentioned the arte povera movement as an inspiration.


again, thanks to chris for making us go out there.


more zumthor.

more words, yada, yada, yada.


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Taken on October 4, 2008