This week the Royal Institute of British Architects awards its hallowed Royal Gold Medal to Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect around whom hangs an aura greater than any other living practitioner, of a weight heavier than any gong could bestow. 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.
At the age of 69, he has only built around 20 projects, but each one has caused ripples. He is now courted by millionaires around the globe – from Spiderman’s Tobey Maguire to Qatar’s Sheikh Saud al-Thani – each desperate for a piece of his pure, unadulterated vision. He is the architect every architect wants to be, the inspiration every student cites. So how did the myth of the mountain man come to be?
In comparison to the unbearable lightness of pomo, Zumthor’s buildings contained a glimpse of a deeper, more poetic sensibility, in tune with an emerging lust for phenomenology – the philosophical study of experience – in architecture. He stood as a spiritual guide, opening a route back to primal, tectonic expression in a time of hollow historicism. The lack of thorough documentation of his projects also formed an intentional cloud of mystique – and fostered a desire to know more about who this man really was.
Born in Basel, the son of a cabinet-maker, Zumthor trained at a school for applied arts, modelled on the Bauhaus, before studying industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York. He never qualified as an architect (which has since become a point of pride) but returned to Switzerland to work in conservation for the local department for the preservation of monuments in the canton of Graubünden, where he still lives today.