And yet, as these volumes reveal, Zumthor has completed fewer than 20 buildings over the past 30 years, and far too many projects have been derailed by chance or concerted opposition. The Topography of Terror in Berlin was fiercely contested and canceled in mid-stream; a delicate summer restaurant on a protected island in Lake Zurich won wide support and was then blocked by the Federal Court. A model for the Herz Jesu church in Munich was smashed on its way to the jury. A new glass tower for a walled German town was voted down in a local referendum. But Zumthor has overcome his frustrations, and now takes the long view. “A design… that puts forward forms and structures not seen before arouses mistrust and fear,” he reflects. “But I have come to realize over the years that the architectural ideas that occur to me in the course of working on a design are never really lost. They stay in the world and pollinate new work.”
It’s tempting to speculate that the unrealized hotel he designed for the Atacama desert—a free-form loop of guest rooms enclosing an oasis—may have been in his mind as he developed his ideas for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his most ambitious project to date. The sites and scale could not be more different, but in both there’s a fresh sense of growth and reaching out to the surroundings.
It was an inspired idea to divide this rich concentration of work into five slim volumes, rather than cram it into one of the mega-publications that entomb other celebrated architects. Each is a delight to hold and page through, and a model of Swiss design from the gray silk covers to the crisp typography and spacious layouts. And it’s far easier to concentrate on details, eight projects at a time, rather than confronting the entire output. As in the Lars Müller monograph of 1999 (now a costly collector’s item) Zumthor has selected the photographs of Hélène Binet to overcome his aversion to the reproduction of his buildings. In her black and white images, which often verge on the abstract, one can recall the visceral experience of swimming through the polished chambers of Vals, or savoring the luminous stillness of Bregenz. In these pages, you can almost smell the freshly cut larch planks of the Swiss Pavilion in Expo 2000, and touch the jagged casts of scorched logs in the chapel that villagers constructed in a German field. Rarely has haptic architecture been better expressed in print.