Zumthor Politics

Shortly after the announcement of Peter Zumthor as this year's Pritzker Prize winner, critics took aim at the Swiss architect's focus on the aesthetic and experiential qualities of space and his apparent lack of politics or confrontation with the myriad crises at hand today. Examples include Christopher Hawthorne's assertion that "Zumthor's work has nothing to do with social activism, disaster relief, sustainability, new design software, mega-cities, affordability or infrastructure -- all of which have crowded together recently near the top of the profession's agenda -- [his winning is] a boost for the idea that architecture is fundamentally an aesthetic rather than a political profession." James S. Russell calls the winner a "Swiss Hermit" and says the jury "avoids contemporary challenges" and "left me wishing it had been more adventurous." Clay Risen goes furthest in his call to "Fix the Pritzker," stating, "there's a real opportunity to reorient architecture toward more humane, socially engaged goals. Getting rid of the Pritzker—at least as we know it today—would be a good start."

Additional, less-critical coverage includes Paul Goldberger fairly typical portrait of "Zumthor's Quiet Power," Richard Lacayo's coverage in Time Magazine, Thomas de Monchaux's essay on "The Mystery of Peter Zumthor" and interviews with Zumthor at The Architect's Journal, with Blair Kamin and with Edward Lifson.

I'm interested in addressing the critiques linked in the first paragraph above, ones that think Zumthor is not a political architect because he does not deal with what are held to be political issues, such as those mentioned by Christopher Hawthorne. Politics in these cases is defined one way, an engagement with government and its policies. Architects are always dealing with government, even if they are building a relatively insignificant structure like a hot dog stand, because they are following codes, zoning and other rules established by governments. But Hawthorne and others want architects to go beyond this and engage governments in their choice of commissions and their working process, leading to buildings that formally express this engagement. I would argue that these three parts of architecture (project selection, process, formal product) are political in Zumthor's work, though not in the view of politics held above, and that architects can learn by his actions.

The definition of politics I would adopt is "the often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society." Henri Lefebvre's assertion that "(social) space is a (social) product" is perhaps the best sentence describing this fact, though it gets lost in today's tumble around big issues and bigger plans. Basically this definition and quote situate all architects and their projects within a political process of building and shaping space. Architects are but one role in the process, which also involves the government, the landowner, the builder, the current occupants and future occupants, the neighbors, and more. In capitalist society certain roles are stronger in shaping space, but in most cases all are able to take part in the process, even though it may not be so obvious, so easy or so successful. Architectural projects in democratic societies can be seen as the utmost expression of politics, in that the conflicting interrelationships are played out in space, with the help of money, power and (free) speech. Architects tend to either play down this fact, in favor of relegating the political to the client and ignoring the importance of form in public space's contested realm, or taking up the cause to the extreme, like Architecture for Humanity (AFH) and other architects fighting for the public whose voice and wants are usually squashed in the process of building. Basically, all architects are political -- like it or not -- and how they practice situates them within a gradient from ignorant to activist.

So where is Zumthor in this gradient? Returning to the three parts of the architectural process mentioned above (ignoring teaching, writing and other marginal aspects that influence the process but are not directly involved), he is closer to being an activist than an ignoramus, because he is very selective of the projects he takes, he works on projects for an amount of time much longer than most architects, and he creates buildings at odds with most developer-driven architectural production today. Of course these are all related (the second aspect makes the first a prerequisite, for example), but in this way of practicing Zumthor is advocating for an architecture not only distilled to its essence (as many critics attest, correctly or incorrectly) but also that engages its physical, social and political contexts in a very particular way. He does not choose projects that aim to make a quick buck or whose presence is harmful environmentally or socially. He works a long time to make buildings that last a long time, not disposable architecture. And his forms raise one's appreciation of his or her surroundings, without excluding everybody but a select few (many of his projects require payment for admission, so they are not totally accessible).

Zumthor is not the model architect, that is obvious. His idiosyncratic ways and designs, though, should be commended as an alternative to more standard practices that are complacent in their adverse impact on the environment and social life. Few architects can practice the way he does, but the same can be said about architects or organizations like AFH. I believe we need these and other architects who make the political gradient that much more diverse, calling attention to the architect's role in the "conflicting interrelationships among people in a society."


  1. Thank you for this post. Perfectly stated. Keep up the good work.

  2. Yeah, like it would have been better to choose... I don't know, posthumous prize to Albert Speer?

    Really, politics should be the last thing weighing in on the prize. Zumthor is a brilliant architect, in my opinion. But as they says, those who can't do, preach..?

  3. The " politics" criticism begs the question, "what politics?"

    Should an architect be awarded for articulating his politics, no matter what their content? Should awards go to those architects who presumably hold similar politics to the jury? To the general public?

    Should we give an award to an architect whose politics we like over one whose politics are reprehensible, even if the latter is more skilled?

  4. I like the subtleties in Zumthor's work. It's a very strong body of work, and I'm glad his work will be seen by a wider audience because of the Pritzker.

    With that said, I really do not see the need to make such a big fuss over some self-proclaimed "high" award in architecture. If the critics like to complain so much about the lack of political dimension of the award recipient, they really should get together and found an award of their own, and place "political import" on the top of the list of qualifications. How's that for activism?

  5. I tend to agree with the criticism about the lack of a social/political position in the body of professional work accomplished by Zumthor upto now.

    While having a politically/socially relevant position is not a pre-requisite for practising architecture, I do believe that doing so does bring in a greater level of complexity and challenge into the process and the product, leading upto, for the most part, a more socially relevant architecturally product. I am a firm believer that now more than ever (since our collective access to favorable and necessary resources is extremely strained), there is some value to be attached to architecture which does choose to address or position itself critically in the various contexts mentioned by Christopher Hawthorne.

    I have no doubt that each architect exercises a political choice (deliberate or not) while pursuing/designing/accomplishing the projects that eventually define his/her body of work. I therefore conclude that Zumthor through choice remained a-critical of most of these issues.

    There is surely a need to recognize and accolade architects who are choosing to tackle and address some or all of these issues through their work.

  6. it is obvious that topics such as political activism in architecture have become the trendy topic in archi-journalism lately. this seems natural given the general climate of the recent "green" movement, and increased global awareness. Hawthorne [among others] is definitely riding that wave, but why does he come out [guns blazing] now? pritzker award time seems very convenient and it seems Hawthorne's critique is backwards. the topic of political activism in architecture is still relevant of course, but his target at zumthor is a little off.

    zumthor's politics seem to champion the ideal of the individual more than anything. i would argue that his "slow" approach to design and construction is a resistance to the mainstream [does that make him libertarian or an independent?].his views not only reveal themselves in his design process and commission selection, but the experiences he provides for visitors to his buildings as well.

    by this rationale, wouldn't that make zumthor a supporter of political radicalism in architecture? [ie: individualism] Wikipedia cites the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science as saying:

    "radicalism is characterized less by its principles than by the manner of their application".

    i would agree that every architect must be political to some degree, and while zumthor's stance might not be obvious or direct, Hawthorne's critique of his architecture [less about sustainability, social art, etc.] is vague. zumthor is proving that architecture can bring about social change, but maybe affecting one personal experience at a time is what sets him apart from every other architect.

  7. I have nothing to add to your excellent debunking of Hawthrone's self-proclaimed notion that architecture has to be political in way that suits Hawthorne's own definition of political agenda and that otherwise it is somehow unworthy. It his presumed "non-political-ness" Zumthor sets a very political example of contextuality, regionality, the vernacular even, reconsidering in his work all that is under threat by globalisation - and no more so than today in the European Union. Very Swiss he is...

  8. The award to Peter Zumthor can also be seen as political choice that asserts significance of architecture in and of itself against current trend that looks elsewhere for its legitimacy.

    At the extreme end of this Pritzker discussion, one article suggests that Cameron Sinclair of AFH may have been a better choice for the Pritzker.

    Cameron himself has been adding fuel to this kind of debate by calling for a duel between 'architecture of excess' and 'architecture of relevance'. As much as I admire his social and environmental agenda, I think this is misguided and unconstructive.

    An analogy would be to suggest that the Michelin food critics should award three stars to Jamie Oliver for his better food at school program. Extending the metaphor further, imagine suggesting that the top chefs around the world should stop navel-gazing at the food itself and be more responsible by limiting their recipes to ingredients from their town only and limit their cooking time and techniques to make it affordable and relevant to the masses.

    Give Cameron a Nobel prize, not the Pritzker.

    As much as social and environmental agenda are important, I think architects must also rally behind the immeasurable qualitative aspects of what we create. When the Sydney Opera House was being built, there were outcrys from the community that the money being spent on this excessive building should go towards hospitals where it can save lives. It's difficult to argue for architecture when you are up against cancer patients!

    Now the building is embraced by the community as a symbol of the city.

    Even in simple school buildings that AFH have designed, one can see qualitative design decisions such as high ceiling spaces that are beyond strict necessity. Even if this adds 5% additional cost, it means 1 less school for every 20 to the community that AFH is assisting. Who defends that decision?

    We need to live but perhaps more importantly we need things to live for.

  9. Thanks everybody for the thoughtful comments.

    I'm amazed, though not necessarily shocked, that critics decide to approach the award through the lens of whatever is in the news, like Hawthorne. Sure, he's selling papers, but the Pritzker jury is naming the winner based on a career, and the hot topic changes so many times over an architect's career that it seems unfair to use that position for a critique. If anything Zumthor's consistency over his long career should be commended more than anything, even though every critic managed to point out that the Thermal Baths from over ten years ago is his greatest work. He's managed to maintain his principles and achieve a remarkably high level of quality in his architecture, though I'm guessing this award might challenge his ability to take his time. He must have many more people knocking on his door.

  10. The Pritzker Prize website states its purpose is "to honor a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture."

    Perhaps there should be other awards, such as a people's choice award (heaven knows what that would yield), a humanitarian award, or best supporting architect award. Then again, do we really need more of this sort of thing?

    As far as the relevance versus excess debate in architecture, I'm willing to admit there's room for both, but by doing so I also admit that it's doesn't make for easy distinctions or bed-fellows. Such is life. Thinking of architecture's potential as a spectrum between these extremes is a mistake. It's too binary. On the other hand, working with a more inclusive model that permits the whole range of architecture's potential would be far more useful.

    Mad props to Zumthor...and to any other architect that increases the quality of life for those that make use of their buildings, Pritzker Prize or not.



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