Book Review: A Feeling of History

A Feeling of History by Peter Zumthor, Mari Lending, published by Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018. Paperback, 80 pages. (Amazon)

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor finishes buildings so sporadically that the presence of each in various strands of architectural communication lasts years rather than days or weeks. It was five years, for instance, between two recently completed works: the Steilneset Memorial (2011) and the Allmannajuvet Zinc Mining Museum (2016), both in Norway. When I saw Zumthor speak with Paul Goldberger at the Guggenheim in February 2017, these were the two projects Zumthor focused on. In general, discussions around these and other Zumthor projects unfold over time, unlike projects by prolific firms such as BIG or Kengo Kuma Associates, where lots of attention follows an opening, only to give way quickly to the next project's completion. In turn, Zumthor's slowness invites interviews — but ones that play out over time rather than ones that take place in one evening like the Guggenheim.

A Feeling of History transcribes a series of conversations between Zumthor and Norwegian architectural historian Mari Lending that took place between September 2014 and August 2017. Not surprisingly, they focus on his two projects in Norway, though primarily the Zinc Mining Museum, which was finished in the middle of their conversations. History as a theme for their talks makes sense, since the museum marks the site of a mine that operated in the last half of the 19th century. To Zumthor, "landscapes are historical documents" that exhibit the traces of use; Zumthor then "can try to read and interpret the place" where he designs. At Allmannajuvet gorge, the small pavilions are subsidiary to the landscape, though they contain artifacts that explain certain aspects of the mine's history that the landscape cannot.

This small book consists of insights into Zumthor's design of the Zinc Mining Museum, but Lending also delves back in time to trace when and how Zumthor developed his approach to history. So the book is as much biography as project narrative, meandering around to paint a portrait of Zumthor and one of his projects. Free of illustrations, the conversations are accompanied by photos from Hélène Binet's photo essay on Dimitris Pikionis's Landscape around the Athens Acropolis. The b/w photographs by Zumthor's frequent collaborator are not mentioned in the interviews, though Zumthor describes Pikionis's project at the back of the book as "grounded" and having "a specific connection with the history of the place." So the parallels between his work and Pikionis's stone pathways are clear, even though the project types diverge and there is a considerable geographic distance between Norway and Greece.