Peter Zumthor is sitting in a leather-panelled room at the RIBA, in an Eames chair at one corner of a huge table. At one end of the room is a portrait of Aston Webb; at the other, John Belcher. Both previous Royal Gold Medal winners but not, perhaps, in quite the same class as Zumthor.
Those Edwardian worthies never attained his status as architect’s architects, someone hero-worshipped by the whole profession, internationally. Does this adulation make him uneasy, I asked him?
“Not really,” he answers after one of his characteristic long pauses. “I don’t feel it too much. I feel it on special occasions, like this. But it’s not part of my everyday life. My everyday life is full of the problems of an architect. I’m very glad if people feel this way – if a student working for me, for instance, can say ‘architecture still exists’!”
So why do other architects like to be like him? “This is easy. Let’s say there’s building as a commercial business, and there’s architecture as an art. The artist has to control his process, also the architect has his aim to deliver more than mere functionality. The artist must be able to control his symphony or his painting or his building. He can do this in many good or bad ways but as a method this is vital – otherwise you cannot guarantee a result . As an architect you have to prove that you can produce good results, to convince the client to hire you, to give you the freedom you need to control your piece of work. Maybe I was lucky, maybe I was talented, maybe I was in the right place or the wrong place, who knows? But I think you can still do it.”
Does he believe in isms, I wonder – modernism, traditionalism? Or is there only architecture?
“I focus on producing good buildings. So my mind and my heart are circling round these issues, always very concretely. Trying to produce the best result. So isms don’t help me in that job.
“First I learned how to make furniture. Then I went to art school. I learned all the skills you need if you want to take up any artistic profession. There we also designed furniture and this was completely modernistic. The art school in Basel was modelled on the Bauhaus. The history of architecture was something you learned only in order to despise it.
“Then for me and others Aldo Rossi introduced history into our discipline, into designing, and this for the first time enlarged modernism for me – because that was what he did. He wrote the Scientific Autobiography – his architecture as an autobiographical experience. This was an eye-opener for me and this is when I started to grow beyond my modernist education. Then I worked for the preservation of sites and monuments, studying the vernacular. So looking back, it was all unplanned, but it was a beautiful education. Then I started to try to be myself.”
His fame has come as a surprise to him, he says – it was not something he expected or set out to do. “It’s an amazing reward – that I can be honest and sincere to myself, and that this is recognised. I never dreamed of that. It’s beautiful.”
His own heroes – the architects of the past he looks up to are Andrea Palladio, Aldo Rossi (on theory), and Le Corbusier. Palladio and Corb share a characteristic, he says. “Looking back, I can see that these architects felt like a brother. The first time I went into a Palladio building, I felt – I would have liked to know this guy. The same thing happens to me when I look at a building of Le Corbusier. There’s something magic, from the big things to the small details.”
Today we’re seeing a return to more modest architecture, first principles. “Maybe I’m part of that. People say that what they like about my work is that I concentrate on the elementary basics. How does a building perform, is it quality. My greatest admirers – who don’t have to be architects - can see that I am trying to create emotional spaces. This is indeed the core of my activity. Emotional spaces that feel right for their purpose and place.”
So congratulations, Peter Zumthor, on your Royal Gold Medal. And thank you for finding it funny when I said that what with the Pritzker, the Praemium Imperiale, and now the Royal Gold Medal, you’ve ‘got the set’. “Got the set! This is a very English thing, yes?” And he roared with laughter.