The Return to Material Composition

Originally written for ARCH 2220: The Principles of Tectonics with Kyle Sturgeon at the UVA SARC, Spring 2019

“I believe that the real core of all architectural work lies in the act of construction” – Peter Zumthor . The statement, which has a Kahn-like nature, has an essence which is lost in most design schools. While many architects (young ones especially) focus more on the design and theoretical model of the work, Zumthor’s philosophy values the importance of construction, joints, and the nature of tectonics. The way Zumthor designs embodies the idea of tectonics, meaning he artistically composes the structures, carefully choosing materials and joining them in strategically aesthetic ways. Elements of his architectural philosophy needs to be taught in design schools in order to prepare the next generation of architects how to skillfully create works of tectonic beauty and logic. Therme Vals in Switzerland is a pivotal case study of Zumthor’s design mindset and teaches how to properly use materiality to compose a work of true architecture.

The Swiss architect’s approach to architecture blends human experience with the exploration of materiality and craftsmanship, in order to have profound architectural instances of beauty. What sets Zumthor from other architects is the way he seems to boil a set of ideas into a single architectural work without losing any thoughts and produce beautiful buildings. In Thinking Architecture, Zumthor lays bare his core thoughts on creating architecture:

When I think about architecture, images come into my mind…Some of the other images have to do with my childhood. There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt's garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells.

Zumthor seems to say that by utilizing the memories from childhood, architects can remember their sensorial experiences and attempt to recreate those feelings within their architecture. As the Swiss architect explains the door handle, he reminds us of the liminal vestibule of an entry zone. Ultimately, architecture is experienced. Zumthor’s main thinking on architecture is surrounded by the design challenge of creating spaces for visitors to encounter and feel. Further in his book, the Swiss architect explains how the postmodern world is full of symbols that is hard to understand because it refers to other symbols, creating an unreal reality. Zumthor seems to be rejecting “the postmodern fragmented world – a world divided into subjects and objects – and misses the reality as a whole and the wholeness of building,” and thus strives to restore this wholeness via architecture. Architects like Zumthor utilize materiality not as a means for symbolism, but as a concrete reality for people to experience. It’s important for more architects to follow some form of Peter Zumthor’s philosophy so that our society can return to a wholeness and reality, breaking through the blur of the postmodern. Architecture can return society back to reality, allowing returning to the reality of things, so that “Western man can rediscover his lost roots.”

The design of Therme Vals emphasizes the key characteristics of how Zumthor considers architecture, space, and the environment within his projects. These thermal bathes in Switzerland are amongst beautiful views of mountain vistas. Constructed by primarily concrete, the architecture is integrated into the site, sunken into the environment. Zumthor materials were chosen to make the site appear as if it was always there: “stone and water, these images are close by.” Materiality at Therme Vals not only heightens its sensorial experience, but also mediates the equilibrium between the site and the natural environment. On the interior of the structure, the majority is of floors and walls are exposed stone. This gives the effect to a natural landscape and visitors have the feeling of sinking into a cave to utilize the thermal baths. Visitors learn more about their relationship with the natural landscape within a manmade structure. Perhaps the most crucial discovery visitors will make is their connection to water. There are multiple baths including a red painted concrete “fire bath (42°C)”, blue painted concrete “ice bath (12°C),” a “flower bath” which has flower petals in it, a bronze water fountain, and multiple communal pools of varying size. The variety of pools each provide a different perspective of water and its conditions, whether they be physical (temperature, appearance, properties, etc.) or ambient (how it affects the social and overall atmosphere, etc.). Each element of the Therme Vals allows the audience to investigate and see water in a new light and dimension. Zumthor’s philosophy seeps into this building, attempting to bring society back to the reality of water, and have people question their connection to nature. Architecture schools need to harken back to this deep appreciation of materiality and strategic composition to produce works of constructed tectonic beauty. If architecture students don’t learn how construct with logic and aesthetic decisiveness, buildings will suffer to achieve a profound tectonic nature and fail to create meaningful architecture. Construction is at the core of beauty, strength, and utility. Materiality matters.

This representative image shows a construction drawing of a moment in the Therme Vals. Zumthor skillfully combines materials to create a green roof and sun light. The effect creates beams of light within the heavy stone dark cave-like baths. By composing each element glass, steel, and stone, a moment of beauty, utility, and strength is born. The tectonic element of construction speaks to aesthetic design philosophy of Zumthor. Architecture students can learn a lot by the way he clearly and logically designs a complex composition in such a simplistic way that creates a profound experiential effect.

Works Cited

Murray, Scott. "Material Experience: Peter Zumthor's Thermal Bath at Vals." Senses & Society, vol. 2, no. 3, Nov. 2007, pp. 363-367. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2752/174589307X233594.

Passinmäki, Pekka. “Architecture beyond Signs and Symbols: Zumthor's Response to the Problems of Aesthetics.” Architectural Research Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 4, 2015, pp. 329–332., doi:10.1017/S1359135516000038.

Platt, Christopher and Steven Spier. “Seeking the Real: The Special Case of Peter Zumthor”. Architectural Theory Review, Volume 15, Number 1 (April 2010), pp. 30-42,

Pier, Steven. “Place, Authorship and the Concrete: Three Conversations with Peter Zumthor.” Architectural Research Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2001): 15–36. doi:10.1017/S135913550100104X.

Zumthor, Peter. Thinking Architecture. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2010. Print