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Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, 65, is 2009 Pritzker laureate

April 12, 2009 | 10:00 am

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Peter Zumthor, a 65-year-old Swiss architect known for buildings in spectacular alpine settings that mix spare, powerfully elemental forms with a rich range of materials and sly accommodations of history, will on Monday be named the winner of the 2009 Pritzker Prize, the field's top honor.

In certain ways, the news is no surprise: Zumthor's name has been a steady presence on lists of leading candidates for the prize. His buildings remain pilgrimage sites for architects, students and critics alike. A particularly romantic reputation clings to Zumthor's Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, which opened in 1996.

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Seen from another angle, though, the choice of Zumthor is a reminder of how much architecture -- and the way architects, the media and the public discuss and define the field -- has changed in the last few years. Because 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, particularly for its younger practitioners -- the Pritzker jury's decision to honor him this year represents an endorsement of architecture's most timeless, as opposed to timely, qualities.

It is a boost for the idea that architecture is fundamentally an aesthetic rather than a political profession. A fine art rather than a social one. An end rather than a means.

Four or five years ago, the news that Zumthor had won the Pritzker might have seemed to underscore a certain high-design status quo and, perhaps, since his buildings don't deviate much from the crisp forms of Modernism, to represent a modest protest against the rise of the eccentric shapes made possible by digital design software. Today, the choice seems to buck the idea that architects, to produce truly meaningful work, ought to be engaged in lifting neighborhoods out of poverty and saving the planet to boot.

In contrast to that idea, much of Zumthor's work, however thoughtfully and exquisitely crafted, exists in a decided vacuum. His buildings are both regionally flavored, like a meal prepared with only local ingredients, and remote, at least for anybody living outside central Europe.

Many unusually talented architects -- including some recent Pritzker honorees -- are today terrifically overexposed, their reputations outpacing their track record of built work by a significant margin. (Like NBA draft picks, they are often celebrated primarily for their "upside" potential.) Zumthor does not suffer from that problem. For the general public, whose members make up a significant part of the Pritzker's target audience, he will rank as a discovery.

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That was likely a central part of his appeal to the Pritzker jury, which this year included several practicing architects: Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban and Chile's Alejandro Aravena among them. Zumthor is a classic architect's architect, his projects more notable for their superb detailing and balance of contemporary and historically minded gestures than for big ideas or innovative forms.

Though his 2007 Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, his most recent project of significant scale, seems to have tipped the jury in his favor, he has often chosen to build far from city centers. In that sense, there is a stubbornness to the jury's choice, a message that although the world may have changed, the fundamentals of architecture, and what makes a building worth celebrating, have not.

Zumthor addressed this idea in his 1998 book, "Thinking Architecture," writing: "I believe that architecture today needs to reflect on the tasks and possibilities which are inherently its own. Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence."

This tension between architecture as an art form and as a mechanism for social change has always existed in the field, of course. It is part of what makes the world of architecture such a dynamic and unsettled place, since buildings can be seen as pieces of sculpture or arms of public policy, depending on your vantage point. But the combination of economic and environmental crisis, right on the heels of a decade in which architects were celebrated as cultural stars, has seemed to stretch the distance between these two poles.

How meaningful should all of these shifting priorities be to the Pritzker jury? Only in the sense of a broader context: in terms of how its choices will be received and discussed. The debate inside architecture pitting engagement against refinement -- politics against art -- is only heating up, after all.

It was encapsulated late last week by a pair of dueling essays on the Huffington Post. The first, by Cameron Sinclair, founder of a group called Architecture for Humanity, lamented that for more than a decade  architecture's ruling class was obsessed with what he called "sky-piercing towers of luxury" and buildings masquerading as "jewels of desire."

Frances Anderton, who hosts the "DnA: Design and Architecture" program on KCRW and is the Los Angeles editor for Dwell magazine, countered with a short essay suggesting that maybe Sinclair was offering a false choice. "By setting up an 'excess' versus 'relevance' dichotomy," she wrote, "Sinclair and others have created an irrelevant conflict that ignores the full scope of architecture and its role as built manifestation of all our human tendencies." 

It is nearly impossible to consider Zumthor's Pritzker victory without taking their debate, and the broader one it stands in for, into account. His win is a triumph for the idea of architecture for architecture's sake.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos, from top: Brother Klaus Field Chapel by Walter Mair; Zumthor portrait by Gary Ebner; Kolumba Art Museum interior by Helene Binet.

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