Peter Zumthor: A "Timeless" Architect for our Time?

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some years back I was lucky enough to be sent by a magazine to a remote Alpine village in Switzerland called Vals to sample a newly built thermal bath by a then little-known Swiss architect named Peter Zumthor. After a long trip - by plane, two trains and a mountain bus -- I arrived to find myself in front of a rather forbidding gray stone box. . . which gave way on the inside to one of the most sensual buildings I've ever experienced: a low-lit labyrinth of pools in flowing rooms with raw high walls made of thin slabs of locally quarried quartzite, doors of blue translucent glass, curtains of black leather, and high windows letting in shafts of light that bounced off the waters onto the glistening, glittery quartzite. There were no clocks, no gismos, no piped muzak; just water, light, stone and the smell of the minerals and the sound of the lapping pools. It was at once cavernous and archaic and at the same time starkly Modern.

This week it was announced that Zumthor had won the architects' top honor, the Pritzker Prize, for 30 years of "timeless" accomplishments that included the Vals spa as well as his art museums in Cologne, Germany and Bregenz, Austria, and the St. Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, Switzerland, each in different ways an expression of their site. Some critics have pointed out that Zumthor is a purist, a rarefied "architect's architect" who exerts an unusual level of control over his designs, and that his win reinforces, in the words of the LA Times' critic Christopher Hawthorne, "architecture for architecture's sake."

The notion of architecture for architecture's sake was explored in my previous post - responding to Cameron Sinclair's critique of architecture of "excess" -- and it generated some fascinating comments, many of which argued that an ideal architecture for our times would fuse environmental and social responsibility with wondrous design. I would say that Zumthor's work, especially the Vals spa -- built for the well-being of local villagers as well as visitors at the adjoining hotel; made largely with local materials utilizing local craft; and at once very simple and utterly luxurious -- exquisitely embodies that convergence.

Hot on the heels of the Zumthor pick comes the news that Ghanaian-born British architect, David Adjaye and North Carolina's Freelon Group have won a competition to design the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Adjaye, still in his early 40s, has built a string of much-praised houses for fine artists, as well as museums, libaries and cultural centers, and will be the design architect. Adjaye tends to create carefully detailed, strong forms (with a timeless but Modern quality as in Zumthor's work, above), whose richness is derived from the play of natural lights on lustrous (often experimental) materials.

Not only does this win add another cherry on the cake that is Adjaye's very successful career to date, but it ratchets up the architectural excitement in traditionalist old Washington, DC. Adjaye is already working on two libraries there, and Frank Gehry has just won the commission to design a memorial for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with an entry design (that will be reworked) devoid of the formal "excess" attributed by some to his work, and closer in its simplicity to one his classic works: the steel mesh supergraphic over the Santa Monica Parking Garage. Is the capital ready for a refreshing dose of contemporary design?