Sunday, January 20, 2013

90. The deceptive paradox that is the Zumthor brand

Deception and paradox is the touchstone of Peter Zumthor’s branding strategy. By that I mean that he blatantly goes around promoting himself as a reclusive non-promoter. He goes on television, radio, interviews, films, etc only to then say that he does not believe in promoting himself. Its like a commercial advertisement saying “look at our product, it is so good we don’t have to advertise it” 

I had written an article about this exact same thing some years ago (you can read it here), then at the Venice Biennale I was confronted by it again via the Wim Wenders film about Zumthor “NOTES FROM A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ARCHITECT”. There it was again,  plain as day staring me in the face: Yet another blatant self promoting stunt, this time in the form of a film, placed in the middle of the Venice Biennale (the biggest, most eventful architectural spectacle in the world) targeted to a specific architecturally interested group. What is the main argument of the film you ask?:

"Peter Zumthor [is] an architect not driven by the need to make a name for himself ".

For a guy who is not driven by image making or doesn't believe in self promotion, this is an awfully promotional thing to do. You simply can not get more promotional than that.

What’s interesting is that this is a film not so much about Zumthor’s work, but more about Zumthor the man himself. He is presented as this great master architect: a made to order genius who has all the answers figured out; a deity ready to be worshiped. I was expecting the film to end with the narrator urging the audience to take a "pilgrimage" to his studio at least once in their lifetimes and lay at his feet and absorb his infinite wisdom.  

Without any critical perspective, the film turns 5 minutes into one long masturbatory monologue of lustful admiration. It just showers a lot of praise on him personally, not so much his office or the people working for him (though they were mentioned and shown peripherally) but on him, his traits, his personal habits, his hands, his feet, his unstyled style white beard, his purposefully unkempt eyebrows, his black plastic framed glasses, etc.

More correctly this is Zumthor porn. 

It had nothing whatsoever to do with the theme of the Biennale: Common ground.

This was just a downright blatant self promotional stunt. In the context of the biennale, it felt like  an outright infomercial. 

The film starts off with the master making a cup of coffee, in his kitchen as Wim Wender’s narrator voice gently chimes in:

...He is a man who is very adamant about his morning coffee. 

We were able to spend a couple of days with him in his atelier and get a look at two of the projects Peter Zumthor was working on right now with his team of mostly young architects. I was most impressed by the sense of place in the buildings of his that I have seen so far and in the sites that I have visited in the past: museums, public structures, chapels, private houses. 
But meeting Peter Zumthor here in the apartment and office space he had built for himself and watching him work, I was even more impressed... 

Below are some screenshots from the film:  

Here is the great master making coffee barefooted. If you are a seasoned publicist such as the ones working on political campaigns styling the candidate for the right look to convey the right message, then you will know that showing barefoot in such a context is meant to soften the image and show him as a man connected to the ground, in touch with the earth, a sensitivity for the materials and the architectural surfaces around him. This was no accident. Though I have no doubt that this is how he normally goes about his studio, showing him like this adds to the theatrics and reinforces the image of him as the materially sensitive reclusive: That is the Zumthor brand.   

This is how Peter Zumthor drinks his morning coffee  

This is Peter Zumthor after drinking his coffee  

Here is a shot of Peter Zumthor's masterful hands as they draw


And this one...this is the money shot right here: the centerfold spread. As Peter reclines in his Le Corbusier chair with one leg over the armrest, the narrator's voice gently says: 

I was even more impressed by his sense of time, how much he is at ease and relaxed, cool, calm and collective, well spoken and most of all how he refuses to be rushed: He lets his projects ripen and mature like good wines so that they reveal themselves more and more to him and his team. So then he keeps mulling on the goodness he wants to do so that he can actually improve on them layer after layer, until he feels that they can't be built better. Only then he goes ahead: A procedure that would be considered an outrageous luxury not only in my own profession... 

Besides the sexual overtones, the suggestion here is that Zumthor is never stressed out about deadlines, client pressure, etc. He does the project fully on his terms. A man at ease with himself and the world: a Don among architects if you will. 

This kind of reminds me of someone I know:

 "I am a passionate architect, I don't always work for money, but when I do, I prefer Deception and Paradox." ..."Stay foolish, my friends."

When you have a statement like the following (this is the parting words of the film):

 Peter Zumthor an architect not driven by the need to make a name for himself or constructing as much as possible, but driven by the urgent desire to improve his buildings so that the lives of those people using them or living in them will become better

It implies that he is an exception to the norm, that most other architects are overly driven by making a name for themselves, that we just want to build as much as possible, that the majority of us are not interested in improving the lives of our clients through our work. But Peter Zumthor is one of the rear bread that does care and have integrity.

This just does not hold water. 

I have traveled around the world and I have met architects from all corners of the planet and in my experience, as a group, architects are by and large very decent people that come with a lot of integrity and passion for what they do. I have yet to come across an architect who really does not give a shit about his/her clients. Even the dirtiest scums at the bottom of the profession who take advantage of interns, etc, generally tend to want to make their clients satisfied.

It is the first principle of being in and staying in business.  

Making a name for ourselves?

...OK, guilty as charged.

If I am correct, most architects with any ambition or simply a desire to stay in business, want to make a name for themselves. Like making the lives of their clients better through their work, this is a primary principle of any successful practice, making a name for your self is also a rule of survival for every architecture firm.

Some firms do it better than others.

Star architects do it best.
Peter Zumthor is no exception, in fact he does it extraordinarily well, he puts more effort and energy into image making than most architects out there; otherwise you would never have heard of him.

When I traveled to Switzerland to see Therme Vals (which was pretty much just as nice in reality as in the pictures by the way), I went around to see some of his other works as well. As I drove around the Swiss countryside, namely in Chur, Vals, and the surrounding regions, what I noticed was that Zumthor's kind of work (or at least works that were highly detailed with special sensitivity to materials) was not particularly unique in that region where he is from. There were a lot of other contemporary Swiss architects there doing work that was just as good as Zumthor’s and a good deal of them were even more impressive. They were all drawing on the historic character and sensitivity of the old stone and wooden architecture that define the region. And so I thought to myself, why have I not heard more about these other architects and why have I heard so much about Zumthor?

It could not be the work, because if it was just based on the merits and quality of the works, Zumthor probably would not be number one. It has to be something else.

So just the other day I came across an article titled "Me, Peter Zumthor, and my broken sandal" on BDonline written by Amanda Baillieu. In it she described an encounter she had with Zumthor where she, along with several other British journalists, were invited to Switzerland by the Swiss Embassy to visit its national exhibition expo there. On the itinerary of the trip, the press corp was to meet and have dinner with Zumthor after visiting Therme Vals. 

She described a meeting where all the reporters (except for one) were basically in awe of the great master who stayed and conversed with them late into the evening, keeping the beer and wine coming, and even inviting them to come and visit him at his atelier. Baillieu took him up on his offer and took the “pilgrimage” to see him. On her way there, her sandal broke and when she arrived, they took note of it. She was allowed to take the sandals off and have the meeting with the great master barefooted. At the end of the meeting her sandals were returned to her repaired.

To a non-publicist, this is a nice story that shows the kind of guy Zumthor is and nothing more. To a media savvy strategist there is a whole lot more to this than what’s on the surface. It gives a direct window into Zumthor's brilliance as a self-promoter.

This story squarely answers my question about why I have heard so much about Zumthor and why I have never heard about any of the other Swiss architects that were doing comparable work. When it comes to managing his image and promoting himself, he is just flat out better than his competition by far. 

First of all, he has a head start, given his stature and the breadth of his network.  With the exception of maybe  Herzog and De Meuron, no other architect in Switzerland today would be given the opportunity to meet with an international press corp after visiting your signal work. That is golden: money cannot buy that. But lets say one of these other unknown Swiss architects were given this opportunity, I don’t think they would have a clue how to handle themselves let alone the press, but Zumthor is a master at this.

For one, he makes time for them: I am sure he has a very busy schedule and even though he publicly professes that he doesn't believe in publicity or promoting his work, he sets aside several hours for this. He was even there outlasting at least one of the journalists who went to bed leaving old Zumthor still up working the room. That is what it takes to make it in the starchitect business.

Any publicist will tell you that the first rule of making a name for your self or managing your image is:

Be nice to people, but bend over backwards for the press. 

When Zumthor turns up, he turns on his charm, prepared to wine and dine, he is patient, he listens, generous with the alcohol, and he was sure to extend an invitation to those willing to break away from their scheduled itinerary to come and meet him at his office and see more of his work. And when a journalist comes to your door with a broken shoe, you understand this as good luck. You see the glass half full and you drink it; ie you see the opportunity and you make sure to mend that shoe. It is as simple as that.

The journalist goes back to London and write about how nice and charming you are. The best and most flashy, most advanced, most exquisitely designed website with the most expensive graphic designers and best marketing experts can not parallel the publicity you get from one article like this: Plain and simple.

In the article, Baillieu also mentioned how Zumthor explained to the reporters why he does not accept architecture prizes. 

No seriously!!...he did say that..I can’t make this stuff up.

This is a direct quote from the article:
 Zumthor turned up at the spa after dinner. All of us save a well known architect who’d be sent by a magazine were rather in awe of  Zumthor and listened dutifully as he told us the story of Vals, and why he didn’t accept architecture prizes. 
I asked Baillieu about this and she confirmed that he did indeed say this: arguing that he believed the way architects garland themselves with awards and prizes were a distraction.  It is also alleged, she continued, that he had even turned down a Pritzker some years before accepting it in 2009.

This statement was made back in 2002 mind you, and a man has a right to change his mind, but to be fair a Pritzker prize and its $100,000.00 prize money can be very persuasive even for a man who doesn’t work for money.

Furthermore, (...and this is where it gets really interesting) it seems like even before he changed his mind in 2009 (like a great general switching sides in an ideological war) he was already actively assaulting his own publicly professed position: Before accepting the Pritzker, he accepted the Carlsberg Architecture Prize in 1998, the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 1999, and the Praemium Imperiale in 2008 among several others.

To this day, I have not heard any statements from him reversing his position. So I can only assume that what he publicly proclaims about his beliefs and what he actually does are two entirely separate and unrelated things: So saying that he changed his mind after accepting the Pritzker is like saying that Lance Armstrong changed his mind after winning his third Tour de France because he told reporters on national TV that he doesn't believe in using steroids. Zumthor has recently been named the recipient of The Royal Gold Medal award from the RIBA and if my assumptions about him are correct, I believe he will be accepting it in February of 2013 as well.  

Given this information (readily available to all on Wikipedia), Baillieu could have written a critical piece discussing both his virtues and his conspicuous duplicities, but she did not. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment; even the most hardened investigative reporter would find it difficult to write a critical piece on a charming old guy who went out of his way to have your broken sandals repaired: You would have to have a heart of stone to do so. Besides, what architectural journalist would want to risk their own popularity, not to mention the backlash from criticizing one of the profession's most favorite starchitect?  

Still not convinced he is astute when it comes to his image? Here is another case in point. If you are a fan of Zumthor or just a person interesting in finding out more about him or his work, you will no doubt have noticed his conspicuous lack of a company website. If you are running a company in this day and age, no less a Pritzker award winning international architecture firm and you don’t have a website, this is not a mistake. It is a deliberate statement about you and your brand. It says I am not like other architects, I am above the fray, I am reclusive, mysterious, I reject the mainstream ways, I prefer the old fashioned methods over new technology, and as I have just shown you, he does very well without it.

So early in 2012 someone (an adoring fan I suppose) started a tumblr blog dedicated purely to Zumthor and his work: An attempt to fill the gap in his online presence. It was an adoring tribute of sorts to Zumthor; flattering pictures of the old master and his works, new projects etc, only Wim Wenders could have topped it.   

After some time, the blog began to gain a little attention from the networks of other architecture blogs and became a bit popular. I used to check it out every once in awhile myself. It was to my surprise that I noticed some time later that there was a post containing what was an apparent letter from Zumthor’s office asking him to change the name of the site and not to further publish any copyrighted material without his permission. Here is a copy of the letter below:

Dear Sir or Madam, 

Thank you for your interest in Peter Zumthor's work. This site appears under the name of Peter Zumthor, although it is not authorised by him. In the past we also found a lot of copyrighted material here without any captions. 

Therefore, we would like to ask you to change the name of the site, so it becomes clear who created it. And, of course, to not publish any copyrighted material without permission. 

You can contact me at XXX XX XX XX. 

Thank you, 

Barbara Soldner 

So later on, the name of the site was changed to ZTH instead of Zumthor, the words NON-OFFICIAL SITE was placed below it, and many of the images removed.

Now, this is fair and well enough, as I said, any and every architect wants to make a name for himself and its only natural that one would want to protect it. Peter Zumthor however, consistently goes out of his way to publicly make the point that he is not interested in this sort of thing, but then quietly sends his image handlers out to do the exact opposite. If he does not feel the need to make a name for himself or does not care about his image, then why harass adoring fans who blog about his work?  This is not the behavior of someone who is not interested in their image or not interested in his own self-promotion.

So when I hear statements in the film like:

 Peter Zumthor an architect not driven by the need to make a name for himself 

I say: What kind of baloney is this?  

That is an outright lie!

It feels like watching the debates between Obama and Romney where at one point Obama was repeatedly saying.

Not true Governor Romney....Not true Mr Governor....Not true Governor....Not true... 

I think I need to do the same here 

Not true Mr Zumthor....Not true Mr Zumthor....Not true Mr Zumthor....

Lets be clear here, I am not making Zumthor wrong for marketing himself. As architects, we have to have our feet in at least two worlds at the same time: one is the world of architecture and one in the world of business. 

The business side requires us to have strategies for marketing ourselves. However we learn in architecture school that things like branding, image making, self promotion, and networking are dirty words. We should be disciples to architecture and focus on making good work in a bubble and if you do that well, then you will be noticed, the work will come and you will be successful. This is nonsense and Zumthor knows this more than anyone else. However, he insists on saying these ridiculous things at every opportunity he gets and thereby perpetuating these destructive myths. 

What's more, he is in a position of influence; he has a huge following of young adoring fans who swears by his every word. They believe this stuff and so they go out starting off their young careers believing that this is how the world works. Its difficult enough to make a living as an architect, and with the backdrop of the financial crisis it's even worse, so feeding this nonsense to young folks in my view, is a little cruel. 

As I have said before on this blog. I like Zumthor’s work a lot, but when he comes out with these promotional antics claiming that he is not a networker, he is not into self-promotion, he does not work for money, and that he does not accept architectural awards, I come away with a little less respect for him as a person every time.

In a way, he is kind of the opposite of Phillip Johnson: Johnson would come right out and say stuff like “I am a whore” when talking about what he does as an architect: Implying that we architects are all whores. It doesn’t sound very nice. It is offensive, its not an easy self-image to digest. But in a way he was being honest, he was acknowledging a reality that as architects we sometimes find ourselves in positions where we have to make ethical compromises in order to keep ourselves afloat. 

To me there is a certain humanity in that, it acknowledges that there is a working conscience in there somewhere.  A flawed human-being with a conscience, I can identify with.  I personally don’t find much to admire in Johnson's work, but even as a next to raving fan of Zumthor’s work, I have to say I have much more respect for Johnson as a person than I do for Zumthor, because he is much more honest. 


Here is a picture of Zumthor NOT POSING for a promotional press photo that will NOT contribute to his image making or publicity whatsoever. Zumthor only chose to accept the commission to design a pavilion for the highly publicized spectacle-event called the Serpentine Gallery because...he had one too many Dos Equis after the happy hour. 

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

ADDENDUM : 1/20/2013

From the man who made the following statement:

That a body of work as small as ours is recognized in the professional world makes us feel proud and should give much hope to young professionals that if they strive for quality in their work it might become visible without any special promotion.

Yet another promotional film, this time from cultural-celebrity video-biographer Micheal Blackwood. A copy of this piece of architectural heritage can be yours for only $115.00 and can be ordered directly online at Blackwood's webstore.


Fernando Gobbo e Larissa França said...

Bravo! I must say you had already open my eyes to the Zumthor Paradox with your past posts.
I find myself impressed a lot with his works. But I could not agree more with you...I come to admire less the architect behind the architecture.
I can only imagine what is like to work for him...

Conrad Newel said...

That is a good point Fernando. He manages his public image so well that it difficult to ascertain who he is privately. It could be that he is a charming and wonderful person to work for, but given his record of duplicity I would not be surprised if it was quite the opposite.

One of my favorite architect Louis Kahn comes to mind. In my imagination, I have always thought of him as this gentle soul and would envy all of those that had the opportunity to work for him. Then after seeing the film "My Architect" made by his son, I learnd that he was a womanizer and dead beat dad that called up his employees at 3:00 am in the morning telling them that their work was shit.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you haven't written anything comparing Wang Shu and Zumthor's branding techiniques. They fall under the same branding guise. The fact that Wang Shu is never seen not wearing all black was suspect to me at first. Then I realized that he constantly criticizes the Chinese government in a way that seems like he is pandering to western audiences or something. The third thing that was suspicious was the fact that both of them dress like monks for whatever reason. It seems very fake to me, and only because you've opened my eyes to the Zumthor brand. I used to think Zumthor was all right before I read this blog. Now I hate him and am suspicious of everyone. Especially of Wang Shu recently. Any thoughts Conrad?

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Anonymous,

First, I would say I am not advocating a hatred of Zumthor. In fact, I think he is an example for all of us to follow in terms of running a business and promoting yourself. In my previous post on him I ended by saying "don't envy him, emulate him". I meant it.

What I hope to do with these posts is to open the eyes of those architects who think that their architectural heroes do NOT brand or promote themselves. I hope to dispel those stupid myths.

What bothers me about Zumthor is NOT that he is doing it, but that he is forcefully denying it (unprovoked) and leading generations of your architects into this ignorant world view.

With regards to Wang Shu, I must admit that I have not studied him closely, but I can understand some of the similarities that you draw. Not so sure I would say fake though and much as I would say calculated or thought through in the context of their brand/image. That Is a good thing in my view.

Unknown said...


I get your point here and it is a really good one. The Zumthor Paradox is confounding, and smart.

The thinking behind his work is great. When I am asked the "style question" (what style of architect are you?), I often respond that we deserve more than style, we deserve atmospheres. I genuinely believe that.

But when it comes to this issue of branding, I am still torn if this is genius, or hypocritical. Maybe it is both?

Keep up the good work.



Archstud said...

It's like Muji! No label, but sure as hell the darling of design connoisseurs. Expensive but it gives the buyer a cachet as in 'I am a simple chap, plain and unpretentious. Nothing tacky about me.' Frankly Ikea is just as good at one-third the price. And he has young staff - so he sees himself as the king of a retinue of courtiers?

Unknown said...

I'd hate to think this has anything to do with his new LAMOMA commission. I've seen his movie before. It did surprise me when it said he didn't work for money and I asked the woman I was with if I'd heard that right. But as for the old fashioned style of doing things, I have that as well, even after learning CADD and office work for 2 decades, I went back to hand drafting, alone. No website either for me. It did not work for me. Coffee is OK. We all have complexities and contradictions. Its brutal and has been since 9-11.

Anonymous said...

"zumthor an example for all of us"

you sure talk with a lot of anger towards someone you consider an example.

I encourage perspective but your article is heavy with hate.

Imo separating the work with the promotion is misunderstanding what shapes passion for one's work takes. It's all born in the same place and is ultimately one.

What are these other better architects you are referring too in Switzerland? i'm genuinely curious.

Thank you,


Conrad Newel said...

Hi SB,

Thanks for commenting.

I think you might be mistaken one of the previous commenters’ statement that he/she hates Zumthor because of my article. Those are his/her words not mine. As I pointed out when I corrected the commentator, I do not promote any such attitudes towards him.
True, the article lays out some pretty damning evidence, facts and truths about the man that may lead some readers to such conclusions, but don't mistake those painstakingly researched facts for anything else.

Also true, I am bothered by his disingenuousness, but I am a comedian at heart and I find his narcissism and others worshiping of him more hilarious than anything else. So when I write as passionately as I do, those attitudes become evident. I cannot, to this day, keep a straight face while looking at that film.

I am sure that even as serious as Zumthor tries to portray himself, I imagine he has a sense of humor and is capable of laughing at himself, if even for a moment, behind the veil of his stoic Obi-Wan-Kenobi public facade.

This brings me to your comment about my harsh criticism (you call it anger words) of someone who I consider an example for all of us. This is precisely a fundamental facet of who I am and what I believe. I think it is necessary that no one is immune from criticism.

Criticism, whether harsh or easy are not venoms to be unleashed only on those we despise, they are tools that shine light on the darkest regions of a subject. Think about it, shining a light on a problem is the first thing we do in order to getting it corrected. Criticism is that light and it should shine indiscriminately. It is especially imperative that it shine on those we consider examples.

In regards to the other architects that I ranked as good as or even better than Zumthor, I didn’t get their names. When I visited Therme Vals, I took a walking but mostly driving tour around the vicinity. I saw both contemporary and old buildings there that were quite beautiful in their sensitivity to materials, simplicity and honesty in construction. Some of them were old, some new, some were thoughtful restorations or renovation of the older traditional styled stone & wood storage sheds. I didn’t have the time to stop and get the names of the architects, but those little structures were elegant, detailed with love and made with careful attention and they were not and perhaps never will be celebrated.

As I stated, I really like Therme Vals. It’s a great work! But I think a lot of the smaller quieter buildings just down the hill and across the street captures the essence and spirit of the region and the nature much better than Therme Vals. To be honest, I think the scale of that building is out of touch with the immediate architecture of the region. It’s hardly noticeable because it is a safe distance from the neighboring buildings, and he did a clever job with the materials (grass roof & stone facades) that makes it blend into the hill, but still contextually it is a big box in a small historic town.

I also had a chance to look at the Shelters for Roman Archaeological Site and it was nice. However I was really not that impressed by it at all. Unlike Therme Vals, this is not a great work. Most of the buildings in the village of Vals and quite a few in the broader region around Chur are much much more impressive to me on so many different levels.

If you are from Switzerland or from Zumthor's office, which I am pretty sure either is the case; I would point you to Ilanz. Take a drive down there, get out of the car and walk around for a few minutes, you will see what I am talking about.

All the best,


Srishti said...

I think the fundamentals of Zumthor's architecture are unparalleled. His work is breath-taking, its beautiful. And all the image building mentioned in this article doesn't really surprise me. This is taught to us even at architecture school , to build approach, communicate that as a sort of story that sets your work in its own, and to be able to 'walk the talk' its one of the tools that help you sustain your research and practice! Specially since the creative industries owe quality of work more directly to the way of life, discipline and methods employed by individuals, more so than other professions. Its for the better, these tricks and techniques and should be taken with a pinch of salt specially when read of, and not 'experienced first hand'. Also to work for someone like him, you might need a real passion for architecture/ the art of building. his is just a different approach to sustaining his practice. which also means his work is highly personalized and he is invested in projects to a greater degree than probably more firms less choosy about the work culture and the face of their office and hence the outcome of their projects too, for these are these two are directly related. if he was practicing under-payment, poor management exploitation of employees etc...that would shock me! but so far, i haven't heard of any such accounts. infact, i spoke to the reception at his Atelier three years back and they were nice! he is very choosy about collaborators, but since when did that become unacceptable?

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Srishti

I do not disagree with most of what you are saying and the article doesn't really argue much differently either.

Zumthor's work or work ethic is not being attacked or criticized here either. I like his work! I am perhaps not as excited about it as you, (I am glad you used the word unparalleled as opposed to uncompromising to describe it) but still I would say he does nice work. I also pointed out on several occasions that his promotion strategy is a good one and have encouraged others to take his example.

I have also pointed out in the article how nice he and his staff are as evidences where he fixed a journalist's sandals unasked. So I don't dispute that they are nice and polite people either.

I am also choosy about the people I collaborate with, and I have never criticized Zumthor or anyone else for that matter on this issue.

So I am not sure where the question is coming from. I am not sure if your comment is a rebuttal to something you thought I said or confirmation of what I am saying.