Sunday, September 15, 2013

94. Why I Blogg

A couple weeks ago I was invited to write an opinions article on Architizer. 
I  wrote a piece with the working title "An open call for the De-Jesus-ification of Peter Zumthor and a Plea for Critical Journalism and Objectivity when Reporting on His Work" .  It was edited to fit Architizer's format and the title changed to "Zumthor is not God" You can read it the original version here

The piece was in the form of a letter to architectural critics and journalists and discussed their lack of critical engagement when reporting on Peter Zumthor and his work.

Interestingly enough though, the piece was not critical of Zumthor or his work. I don't think I have ever been critical of his work before. I enjoy it thoroughly and I have even gone as far as calling myself a fan. However, I have been critical of Zumthor the man himself and his deceptive self-promotional practice as evidenced here and here.

Christine Murray, a writer for Architects Journal, identifies Zumthor's followers not as followers, not even as fans or fanatics, but as a broad church. In doing so, she references the classic definition of church, not as a building, but as the whole body of Christian believers. 

So before I even put pen to paper to write, I anticipated some blowback. Though Zumthorism is not an officially recognized religion, I understand it as such. So when you go out in public and write a piece that is in anyway near critical of a religious icon (that which they hold most dear) you expect that.

And like clock work the blowback came in. You can see it at the bottom of the article here.  It is hilarious! perhaps a little sad. As also expected, most of them mistook my criticism of the journalist as an attack on Zumthor, his work or his stature. For some the notion that one can both enjoy something and be critical of it at the same time is a little difficult to grasp.

I really love the comments sections, even when they get really nasty. I sit down with my laptop and have a good laugh and interact with the lovely and even with the unlovely ones.

However, I was really floored when I saw this one below, it was something that I was not at all expecting. It nearly brought me to tears. really! It validates what I do. If there is only one person out there that can see the value of what I aim to do with this blog, then it is worth every second of time that I pour into it. So here is to another 100 notes:

Well, you sir, are just begging for trouble!
This is actually a profoundly relevant topic. As for trying to assertively discuss it on the internet... well... good luck with that!
There is, of course, a problem with the use of the word "architect". Peter Zumthor is an architect. I am an architect. Therefore I could conclude that "I am like Peter Zumthor".
I would be wrong. Just because we use the same words doesn't mean we are talking about the same things. Peter Zumthor openly claims that he is not a service provider. He doesn't work to comply with the promoter's needs or wishes and he is proud of his uncompromising nature.
No, Peter Zumthor is not one of us.
Of course, I'm not going to say that being uncompromising is a virtue or an evil. I will say that it is questionable. I would recommend the documentary "Peter Zumthor - Der Eigensinn des Schonnen" (although it is very difficult to find it nowadays) to witness some of the implications, both good and bad, of that approach to the field of architecture, and how it impacts other people.
The problem with the deification of an architect - or anyone for that matter - is that it narrows down and eventually shuts the possibility of debate. The pernicious aspect of having this cult status being promoted by architectural institutions and media - and when I say media I'm talking about critics that often have ties to official associations and academies - is that it becomes an obstacle to an open and healthy debate about architecture.
The corresponding symptom to that ill environment can be witnessed on these comments already. A possible debate gets shattered, not because the arguments raised are questioned, but because they were substituted by a lawyer type approach where (1) the author's credibility is questioned and, once that is done, (2) any argument presented is deemed irrelevant. A known way of sidestepping any discussion.
Keep in mind that Peter Zumthor's quality as an architect is not being questioned here - although it could, why not? But this is true all around the world. Every nation has its set of highly reverenced architects. If, for watever reason, one of their works becomes controversial, architectural institutions and critics will often close ranks around the defense of "the architect", whose personal qualities or overall body of work are not being questioned, to minimize the debate around "the building".
That is why you will have great difficulty finding architects openly questioning buildings such as Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, Peter Eisenman's City of Culture of Galicia, Zaha Hadid's Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion, and so on, and so on. And if you are an architect and you question these buildings out in the open, trust me, doors will shut on you and you will be on your way to become an outcast.
The real issue here, therefore, is that the glorification of architects is detrimental to a democratic environment where ideas, including architecture, can be questioned through rational considerations from which we can all learn and evolve.
And if we deny that, if we deny the possibility of that to happen because whoever is pointing the finger doesn't hold the seal of some ubber-institution, then we all run the risk of becoming another silent witness standing among the crowd, paying tribute to naked kings.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

93. An Open Call for the De-Jesus-ification of Peter Zumthor


 [pil-gruh-mij]  Show IPA noun, verb, pil·grim·aged, pil·grim·ag·ing.
a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion: a pilgrimage to Lourdes.


 [fuh-nat-ik]  Show IPA
a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

1515–25;  < Latin fānāticus  pertaining to a temple, inspired by orgiastic rites, frantic, equivalent to fān (um ) temple + -āticus,  equivalent to -āt ( us ) -ate1  + -icus -ic


Dear Architectural Critics and Journalists,

I have had enough of your fanaticism with Peter Zumthor. He is a fine architect and an even better self-promoter. I don’t dislike the guy, but I do seriously dislike when journalists—and especially critics—keel over and act like star-struck teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert when confronted with the man or his work.

Specifically, I am ticked off with your constantly using the word “pilgrimage” in describing your visits to Zumthor’s sites.

When I think of the word pilgrimage, I think of a deeply spiritual and religious journey—the type that devout Muslims make to Mecca, for instance, or the trips that Christians take to Biblically-significant sites such as Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, or Calvary, where he was crucified.

The Catholic encyclopedia defines “pilgrimage” as a journey made to a place to venerate it, ask for supernatural aid, or discharge some religious obligation. So I thought it rather strange that I kept finding the word being used in relation to Peter Zumthor.

I have compiled just a sampling of recent quotes from notable critics writing about visiting Zumthor or seeing his work in the flesh. Their descriptions typically begin with the word “pilgrimage,” the size and location of the sacred radius, and finally the term “seminal” to describe the works found within its boundaries. This sets the tone for the rest of the article, which can be summed up in three words: Praise, Praise and Praise.

Here, from Dwell Magazine:

I recently made a Peter Zumthor pilgrimage to Switzerland, where many of his seminal works sit within a 40 mile radius [of] one another in the northeastern part of the country. An architectural journey surely not for the faint of heart, it took a day's harrowing drive through the northern Alps with steep cliffs and crazy European drivers, but in the end, it was well worth it.
A Pilgrimage to Zumthor's Chapel | Dwell, October 5, 2010

This one from ArchDaily was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me:

Our friend and architectural photographer Felipe Camus recently embarked on an architectural pilgrimage to the valley of the Rhein. Located in the Graubünden region in Switzerland, the valley boasts many of the seminal works of Pritzker Prize Laureate Peter Zumthor, all within a 60-kilometer radius. Born in Graubünden himself, Zumthor designed the works in relation to their location and time by paying special attention to details and materials. As a result, the works all present Zumthor’s unparalleled skills of craftsmanship and his uncompromising integrity.
A Photographer’s Journey Through Zumthor Valley | ArchDaily, August 28, 2013

“Unparalleled skills of craftsmanship” and “uncompromising integrity”? This type of language should forever be entombed in fine furniture catalogs, or in the “Our Approach” sections of contractor websites. Take out the word “craftsmanship,” and you could find this on the back label of a wine bottle. This is sales, not journalistic language! If this were an isolated combination of adjectives used by one or two of you, it would be just cute; however this is an industry-wide pathology. To wit:

Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined

The Pritzker Prize Jury Report 2009

He has a mythic reputation as a reclusive mountain-dwelling hermit, a monk of materials, with standards so exacting that few clients have the patience, or deep enough pockets, to indulge his uncompromising approach.

The Guardian February 5, 2013

Ask any architect about Peter Zumthor and you will most likely see them get weak in the knees, or at the very least laden with envy. He embodies an almost wizardly wisdom and uncompromising integrity.

ArcSpace July 1, 2013

Known for running a small yet powerful and uncompromising practice, Peter Zumthor founded his award-winning firm in 1979 in Switzerland.

Architecture September 27, 2012

His exquisite but uncompromising buildings do seem to be wrought from the living rock but perceptions of human need are also important in their shaping.

Royal Academy of Arts

The repetition seems almost orchestrated or choreographed. Did you just copy and paste these terms from Zumthor’s press release without filtering it through your noodles? You could have at least used a thesaurus. Some other great words are: steadfast, unbending, determined, relentless, pigheaded, firm, resolute...OK, maybe not pigheaded, but you get what I am saying.

Furthermore, “uncompromising” isn’t exactly a virtue I would exalt when talking about an architect. The process of making architecture is more like a cha-cha—you give a little and you take a little, you listen to the unspoken words of your partners, you respond with a playful and delicate flexibility, and you apply a healthy dose of creativity until the music stops. (Your partner in this metaphor being your site, the surrounding nature, your client, the project’s economy and all the other variables that you come across as an architect in the creative process.) Who wants to work with an architect—or anybody for that matter—who is uncompromising?

Back to the subject of pilgrimage, the quote below reminds me of the scene from the Last Supper:

As the evening wore on and Zumthor kept the wine and beer coming, the architect from London began pouring out his heart – much to our embarrassment - about Camden Council and its failure to recognize and support great architecture. We were all glad when he staggered off to bed and at that point two of us (myself and the late Giles Worsley) decided we’d skip Botta and go on a Zumthor pilgrimage starting with his office, and meet the group in Basel the next day.

Me, Peter Zumthor, and my broken sandal |bdonline, October 1, 2012

Perhaps a more fitting comparison for this is a scene out of True Blood where Vampire Eric cons Sookie into drinking his blood, which has powers to make humans high and infatuated with the vampire of whose blood he/she has been intoxicated with.
Then there’s this:

Everything Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, and his elemental work has a broad church. His Therme Vals baths in Switzerland is Mecca for architects, but full of ordinary folk too. His chapels, St Benedict and Bruder Klaus, satisfy visitors seeking either the spiritual or material sublime.

Zumthor's pavilion will be a place of pilgrimage | Architects Journal, 15 October, 2010

If wherever Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, then no matter what he creates, it will become an object of worship. An object of worship cannot be taken apart, analyzed, scrutinized, or be discussed in an objective manner.

Whether we worship Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, or Zumthor, as journalists and writers we need to maintain a healthy separation between our personal religious beliefs and our journalistic work. Of course, suppressing our beliefs and who we are is not desirable either. The best we can strive for is a reasonable balance between the two.

I am not asking you to denounce him, or trash his work. No!
I am not asking to be overly analytic like you are writing a scientific report either.
I am not asking you to be dull and boring. Absolutely not!
By all means, if you enjoy his work, write that, be passionate! I love that.
Show your enthusiasm, it is contagious!
But please, pretty please with sugar on top, be objective and critical as well!
We need it, we deserve it. The last thing we need are journalists who are sheep.
Zumthor would be better off because of it and so would architecture too.


Conrad Newel,

Liberating minds since August 2007

Related Posts:
90. The deceptive paradox that is the Zumthor brand
60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

originally published on Architizer: