If further proof were needed that the world is in a chastened mood these days, there’s this: the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the most prestigious honors in the field, will go this year to Peter Zumthor of Switzerland. At 65, Zumthor is to architecture what Samuel Beckett is to literature, a man who has set out to draw maximum impact from a bare minimum of means.
This is the second time in its 30-year history that the Pritzker has gone to a Swiss architect. In 2001 the winners were Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, a team whose signature buildings the Tate Modern in London, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing could not be more unlike Zumthor’s spare exercises in subtraction and compression. Herzog & de Meuron revel in complexity, intricate structures and elaborate surfaces. Zumthor reduces and purifies. Le Corbusier, that other great Swiss purist, would have approved.
You can get a grasp of Zumthor’s working method from the 1996 project that first gained him wide notice, a thermal bath house on the grounds of a spa hotel in the Swiss commune of Vals. He set the building into a hillside and fashioned the interiors as spare boxes of concrete and gneiss, with slot skylights positioned to admit light just so. Everything was pared away that would distract from the elemental experiences of stone and water, light and darkness, heat and cold, even silence. As he put it: “Our spa is no fun fair.”
Rigorous, ascetic, distilled these are words repeatedly applied to Zumthor’s work, and no wonder. You sense that he might prefer his buildings to be judged by the same standards by which we “judge” mountains and trees for their fundamental power and durability, for the ways they seem to spring from the earth. In his pronouncements on architecture there’s that note of aesthetic militancy you also heard in Le Corbusier. “In a society that celebrates the inessential,”Zumthor once wrote, “architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings and speak its own language.”
Zumthor declines most interviews and even many commissions. Most of his completed projects are in Switzerland and Germany, with a few important commissions elsewhere in Europe. He takes a dim view of architects who get caught up in PR and marketing. When he got the news that he had been awarded the Pritzker, he took the occasion to say that it would “give much hope to young professionals that, if they strive for quality in their work, it might become visible without any special promotion.”
All the same, Zumthor is no recluse. In the 1960s he studied at the Pratt Institute in New York and he has taught in Los Angeles, Munich and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. But for more than 40 years he has lived in Haldenstein, a small Alpine village in central Switzerland, where he maintains a studio with 15 designers and other “collaborators.”
Zumthor spent the first 10 years of his career restoring historic buildings and preserving them from the threat of new development. Those years appear to have taught him how to incorporate history into his own work without imitating historical styles. One result is the Art Museum Kolumba, a museum that houses the collections of religious art of the archbishopric of Cologne, Germany. It’s a building that combines multiple levels of history the ruins of the Gothic church of St. Kolumba, destroyed during World War II, a chapel built in 1950 to enclose a late-Gothic statue of the Virgin that survived the war and an archeological excavation conducted in the 1970s that discovered Roman and Medieval remains. All of it is tied together by Zumthor’s resolutely modern museum, which incorporates the Gothic ruins directly into his minimalist walls. A band of open brickwork along the exterior brings dappled light inside.
Twice Zumthor has designed small outdoor chapels, each of them a compact little hermitage for prayer and meditation a kind of spiritual sentry box. The most recent of the two is the St. Nikolaus von der Flue Chapel, which stands in an open field near Cologne. Completed in 2007, it’s a narrow, five-sided windowless space, nearly 40 ft. high, with an opening at the top to admit light and a single triangular door.
The way that chapel was constructed says something about Zumthor’s particular intensity. It was built by the farmer who commissioned it, working with neighbors. First they erected a vertical formwork of spruce branches and trunks. Concrete was then poured in layers, one per day for 24 days to produce a smooth exterior but a ribbed surface inside. Then the wood formwork was set afire, which scorched and roughened the interior concrete. The result is a building that’s also a metaphor for the fierce yearnings of the soul.
For the record, St. Nikolaus, also known as Brother Klaus, is the patron saint of Switzerland. He was a 15th-century hermit and ascetic. If he had lived to see Zumthor’s work, just like Le Corbusier, he would have approved.
See TIME’s photos last year’s Pritzker winner: Jean Nouvel
Read TIME’s coverage of the 2008 Pritzker Prize