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Peter Zumthor & Gloria CabralA feeling for atmosphere

Published in November 2015Time to read: 4m55s

Switzerland, Paraguay and South Korea were the principal settings for Peter Zumthor and Gloria Cabral’s busy, collaborative partnership which grew rapidly from the start. Cabral became project manager for Zumthor’s design of a tea chapel near Seoul. Cabral made several visits to Haldenstein, Zumthor’s Swiss base, spending up to a month each time working with her mentor and his team. Another highlight was Zumthor’s visit to Cabral’s home town, Asunción.

by Jay MerrickNovember 2015
  • Peter Zumthor
    The Mentor
  • Gloria Cabral
    The Protégée

"From the play of the light to the texture of the materials he uses, Peter Zumthor's architecture reflects his preference for buildings that derive from an emotional response. His Paraguayan protégée, Gloria Cabral, takes a masterclass in a profoundly human approach to the built environment."

"We use a lot of bricks in Paraguay, because one kilo of tomatoes costs three dollars, and one kilo of bricks costs 10 cents," says architecture protégée, Gloria Cabral. When tomatoes are cheaper than bricks, we'll build with tomatoes.

Gabinete de Arquitectura, the small practice she leads with her partner Solano Benítez, is based in a residential district of the country's capital, Asuncion. But there is nothing chic about their design philosophy; nor is the bricks-and-tomatoes remark a deliberately catchy one-liner. Their inspirations are earthy and socially significant: the florid clay from which local bricks are made, and the way bricks, cement and recycled materials can be combined to invent new forms of inexpensive construction. “In Paraguay”, Cabral says, “we are conscious that construction is one of the best ways of distributing money to ordinary working people.”


Fluctuating team

She and her fluctuating team of about eight work in a small, bunker-like building, half-buried in the humid earth. Slim horizontal windows, not far above ground level, let the light in — but not too much: temperatures in Asuncion regularly surge to more than 40°C in the summer.

In April, as torrential rain sluiced through the city's streets, eddying into potholes, Cabral and Benítez were preparing to host a lecture they had organized, involving her Rolex mentor, legendary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the innovative and witty Argentinian architect Rafael Iglesia, and one of Brazil's greats, Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Hundreds of young architects and students were coming from as far as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico to pay homage to these masters.

The light in the Gabinete fell on the roughly finished brick surfaces like a fine coating of vaseline, and the Windows were hazed with condensation, giving the garden beyond them a peculiar, almost aquarium-like quality. Cabral was intent on her notes, and Benítez was using a syringe to squirt black ink into his repeatedly re-used ink cartridge — “we cannot get everything here” — and apologizing for having almost no time to talk.

This is a country where architecture with a capital A has not really kicked in. Average annual earnings are US$4,200, and half the population in this country, which is wedged between Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, are living in poverty, or extreme poverty.

Architectural magus

Peter Zumthor's architectural practice, the Atelier Zumthor, is in the Swiss hillside village of Haldenstein, 10,459 km north-west of Asunción. The atelier, where 30 architects work, is in a large and simple wooden building; next to it is his home, a concrete building, part of which contains a studio. A significant aspect of the layout of the buildings is the presence of two calm, gracefully planted gardens. Calmness prevails inside these buildings, too; and if you enter the segment that is Zumthor's living room — wood-lined, high-ceilinged, rather like a giant cigar box — you should take off your shoes.

Here, since 1978, Zumthor has led the projects that have made him an architectural magus whose buildings are the antithesis of dramatic form-making. For him, the essential aim is to create buildings that, as he puts it, “are being themselves — not representing anything else, just being”. Zumthor is interested in the possibility that something apparently unremarkable, or typical, can be experienced as beautiful. “A tree is not special,” he says, “but it is beautiful.” It's no surprise, then, that his architecture possesses uniquely sensual qualities.

At the heart of his approach to architecture is the imaginative re-expression of personal memories and emotions — sounds, smells, light, darkness, texture — the touch of an old door handle, the remembrance of running joyously when he was 10 years old, the particular smells and shadows of his grandmother's kitchen. His favourite type of architecture? “A barn, just a typical barn in the landscape. My philosophy is to do as little as possible — not to make a lot of architectural noise.”

Subtle shifts

And this is evident in his buildings. The subtle shifts of light and atmosphere in the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, for example; the gloaming inside the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich, Germany, whose conical concrete interior was formed using a wigwam of 112 tree trunks, which were then burnt away; and the play of textures, shadows and sounds in the thermal baths at Vals.

“I went to Vals last November, alone,” Cabral recalls. “It triggers emotion, because of the contrast between the inside of the building and what's outside - the light and the dark, and the warmth and the stillness. It was the last time I cried in a building.”

Mere weeks into her role as Zumthor's protégée, she found herself travelling to South Korea with him, to look at a project site in a Catholic park near Seoul, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Namyang. “A place of pilgrimage that is very warm- hearted,” according to Zumthor, who had been invited by the director, Father Sang Gak Lee, to design a chapel.

“Gloria and I looked at the site for some hours,” recalls Zumthor, “walking through the hilly park area, and we went up to the highest point. And it became clear to me that I couldn't make a chapel there, because the site was already occupied with structures of the rosary.” Cabral adds: “The site had been worked by the priest for 20 years. He planted the trees and decided the layout of the site. You realize how much love he put into everything, and how much love there is in this place.”

A tea chapel

Zumthor offered to create a tea chapel instead. “There was a silence of three hours,” he recalls. “Then, we went with the priest to an art exhibition about the history and meaning of landscape, and its importance in Taoism. There was a painting of a man sitting in a little house — and it was a teahouse. Practically all the buildings in the paintings were teahouses. Even Father Lee was laughing. Two days later, when we were leaving, he came to the airport and gave me a present: a Korean tea service.”

Cabral duly found herself immersed in a process very different to her own practice, where, she insists, there is no specific leader. Zumthor's approach to architecture is intriguing. “I sort of circle around thinking, what could this be? And there's the moment when I make my first sketch. I get up in the morning, I start to read a book, maybe, and I read something that might be related to a project. My mind wanders, and I get my pencil.”

“As human beings we have the ability to see images of things which don't exist - it's like a dream, people and things that seem completely real. You're open for a reaction, which provokes an inner image of something; and then I do a drawing of this image.”

Zumthor presents these early ideas to his team. “I ask them what they think is good or bad about it? Everybody speaks. Basically, we share everything. Gloria has worked here like a normal project architect.”

“In a short time, I could see this,” Cabral confirms. “The working here is a conversation, and I like this.” The collaboration between mentor and protégée on the tea chapel project was at its most intense in the early spring of 2015, when Zumthor called in a Korean art historian to add to their understanding of teahouses.

Creative process

Zumthor admits that there is an element of the masterclass about his creative process, but, he emphasizes, “we exchange our feelings. Normally, young architects learn to rationalize their projects — why, and why, and why! Here there are no whys. We have feelings here. We are not anti-intellectual, but it's all about the thing itself, the architecture. The answer comes from inside us.”

Cabral — while also assisting in the practice's projects for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and models and plans for a house in Doha — was closely involved in making the wooden model of the tea chapel site. “That was very interesting,” she says, “because in other architectural practices they only make models at the end of the process. Here, it's at the beginning, and you see the transformation.”

Cut to Asunciôn, and the garden of the Teletôn Children's Spinal Injuries Rehabilitation Centre by the Gabinete de Arquitectura. Zumthor is asking Solano Benítez what tradition their architecture comes from.

“We think we are Romans,” Benítez replies, referring to the centre's key building material — bricks, and most notably the triangulated brick arches, and the brusquely pleated brick walls of the hydrotherapy building. “And when the priests came here from Europe, they came in ships with bricks for ballast!”

Genome science

Like the early Romans, Cabral and Benítez have become genuine innovators with these apparently unremarkable materials. They are currently developing the use of reinforced brick beams, rather than steel or concrete, for structural space-frames in big buildings. They are also fascinated by the possibility of using Bacillus listerii to turn sand into rock-hard building material, and applying genome science to develop organically formed building products. But Cabral also appreciates Zumthor's profoundly human approach to architecture — his tea chapel vision is “an elevated platform, five spaces with textile walls, relaxation, serenity, nature.”

As Gloria Cabral shepherds her mentor around the Teletôn centre, they pause at one point, and Zumthor tells her that its architecture is beautiful and impressive. A day later, musing about her impending return to Haldenstein, he adds: “My experience here has been very strong, getting to know another culture. Their work is very grounded, and there's a good aesthetic touch. It's going to be the most interesting part now, because I have seen Gloria's work. And now she can help to make the tea chapel project beautiful and light.”

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent, London, and a critic and essayist for Architects Journal.


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