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Swiss Architect Wins The Pritzker Prize

The 2009 Pritzker Prize for architecture — one of the highest honors in the field — has been awarded to 65-year-old Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

The Pritzker jury praised Zumthor's clear, rigorous thought and said his works, nearly all of which are in Europe, have a timeless dimension.

Zumthor's buildings — a collection of chapels, museums, housing and a church, mainly in small towns in Switzerland and Germany — refuse to participate in the spectacle that often blares from contemporary architecture.

Some who know the architect say he is a mystic, but Zumthor laughs: "I'm a passionate architect. I'm not a mystic," he says.

The son of a cabinetmaker, Zumthor trained to make cabinets in the old Swiss-German tradition before turning to architecture. He is probably best known for the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, which feature a succession of rooms filled wall to wall with water. The rooms are divided by hard vertical planes of concrete and quartzite, which was quarried nearby. In one scented room, flower petals float around you; you taste them in the water. Another room is tinted red, and its water is warmer on your body.

"Zumthor's architecture brings the full range of energies and intensities, I think, of which architecture is capable," says Michael Hays, a professor of architectural theory at Harvard. "He goes back to some metaphysical inspiration in the same way that, say, a modern musician would go back and think of primitive music [and] of primitive rhythms. ... It gives his architecture a sense of being very primal, and at the same time it's absolutely modern."

For a chapel to St. Bruder-Klaus that Zumthor built on a farm in Germany, the architect leaned more than 100 tree trunks together like a tent. Then the farming couple who commissioned the chapel and their friends spent 24 days, each day adding a 20-inch layer of concrete height around the trunks until they reached the top. Next, Zumthor kept a slow smoldering fire inside for three weeks. The tree trunks dried and shrank and were removed, leaving their blackened imprint and the smell of charcoal on the walls.

If it sounds like the most profound clubhouse a boy ever built, Zumthor says he often draws from childhood experiences of spaces that moved him.

Zumthor has lived and worked with a small team in a remote village in the Swiss mountains for 30 years, declining commissions that don't interest him. He says there's a lesson in this Pritzker:

"Oh this is great, for me, it's recognition of a work, of a small body of work," he says. "This should give a lot of hope to young architects: Just do your work, stick to yourself, do your thing, and there are people in the world who will see it."

Edward Lifson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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Edward Lifson