A Chapel in the mountains : Saint Benedict by Peter Zumthor
The Saint Benedict Chapel designed in 1988 by the Pritzker-Prize laureate, Peter Zumthor is a modest wooden building situated on a slope of a mountain in Switzerland. This Chapel is located in the village of Sumvitg, Graubünden.
The church has a wooden construction and the façade is made with wooden shingles, wooden snips, similar to the locally build houses. The building is very carefully detailed and the setting is wonderful.
In 1984 an avalanche destroyed the baroque chapel in front of the village of Sogn Benedetg (St. Benedict). A recently built parking lot had acted like a ramp pushing the snow from the avalanche up against the chapel.
The new site on the original path to the Alp above the small village is protected from avalanches by a forest. The new wooden chapel, faced with larch wood shingles, was inaugurated in 1988. The hillside site for the new chapel provides breathtaking mountainous views.
The modest, human-scaled exterior of the chapel encapsulates the beauty and simplicity of Zumthor’s works, while the interior showcases his unparalleled craftsmanship.
In an interview with The New York Times, Zumthor once explained his process: “When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It’s not about paper, it’s not about forms. It’s about space and material.”
Although Zumthor used modern materials and techniques for this particular design, the cylindar-shaped chapel blends naturally into its context, without offending the traditional and historical dimension of the Alpine village. For example, the chapel is constructed with wooden shingles and snips, similar to the local traditional houses.
The roof of the chapel is reminiscent of the hull of a boat. Mediating between the expressive roof and the more traditional, wooden base below, is an elegant, minimal solution: a ring of vertical wood columns and glass panels that crown the chapel, allowing natural light to penetrate the interior space.
This Chapel is “a cylinder that turns into an oval and then into a keel: the geometry of this church, however definite, is also dynamic and elusive to the eye, all this exacerbated by the implantation of the building on a steep slope.”
The single interior space contains minimalist wooden columns, beams and benches, showcasing Zumthor’s craftsmanship and his delicate approach to material and details.
Peter Zumthor was born on April 26, 1943, the son of a cabinet maker, Oscar Zumthor, in Basel, Switzerland. He trained as a cabinet maker from 1958 to 1962. From 1963-67, he studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Vorkurs and Fachklasse with further studies in design at Pratt Institute in New York.
In 1967, he was employed by the Canton of Graubünden (Switzerland) in the Department for the Preservation of Monuments working as a building and planning consultant and architectural analyst of historical villages, in addition to realizing some restorations. He established his own practice in 1979 in Haldenstein, Switzerland where he still works with a small staff of fifteen. Zumthor is married to Annalisa Zumthor-Cuorad. They have three children, all adults, Anna Katharina, Peter Conradin, and Jon Paulin, and two grandchildren.
Since 1996, he has been a professor at the Academy of Architecture, Universitá della Svizzera Italiana, Mendrisio. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Southern California Institute of Architecture and SCI-ARC in Los Angeles in 1988; at the Technische Universität, Munich in 1989; and at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University in 1999.
His many awards include the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association in 2008 as well as the Carlsberg Architecture Prize in Denmark in 1998, and the Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture in 1999. In 2006, he received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture from the University of Virginia. The American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture in 2008.He won the Pritzker Prize in 2009.
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