Phenomenology in Peter Zumthor’s architecture

Phenomenology is not a new invention, although it became synonymous with modernistic art in the early 1900’s. In fact the idea of phenomenology and the meaning of life and its numerous connections became not only an existential question, but also a study of reactivity between human beings in the hope that we might understand why things happen and why we behave in the way we do. In the social sciences, sociologists such as Max Weber wanted to understand this relationship between humans and in art this relationship culminated in the relationship between the artists and the subject and the inherent ties that are visible between the two.
Peter Zumthor has become a paragon of his art and his architecture is something of a phenomenological artefact and in this case we examine his architectural pieces at Vals in Switzerland and Cologne in Germany. We look specifically at his spa complex (Therme Vals Spa) and his art museum (Kolumba). We also look at the meaning and the theory of phenomenology as a discipline in the attempt to understand the connection between Zumthor’s personal standpoint and the ideology as a whole. We look first at phenomenology as a discipline and its forefathers while also looking at the very first revelations of phenomenology in the arts.
What is phenomenology? How did it come into being and why is it such a powerful tool for the arts? Phenomenology is described as the “study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. ”(Smith, 2008). What is central to the idea is the intention of the subject, for instance, what does the individual intend to do with the experience? The direction of an experience is geared towards the object with pertinence to the meaning of the relationship (Smith, 2008).

It was used in the social sciences by masters such as Heidegger, Husserl and Sartre and encompasses four major aspects of the philosophy of social science: epistemology, ontology, ethics and logic (Smith, 2008). Naturally, these aspects of humanity cannot be explained by scientific inquiry alone, as the human brain consists of unseen reactions as well as the physiological and observable. This posed a problem for social sciences in the sense that something could not be proven unless it could be observed. What we are able to observe, clearly, is interaction, action and reaction. What we are not able to observe is the ‘why’.
Smith (2008) explains that where conscious experience is concerned the major affect is that we are able to live through them and perform them. We are able to relate a past experience only from our own standpoint, based on how we felt at the time and therefore we interpret it as it affects us personally (Smith, 2008). Hermeneutic phenomenology is a branch of the discipline that stems from the interpretive which means that we are only ever able to interpret experiences and relationships thereupon and never able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is true or not (Marcelle, 2005).
At present, the nature of phenomenology is changing with the advent of new communication methods such as the internet (Marcelle, 2005). Indeed, artistically speaking, architecture also remains a means of communicating via its ability to relate a feeling or atmosphere that is pertinent to the emotion it wishes to convey. For example, an art museum wants to convey a different experience to that of a spa. After we have interpreted experiences, we then have to analyze them and remove notable aspects for further observation.
Thereafter, phenomenology tries to expand upon different ways of thinking and understand what type of thinking allows that particular experience to be interpreted in that way. Empirical experiments attempt to determine the commonality of that experience and whether it can be proved (Smith, 2008). Some forms of phenomenology try to explain these experiences with the added benefit of neurological knowledge which is of course, empirically and scientifically proven (Smith, 2008). ` Now we know what phenomenology is but what we need to do it examine where is it began in terms of representational art and architecture.
Upon viewing something it immediately invokes some sort of emotional connection: whether you like it very much or hate it, there is a reason for this connection. When we view a flower in the open air, some of us may feel euphoric and happy amongst the beauty while others may not be greatly affected by it. The same is true when viewing a rubbish heap, but with the opposite emotion. How we view this experience depends very much on the frame of mind we are in at the time and the overall mental state or personality.
This was used in early Surrealist art where those such as Salvador Dali attempted to relate the internal subconscious of the self to the viewer. Dali himself used architectural type hypercube structures to convey a certain transcendence of Christ in his famous Corpus Hypercubus (1954) (Fudjack & Dinkelaker, 1999). The purpose of using this 3 dimensional construction was to invoke the sense not only of transcendence but also omnipotence with the past, present and the future all being present in one picture (Barrette, 2007).
Prior to Zumthor’s work and wedged in between Dali’s was Antonin Gaudi whose post-modernist art nouveau architecture can be seen as both garish and outrageous. Gaudi’s work was not only intended for a purpose, but was also employed to have specific affect on the viewer. Sagrada Familia was not completed before Gaudi’s death in 1926 (Schumacher, 1991). Gaudi used angularity, columns and vaults in true architectural classicism and combined it with modern eclecticism to produce a gorgeously outrageous modern gothic temple.
In other works, he used mosaics and facades to produce candy-like buildings that both pleased the eye and served a purpose. So phenomenology is not a new idea in the arts and was used with great effect also by artists such as Rene Magritte and in writing by Roland Barthes. Marcel Duchamps created yet another dimension to modernistic phenomenology which included a form of cerebral art that made it necessary not simply to view the piece, but to think about it and to react to it. For him, it was not so important that you liked the work, but rather that you thought about it.
Duchamps constructed the Three Standard Stoppages (1914-1915) which used found articles such as string and mirror in a wooden box. This piece therefore made use of mathematical questions that were of course, not answerable. The purpose of the work was in fact to create for Duchamps his own physical ‘oeuvre’ (Betancourt, 2003). Roland Barthes created the idea that what we see is not reality if it is reproduced. Barthes viewed a picture of his mother with the knowledge that although it was his mother in the picture, it was also not his mother. It was really only a representation of her (Barthes, 1980).
The question is really, what is the individual experience of the photograph? The experience of the individual is very different depending on whether or not of course, you know the object depicted. We see that phenomenology has been used for many years in the arts and in writing, and now we look specifically at the work of Peter Zumthor. Peter Zumthor was born in Switzerland on the 26 April 1943. Zumthor was the son of a cabinet maker and learnt carpentry early in life. He studied at the Pratt Institute in New York and was awarded the Carlsberg Architecture Prize in 1998 (Spiritus Temporis, 2005).
Peter Zumthor also wrote extensively about his philosophy for architecture saying that: “In order to design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction. ” (Zumthor in Arcspace, 2009). The phenomenological approach of Zumthor’s work is clear in this statement as it employs the purpose and necessity of thinking about the work more than merely accepting it as a piece in which we either reside or gather. For Zumthor, the building not only has to be facilitative, but also be emotionally or sensually charged.
It is only in this manner that we are able to connect with it on a personal level. The building is itself, and does not have to be representational of anything. In other words, as the Chartres Cathedral is representational of a religious artefact, Zumthor’s work has an existence beyond its representation (Zumthor in Arcspace, 2009). The Kolumba Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne is a culmination of old and new religious art which was meant initially to make one think about how the two worlds intercept (Carrington, 2008). It is described as a museum of reflection (Carrington, 2008).
First founded in 1853 by the Society for Christian Art and is home to 2 000 years of religious art. The most important aspect of this art however, is that it has two parallel histories. The original building was almost completely destroyed during World War II and during the year of 1973, excavations revealed medieval, Roman and Gothic remains. All the ruins were used by Zumthor to collaborate the history into one astounding piece of work (Carrington, 2008). Zumthor essentially raised the walls on cement covered steel columns and embedded both sets of historical ruins into the new walls (Carrington, 2008).
The result is an amalgamation of old and new that somehow allows the viewer to notice the old rather than the new while also providing us with the same vision Zumthor himself had. Upon viewing the structure it appears to be a patchwork that is carefully constructed to produce a time-frame continuum. Yet while the building is a thoughtful invocation of old and new, it is also environmentally considered. It is constructed with ‘filter walls’ that have a air and light permeable membrane which is separated between the chapel and the exhibition rooms (Architectural News, 2007).
Zumthor collaborated the use of the old world material with brick, mortar, plaster and terrazzo as a backdrop for the artworks exhibited (Architectural News, 2007). Clearly, if Zumthor wanted to he could have created a modernistic and highly technological piece of architecture like the Sydney Opera House, but his sensitivity as an artist allowed him to produce a dignified and respectful piece of architectural history that is not seen before. Windows placed across the entire space of the wall allows light to enter at all directions and also provides changing lights spaces at different times of the day (Architectural News, 2007).
There is not a great difference in colour between the old and the new parts of the building considering the different materials used at any time. The gothic vaults that appear along the side of the building are embedded onto plastered and textured walls. The texture however, does not appear directly behind the gothic facade, but rather some meters above it. This means that there is no detraction from the original facade (Figure 1). Kolumba Art Museum Figure 1 Markus Bachmann (Architectural News) 2007. The Therme Vals, Switzerland has a completely different countenance altogether.
Zumthor appears to be a master at replacing older structures with refreshing new ones. The spa reopened in 1996 after it was reconstructed by Zumthor from the original 1960’s building (McLaughlin, 2006). Zumthor created a modern bathing complex out of 60 000 local quartzite slabs. The buildings itself appears to be truly new age and almost alien-like, with granite dotted around geometric and glass sliding doors. In a sense, Zumthor has attempted to internalise the mountain backdrop of the exterior of the building, by incorporating the natural light available through frosted and clarified glass (Baus, 2007: 9).
Holes in the sky-lights of the slabs allow natural light into the rooms where the baths are situated. The floor plan reveals lights situated under the water in the baths that glow a magical blue in the evening and is a perfect place to reflect upon ones self (Baus, 2007: 14). This is of course, the point of a spa, that one is assisted in self exploration. The domes appear to resemble eyes placed upon a shield from which the light is radiated. The purpose of this architecture is therefore not only to accommodate and enhance well being, but also to accommodate the natural environment (Baus, 2007: 5).
The building itself resembles the gentle ebb and flow of the stream that feeds the spa as well as the Alpine mountains that surround it. The interior glass is frosted with yin/yang shaped apertures that allow the light into the building as seen in figure two. One is quickly able to see how the light is utilised to produce an ethereal and magical area of meditation which is particularly important to the person who is attempting to find emotional help. It is not a palatial and sentimental piece as is seen in the art museum, but then the personality of the people visiting it is not likely to be the same either.
Figure 2 Interior Vals Spa – www. flickr. com/photos/amirkorour/269995495/ Remove frame The loss of senses is a contributing factor to emotional disruption and the allowance of this building to connect with the beautiful environment facilitates the reconnection of the person with the senses whether they be beauty, love, peace or euphoria. Sensory deprivation is something we have come to tolerate as humans due in part to our fast paced lifestyles and our intense need for social airs and graces.
In a space such as the Vals Spa, we are able to shed these nuances of life and expect to be move back towards what Zumthor had previously explained was a sensual connection with the environment. In an interview with Zumthor available online the Termae of Stone is explained by the man himself. Zumthor states that he wanted the visitors to be able to connect with the environment and to be able to find themselves within the architecture (Zumthor, 2007). Zumthor also wanted the architecture to be a part of the healing process rather than an abstract work of art on its own.
For this reason it must facilitate the human experience rather than detract from it (Zumthor, 2007). The meaning behind the architecture is that is becomes almost a mythical and ritualistic appearance of cleansing in a very spiritual manner. The spiritual is inherent in the building by virtue of it meaningful change and by symbolism. Zumthor uses the ritual of removing ones clothing as a part of this stripping of extraneous material to reveal the purity of self and of the environment, essentially becoming one with it (Zumthor, 2007).
Stone and skin are two of these important factors as well as the senses being able to experience different temperatures of the water and textural changes in the light and building material. Coupled with this is an acoustic effect that tantalises all the senses: touch, sound, sight and taste. There is a clear parallel between the building and its meaning which is the essence of phenomenology. This was also attempted by Frank Lloyd Wright many years before at Falling Waters. Zumthor states too that on a formal level everything is simple and un-intrusive, an important aspect of the purpose of a healing spa.
Part water and part stone, the functionality of the material is elemental to the human body which is mainly water itself (Zumthor, 2007). There is a juxtaposition between the mobility of water and the solidity of stone similar to the opposites visible in the art museum which old and new are encapsulated together. Zumthor clearly also enjoys the opposing of various opposite sets as well as the sensuality that theses opposites grant the viewer. For most people healing entails the need for the senses to be reawakened and for experience to be reinvented.
In a sense, we stop experiencing the world around us when we run out of time or are clinging to the need to survive rather than seeking time for the self and its needs. The idea of a spa is not only the range of treatments that it gives the person, but also a healing form within where the person is able to completely relax. The reflection of light against the monochromatic pool floors is the same example used in the Art Museum at Kolumba where the light allowed into the building illuminates the various pieces differently all the time.
Only natural light can do this, not artificial. For Zumthor, thinking is also important to the individual, because thinking is what makes us different from one another. In the same way as we do not all think in the same way, light reflections are never the same at any given time. The result is purely interpretive and hermeneutic. The effect is as much psychological as it is physiological and the spa is as much naturalistic as it is modern which is largely thanks to the quartzite slabs Zumthor has used.
Zumthor is quick to explain it is his own idea of the architecture that he wishes to convey and that he takes the liberty of interpreting the piece the way he sees it (Zumthor, 2007). The idea of the piece is always accompanied by a powerful image and the visualisation of the experience (Zumthor, 2007). For Zumthor it is never an abstract idea, it is very clear. The first images that Zumthor has upon undertaking an architectural piece are naive and child-like and gradually mature into something realistic (Zumthor, 2007).
The process of building never loses the initial image even though it is built upon and matured. For him it is a self defining form of architecture and not an abstract, detached one (Zumthor, 2007). Interestingly this is opposite to the previously mentioned modernist architect Antonin Gaudi whose architecture was outrageously abstract and indulgent. Zumthor has clearly focussed on communication, opening the ‘mouth’ of the architecture to allow his image to proceed. Communication is key to the hermeneutic experience, predominantly because communication is the way we define ourselves and others.
It is the way we are able to relate to one another and it the only observable practice there is to humanity. Zumthor is therefore also humanistic in his approach to art and architecture. Jacky Bowring describes how as Westerners we have become detached from our senses and uses the example of Anthony Giddens that globalisation, westernisation and modernisation are intertwined. This means that the global village is slowly but surely become a Western one where sensory deprivation causes the volcanic outburst of deviant behaviour (Bowring, 2005: 81).
But Western culture is also dominated by the visual meaning that what is pleasing to the eye is considered pleasing to the soul. However, other cultures such as the Indian and the Oriental employ the use of all the senses and produce an holistic effect (Bowring, 2005: 81). For this purpose, Zumthor cleverly escapes the Westernized jail in which Western society had holed itself and employs the use of other sense that essentially make us humans rather than just non-rational animals (Bowring, 2005: 81). Bowring believes that our optical and visual culture has made us deprived of other senses, which is partially true.
She states: “A counter to the one-eyed focus of ocularcentrism is the recognition of senses of place that is found in the philosophy of phenomenology. ”(Bowring, 2005: 82). As a result of this deprivation we have become dislocated and not a whole and functional body, hence the need for multi-sensory architecture and connectivity with our environment (Bowring, 2005: 82). For Bowring the problem is that the Western obsession with appearance has caused landscape artists to produce masses of gardens and landscapes that are ‘pretty’ or ‘stunning’ but have no other sensory satisfactions (Bowring, 2005: 83).
Sturich looks at the image as a poetic one, as a hermeneutic experience by which we create images that invoke certain feelings and for Zumthor the poetry is an ‘unexpected truth’ (Sturich, 2003: 4). The poetic strengthens our relationship between the world or ourselves, making us more able to experience that world for what it really is – a culmination of all senses and not merely a material setting (Sturich, 2003: 4). Memory is another aspect of the poetic that Zumthor uses as the senses are memory precursors. The senses and the poetic becomes narratives by which we build our current worlds, beliefs and experiences (Sturich, 2003: 6).
For this reason, we associate things we do not like with things that have bad memories or experiences. We may not like thatched houses because one caught fire once as a child or we may enjoy the Palace of Versailles because of a sweet cake we indulged in when visiting it. The association of what we enjoy and do not enjoy is based on our experience of it. Zumthor’s idea of what a kitchen should be is based on his memory of his aunt’s house when he was a child, as evidently he has good memories of it (Sturich, 2003: 7).
Poetry relates these memories through words, architects relate these memories through their works. Sturich explains that we use buildings as repositories for poetic images that increase our awareness of the world around us (Sturich, 2003: 10). So we have the memory and the poetic image as two aspects of the hermeneutic or phenomenological that facilitate creative and healing properties of the human being and the human mind. Davidovici explains yet another interesting aspect to the phenomenology of Zumthor and that is in the culture of modern Europe.
Critically speaking, Zumthor did away with the cultural need for ‘art for art’s sake’ and replaced it with a moral concern for the environment (Davodovici, date unknown: 1). Herzog and de Meuron were two of Zumthor’s counterparts, but there idea of architecture was as an artistic vehicle with a motion towards emotive charging of all materials used in a single building (Davidovici, date unknown: 1). The morphology of the building therefore entertained the idea that humanistic approaches were too formal and there was thus a need for impersonal and neutral surroundings to be banished.
Zumthor, in his Kolumba Art Museum gave way to the fact that our memories are embedded in our pasts and that patriotism is a necessary part of national spirit. We see that the use of two to three worlds entwined with the modern gives exactly the right amount of emotive past and sensory present. Zumthor was concerned with creating something that we could “know, understand and feel. ”(Davidovici, date unknown: 4). Again, for Zumthor the idea of building and of dwelling is the same as Heidegger’s that dwelling is the personal and identifiable space where people reside as human beings (Sturich, 2003: 1).
The importance of this is that our personal space is a reflection of the self in the same way that it is also impersonal in its creation. It is the way in which we adorn our personal space that allows the true self to become self-evident. The building itself is built by someone else and very rarely is indicative of the self, but in these cases, sometimes this works as a slate upon which one can paint their own image. We see without doubt that Zumthor has created in the Vals Thermal Spa, a place where the individual is able to connect with the self because the surroundings are impersonal.
However, it is very clearly natural and down to earth. Compare this for instance to the Hilton Hotel’s dotted around the Unites States that are lavish but also impersonal but offer no real opportunity to connect with the personal. The same sort of comparison can be made between the Chartres Cathedral and the Kolumba Art Museum where both themes are the religious. In the Chartres Cathedral the purest place of the architecture as a product is itself. The Kolumba, by contrast is that it should show the character of the works contained within it rather than the building itself.
Zumthor also shows a very important character reference too in that the main source of his inspiration was not to show himself as being a great architect, but to preserve the past. The gothic and Romanesque arches that Zumthor preserves are beautifully melded into the modern cement walls of Zumthor’s own interpretation. The interior is also clearly geared towards preserving the art within it rather than being a work of art in itself. The need to preserve the past is also related to the importance of memory and the personal relationship both a nation and an individual has.
The Vals Thermal Spa on the other hand is created in an impersonal and natural way so as not to detract from the experience that one is supposed to have. Here begins the phenomenological application: the experience, the interpretation and the analysis. The first thing one is goaded into at the spa is to experience the multi-sensory application. You are required to feel the water, see the reflection, hear the sounds of the water and also taste it. This is important to the personal experience, as every one has different ones.
Also important is the fact that within the water the quartzite is locally mined and is not an anachronism for the person viewing it. The purpose is to reawaken emotion and experience of the world around and you as well as be able to reconnect with the self. We see that phenomenology is concerned with action, reaction and interaction, which is also personally experienced rather than imposed upon the individual. The theory of Roland Barthes was also pertinent to the understanding that what we see visually is not always the realistic, it is often merely a representation.
What the other senses do is to make that sight into a tangible reality. One can see a picture of a something and it excites the visual sense but when we are able to feel it, smell and taste it, it becomes a tangible reality. The baths of Thermal Spa able to be felt, seen, and heard and are therefore real things. Salvador Dali also attempted to make the representational into a reality, he tried to convert the two dimensional into the three dimensional causing the person to optically believe they are able to touch and fell the article or the object.
One is able to analyse the feelings one has only from the personal standpoint and never from the third person, hence the personal nature of narratives and novels where the writer places themselves in the position of the character in order to create the person they wish to describe. This means that the poetic narrative is also an inversion in a sense, of the phenomenological even though it is not truly the personal experience: the personal experience being of the first person rather than an interpretation of the first person by the third person.
The importance of the relationship between the personal and the interpersonal is evident again in the fact that although we cannot prove how we feel or how others feel, we are at least able to empathise with what we see and feel around us. Zumthor is clearly wanting us to reconnect with the surroundings, our sense and our selves. In conclusion Peter Zumthor has succeeded in creating an architectural world where there is a good relationship between the past and the present; the natural and the man-made; and the self and the world.
It is not merely based on the visual but also on all the senses. He relates to the human need to embrace the sensual rather than living the life of prescribed society. While science offers us a very distinct set of truths about the world around us, such as that the earth is round and that the body needs water, what it does not do is tell us how we think or why we do what we do. In architecture such as Zumthor’s, the architect recognises that in human nature very little is formulaic and we are seldom able to predict human behaviour.
Certainly this cerebral art is a departure from classical, also formulaic artistic pieces. The thinking architecture is one that is able to produce the self in the its architecture and is able to allow the person to reflect on the environment as well as themselves. The Art Museum is a place where the individual is able to reflect on the person’s national past while also allowing us to be able to see the changes over time in the art in question. The Thermal Spa allows the person to reflect on themselves as well as their surroundings, hereby facilitating healing.