Consideration of a work of architecture suffers from anything less than an actual visit. A virtual representation of a painting, pot, or, well, turd* can only approximate a real-time in-person experience. But a photo of a building conveys even less information of value. A well known Magritte picture makes the point:
The title is Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe – It Is Not A Pipe. It’s not – it’s a painting of a pipe. A photo or digital representation of a building bears even less resemblance to an intimate experience of it than the Magritte picture to the pipe.
Thus the award of the annual Pritzker architectural prize must hold far more mystery (and allure) for the public than an Oscar, Pulitzer, or Grammy. One can easily develop a relationship with the body of work of an actor, writer, or musician. Very few knowingly visit multiple examples from the oeuvre of one, let alone several prominent architects.
It is then quite ironic that most of us must in fact peruse the works of critics and photographers to develop any sort of opinion at all. It is not impossible that we could admire the words and pictures, but find ourselves surprised or disappointed upon a visit. Ceci N’est Pas Une Batiment.
This year’s Pritzker winner for example, Peter Zumthor, leads a very small practice the output of which is almost all to be found in or near his native Switzerland. The jury citation tells us that: “he develops buildings of great integrity – untouched by fad or fashion…only accepts a project if he feels a deep affinity for its program…modesty in approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive…” It calls his chapel in Wachendorf, Germany “a universal breath of faith”.
I’ve had the good fortune to visit one of his projects – The Kunsthaus Bregenz on the shore of Lake Constance in Bregenz Austria. I had read about the building in preparation for the visit and expected not to like it. I found the photos unattractive and befitting the “severe” label given by several critics. Plus, it would have no views out from its perch on the eastern shore of a beautiful lake in-between Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
All too true. However, it worked.
The overlapping etched glass plated exterior has tremendous effect both inside and out. Its translucency both allows sun to pour into the six foot inter-floor light catching spaces and then down upon the rooms and their contents. The non-reflective nature of its exterior mitigates the potential for glass to transgress a site. No blinding glare. Finally, the angles and lines one can just make out through the rough glass sheets relate to the lines and castellation of the surrounding buildings enabling it to fit in.
The building is deeply rooted in the site. The nature of the glass curtain wall allows one to peer below grade (along with the sun) toward lecture and service spaces. A subdued office/shop/restaurant structure nearby works with the museum building make a pleasant open space.
Ground floor reception is indeed severe if not foreboding. The walls are bare highly finished concrete, floors gray terrazzo. The lighting of the 80 sq ft by 14 ft space creates an austere numinous experience. Three exhibition levels lie above and one doesn’t know whether to expect a Teutonic warlock with an obsidian blade or a priest to deliver last rites.
Attention acutely engaged, the similarly proportioned and finished temp spaces do way heighten the impact of the narrow range of objects and talismans not overwhelmed or neutered. Shows have been primarily if not exclusively contemporary. The Peter Kobler installation there during my visit was up to the task and provided perfect counterpoint. Almost hallucinatory. A tour felt like the traverse of a difficult transmigration.
Zumthor likes tennis, cigars, margaritas, and jazz. Apparently he doesn’t allow his professional and private lives to overlap. Kunsthaus Bregenz is dead serious.
* I had a professor once who asked the class “If a bear shits in the woods, is that art?” Stuck with me.
* The museum’s homepage: http://www.kunsthaus-bregenz.at has a neat bit of embedded flash animation showing elevations, interiors, and detail. Check it out.