Making Architecture

Courtesy of Paul Clemence from

I believe every architect has that one project or perhaps a single architect or firm that seems to embody the specific ideals that he/she values most. Of course, we all have multiple sources of inspiration, but there are varying degrees to which they influence us. For me, I am greatly inspired by a specific work of one Peter Zumthor. If you are not aware, Mr. Zumthor is an extremely reclusive Swiss architect whose most public announcement of his existence came when he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2009. Zumthor is known for staying out of the spotlight as much as possible, not because he doesn’t like people, but because I believe he is so focused on his designs that everything else takes a back seat. However, I do not intend to discuss his personality, having never met the man myself. What I wish to show today is a work that tells a bit about the architect’s process and perhaps even more about myself.

The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich, Germany is truly a wonder of religious architecture. It was completed in 2007 for a group of farmers in honor of their patron saint for whom the chapel has been named. Lacking a sealed envelope, that is, the building’s interior is open to the elements, the experience inside is strongly connected with nature. However, from approach, the chapel appears as a foreign object; a tall, rigid block of sand-colored concrete in a grassy landscape. The exterior surface has perceivable horizontal layers, which are a product of it’s construction method. One enters through a large triangular door that initially pivots outward then closes back, encapsulating the observer in a cave-like tunnel. As you make your way through a short stretch you find yourself in a somewhat circular room blanketed in light from the open oculus above. The walls are fluted like an ironic column, but not in decoration. They are humble, black and appear eroded.  There is only one room and few objects inside, one being a bench. With there being nowhere to go and ultimately nothing to see, it would seem the only object on which to reflect would be oneself. I find this ingenious.

Courtesy of Paul Clemence from

Now why am I explaining this? Are you likely to be visiting Germany anytime soon? If so, then I present you with simultaneous kudos for your fortune and “shame on you” for not bringing me along. The beauty I find in this building is in it’s materiality and construction. The beauty of the chapel is not restricted to the floor plan or the choice of material. The unique construction process itself was just as much a part of the design as what door hardware to use. I had never heard of some of these methods prior to researching Bruder Klaus Field Chapel. First, a series of wood poles were formed into an elongated teepee-like formation, having each pole pivoting on it’s end and leaning into another. No space was left between, which formed a wooden hut of sorts. Next, form work was added in a rectilinear plan around the teepee. Concrete was then poured in layers of about three feet in height. Prior to adding the next layer, the concrete was compacted in a method called rammed concrete, similar to rammed earth. This was done for about twenty-three layers (according to photographs). There was still an uncovered opening atop the structure, but no perceivable means of removing the wooden poles which made up the interior form work. So what can get rid of wood whilst leaving concrete intact? The answer is fire. Zumthor employed a process known as ‘cold fire’ which is used to make charcoal where there is no oxygen, only fuel, to burn resulting in a very slow burning out of the wooden poles. This process took several days, but left a completely unique interior finish of charred concrete in a fluted form. Lastly, the floor was created by pouring molten lead into the interior. Don’t ask me why this was chosen. I am imagining the shoes of any occupants will have black soles afterward.

Courtesy of Paul Clemence from

I also truly admire the process through which it was conceived. Zumthor is known for taking a lot of time to complete a project. He works through the usual means of sketching and drawings, but his models are where a lot of real work gets done. Many believe (and we were taught in school) that models are merely a representation of an idea. This is not the case with Zumthor. His models are of the building. They are not representative. They are in fact of similar or the same materials he intends to construct with. There is an honesty in this process. His models help him make decisions. I believe this is the way architectural models should be. We use contract drawings to teach others how to construct, but we should use models to teach ourselves how to construct our ideas. This is a difficult thing to do as a professional. We simply do not have the time to work out the details in this way. Unfortunately, architectural models are used almost exclusively for presentation.

Courtesy of Paul Clemence from

The experience of a building will be unique for everyone. For me, architecture must be tangible. It should fulfill it’s intended purpose. These are ideals I believe in even though I do not always practice them. I often catch myself getting excited about a building having never even been there. My only experience would have been through photographs. I think this is a problem with academia. In architecture school, I had all these great ideas that I needed to convey through drawings and images. There were a few models, though as I got older and more proficient with computer software these became only for process. I believe I was too engrossed in my imagination and mental understanding of my designs that I forgot how to explain them to others. I think this is the reason I love Peter Zumthor’s work. I guess it is more of an infatuation with his process rather than his buildings. For the record, I love them, too. Zumthor grounds me and helps me realize that a building is solely an idea until it is built.

Unfortunately I have never visited this building to photograph it. All photos posted are by Paul Clemence referenced from

I would certainly encourage you to further research this building yourself.

I know this was long. Thanks for reading.


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