APPELT: In the context of my project Langsames Licht / Slow Light it interests me how you as an architect use darkness in your work, how you use dark spaces in your buildings and natural light. For instance, in the spa in Vals, the Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne, the Kunsthaus in Bregenz or the Brother Klaus Field Chapel, which I’m afraid I still haven’t seen yet. I really like the title of your book, “How much light do people need in order to live and how much darkness?” That’s a wonderful title because it implies that people also need darkness. Do you design your buildings with natural light in mind, light and shadows?
ZUMTHOR: It’s a nice thought that houses, and rooms, are dark at first and then we can let light in. Certain materials are beautiful in a very particular light, like here in this room, when night is falling.
APPELT: Yes, the small amount of light has a pleasant effect on the room, it gives it atmosphere.
ZUMTHOR: It gives it a wonderful depth. Depth is probably the key word. When everything is lit up and it makes a statement, that might be all right in the theatre, when it lets you see the production even if you’re sitting twelve rows back. But a room like this one isn’t for looking at, it’s for being in. I make things first and foremost for being in, not for looking at from a distance. So I don’t have to overdo it. But I do have to place lights. In painting there’s an expression, “placing light” it’s the same with architecture, you place light among shadows. For me, darkness comes first. The light is placed subsequently. And darkness is supremely important. Anything bright and white is foregrounded, and if something is made dark again, or black, then it goes away. I’m currently doing a big “Werkraum Haus” (a space for regional artisans to exhibit and organise in) in Bregenzerwald. Actually, it’s really just an enormous roof. We built a model first, and it was exactly as I’d thought - if it’s made of natural wood, then it’s overpowering when you see it indoors. The roof is six metres above the ground, it’s simply massive, and when it’s built of natural wood, it just clobbers you. But when it’s done in black, then two things happen. It sort of dematerialises. That would happen if you painted it white, too, but in white it gets this whiteness-presence, it gets up really close to you, and in black it goes away. I first really consciously experienced this in the Alhambra in Cordoba. That’s where I first saw how a black ceiling recedes from you. Black light. It’s a paradox, but there is such a thing as black depth, black light. The baroque heaven is a painted heaven. That’s always in the foreground for me, I can never see very far in, I can look at the surface of the painting but it doesn’t go any deeper. Whereas in Arabic architecture it’s like a wooden grille, completely black. You look up and have the feeling heaven is up there somewhere.
APPELT: In the Kolumba Museum there’s a whole room that’s completely black. Ceiling, walls, floor, they’re all black. You can’t see the edges of the room, they dissolve away. The display cases have got lights, but everything else disappears into the darkness.
ZUMTHOR: That’s an old trick. Every jeweller knows that one (laughs). You have to work with that, of course you do.
APPELT: I think it’s important that this black room occurs within a particular sequence of different kinds of rooms. That gives it emphasis, and it makes it much more of an experience to go into this special place.
ZUMTHOR: That particular room is located right above where the old tower of the old church used to be. It’s where the collection of St Columba’s historical church treasures is displayed. Hence the abstraction. Because the church itself doesn’t exist any more. It’s rather like the heart of the whole thing.
APPELT: As well as a sequence of rooms with different atmospheres, there’s also a recognisable sequence to the lighting and the way it changes. The further down inside the building you go, the darker it gets, and the higher up you go, the lighter it gets. Higher up there’s more natural light. The natural light always comes from the side, the artificial light always comes from above, from the ceiling. I found the transitions within the building very striking, the way you go from room to room, from atmosphere to atmosphere, without any intervening doors or walls. It’s not just the light, the acoustics and the temperature change, even though all the rooms merge into one another. In your essays, you talk about how mood or atmosphere depends on various factors. Light, smells, sounds, materials and memories, and also conversations or experiences that took place in the rooms.
ZUMTHOR: Architecture has all these qualities. It has a sound, a specific acoustic quality, a note of its own. Inspired by the wind or something. And then there are the various materials that require lighting or shading. Or that look different in light and in shadow. But they don’t have an effect until they’re lit. They don’t have that effect in darkness. What works in darkness is the sense that something is a part of a larger whole. The whole setting is always present. There’s always light present, too, but light, that’s a vast topic. Light and darkness are probably the single biggest physical dimension in architecture - light is so all-encompassing, and it comes from so far away, and it’s so strong and so weak. The difference between the glow of a filament bulb in a torch and the sun with its 100,000 lux is colossal. Sometimes you get the feeling you have to protect yourself from the sun. The further south you go, the more you feel the need to modulate the light, to get out of the light into the shade, to get the light away from you. It’s the opposite up here where we live. There can be something merciless about light. And darkness can be frightening. You have to work between these two poles. It’s always got to be right for what I’m doing. There’s light, and then it grows dark again. There’s a gentle alternation to the rhythm of the rooms. Because of the hierarchy. It leads you on. It’s pleasant to go into the light when you reach the top of the Kolumba. It was done like that deliberately. Down below you’ve got natural light, light from the street, light from the courtyard, and then the light is shut out, there’s a whole storey lit with artificial lighting, there’s no natural light at all. And it’s completely dark when you get to the black treasure chamber, it’s as if there are no walls and no ceiling, just the objects and the glass. And afterwards comes the moment when you go up that long, long stairway and there’s the Madonna standing in daylight. I love that moment, when you see the Madonna smiling in the light, lit up from the side. You stand still for a moment. It’s always the facing walls, the ones that you’re heading towards, that are lit. First you see the light on the wall, and then the view that belongs to this opening.
The spa in Vals goes out of the mountain from darkness into light. The directional flow is lateral. You go in on one side, the mountain side, in darkness, and move along the path of circulation till it opens up towards the valley with 30 openings. The route, your experience of the path, the rhythm of the path has a great deal to do with the placement of light and shade. That’s actually always a crucial aspect. That’s how you do it. So it alternates between light to shade
APPELT: The changing rooms in Vals are dark. There’s no daylight, they’re black, with only artificial lighting.
ZUMTHOR: Yes, you’re still inside the mountain at that point. You come out of the cave, out of the mountain, and it opens up more and more.
APPELT: You used artificial lighting in the Kolumba Museum to differentiate the corridor situations from the exhibition situations. The lighting quality varies, the light is differently coloured, it scatters differently, and so on. Even though the rooms are open-plan and merge into each other, the light makes the different areas and functions clear.
ZUMTHOR: That’s perceptible, is it? They have slightly different materials, especially on the floors. The circulation is important. It’s a circular route, it starts downstairs at the entrance and leads upwards in a big loop, a proper loop around the whole building. It meanders. And attached to that are classic rectangular rooms. That’s the basic principle. The rooms are open-plan, but they have different flooring and different lighting. The cabinets are intentionally different. And then there are the notorious thresholds created by the raised floors.
APPELT: Have there been any accidents? I must admit, it took me a while to get used to them.
ZUMTHOR: People aren’t accustomed to them anymore. In earlier times they grew up in the country, full of things that trip you up. But now they’re city dwellers, they grow up in supermarkets. There’s nothing to trip over anymore. They don’t look down at the ground. The kind of culture you get in a village like this, where everything goes up and down, that doesn’t exist in cities anymore. That’s why the thresholds in the Kolumba are so unexpected for people.
APPELT: This urge for an over-secure environment reminds me of all the lighting regulations. They don’t exactly make it easy to work with light and shadow and darkness to create attractive spaces. In your pavilion in the park by the Serpentine Gallery you have to walk along dark corridors before you reach the interior of the pavilion. They prepare you for the interior of the pavilion, so to speak.
ZUMTHOR: They prepare you for the plants. The garden had a beautiful, tranquil atmosphere. People liked that. Lots of people came over and over and again. It set some kind of visitor record. The pavilion actually stands in a park, Hyde Park, and when you come into the pavilion you see the garden, and at first you see it at a different scale. It’s like looking at the garden through a magnifying glass. You were in a garden beforehand, but that was a huge park, and now you see the garden in the pavilion at a different scale. It sounds like a stupid idea at first, to make a garden in the middle of Hyde Park. An architecture journalist wrote somewhere that it was a stupid idea, as if I didn’t understand what an English garden was all about. But anyone who’s been there knows how well it works. It’s like coming into a monastery garden, a closed space, where you’re suddenly really close to the plants. That was the idea. The plants took up all the centre. You had to go around the edges. It was an entire building, but actually you could only sit or stand around the plants. The centre was reserved for the plants. There weren’t any paths that cut through. It worked brilliantly. People got it straight away and they just sat there, and evidently they kept coming back, to read or to chat.
APPELT: Did the dark corridor also help visitors to calm down, to leave the stress of daily life behind them before they reached the garden?
ZUMTHOR: It’s a zone of transition. The entrances are staggered. You come in, take a few steps and then you go into the garden. It doesn’t take much to cross over.
APPELT: What about the darkness in the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel? I’m afraid I haven’t been there yet, but I imagine it must feel very intimate to go in there and be entirely by yourself. At least that’s how imagine it based on the pictures I’ve seen. There’s a path that leads across the field in broad daylight and then inside the church it’s dark. Only a little bit of light gets in from the opening at the top.
ZUMTHOR: A lot of people are deeply moved by it, shaken even. I would say it’s the most incredible space. It’s a very small space. I think there’s something very existential about it. It’s open at the top. It’s dark, at first it looks almost black. Your eyes gradually adjust to it, but it’s still basically a dark room. You can see lights on the wall coming through holes, and far up above there’s the hole that opens to the sky.
APPELT: In your essays, you quote from the book “In Praise of Shadows” by Tanizaki Junichiro. At one point you talk about a Japanese house with a very dim interior, where there’s only a faint shimmer of light coming in from somewhere, and that gives the room this depth you mentioned at the beginning of the interview. And you talk about the materials, which all react differently to the light. I think time plays an important role here. Time to engage with the experience. It takes time to even become aware of subtleties like that. And willingness to engage. Tanizaki Junichiro can assume both. But I don’t see much of a tendency that way in our society because we’re all so over-stressed. If you disregard the spectacular light shows that are all over the place, then we could achieve a great deal with a lot less. Only, if we’re going to aspire to that, we need the population to be willing to go along with it. I mean, with this kind of awareness and this slow pace. Do you think there’s any chance at all of progressing in that direction?
ZUMTHOR: What I’ve noticed is that people in general are relatively insensitive to spatial architectonic atmospheres of light and shade or sound. They’re content with noisy rooms where the radio is constantly playing stupid music channels, or with 17 freezers thrumming away, or whatever. They don’t even notice the noise. And then the light is ghastly too, and everything’s ghastly. I see that a lot. I’m always asking in restaurants if they wouldn’t mind turning the music off. And sometimes they won’t, because the music is part of their concept. Someone designed the whole thing and the music is part of the concept. This level of sensitivity people have - I often wonder how they can bear it, it’s so ghastly. On the other hand, I’m pleased that people who experience my spaces - not everyone, but lots of them - say, “This is so beautiful, I’ll come back again.” So sensitivity hasn’t died out completely, but it’s thin on the ground. It’s actually partly a cultural issue. Academics and artists are generally closer to having that kind of sensibility, women are generally closer than men, regardless of their training or education. Perhaps it’s always been the case that for the vast majority of people this sort of thing just doesn’t mean anything. That it’s always been a privilege of a certain kind of aesthetic education and a certain way of looking at things and caring about things. That might be true. What I sometimes notice is that traditional folk cultures have a feeling for aesthetics. In Bregenzerwald, for instance, the women put on their traditional costumes when they want to celebrate. Because they want the celebrations to look good. So it’s not just a question of education. Bars and discos that play the latest pop music probably have their own aesthetic motivations. And then there’s the deadening effect of everyday culture, which is often very desensitising indeed. I couldn’t say if that used to be better. I suspect not. I suspect it’s always been something of a privilege, but one that isn’t confined to the educated classes, now that I’ve started talking about it, I realise that. When people hold a wedding, they make an effort to make it beautiful. And I think that’s similar to what I’m doing when I try to design a good house. Something that I’ve always liked, and that was important to me when I was still teaching, was to make a celebration out of the students’ presentations. With music and dancing. A presentation has a celebratory character, so there’s a seamless transition to the big party afterwards. The parties were closely connected to the aesthetic perception and experience of rooms. Feeling comfortable in a place. We said architecture is about life, so let’s have a party. There are the presentations, and there’s champagne and so on, and the students had to organise the party as part of their term’s work. As a concrete installation with light and music and all the other elements, what people wore and so on. The best was the first year in Mendrisio. It was the year the university was founded, so they were all in their first semester. We did lots of pre-architectonic but very experience-oriented pieces of work. They were powerful experiences, super pieces of work. You can give anything a form. Architecture is a form. You can give a wedding a form. That can have beauty. When our daughter got married, we gave it a form. When something has a form, it acquires dignity. Just look at churches, they know that better than anyone. They play with form and work with form. But it doesn’t have to be a church. Atmospheric environments exist in other places, too. You find them in youth culture. If you go to the “in” clubs in Vienna, I’m sure you’ll find heavy use of stylisation and a keen sense of form. There’s no difference. You find the same sensibility there as in architecture - you give something a form and look at it in such and such a way. There’s no real difference in their view of things.
APPELT: That’s assuming I’m willing to open up to whatever situation is on offer. In the Kolumba Museum there’s currently a room with drawings and etchings by John Cage. It’s one of the rooms without any windows, with rather faint lighting - it’s really non-lighting for a museum like this. The pictures fade into the background, but the room is very effective as a spatial impression in the middle of all the other spatial impressions, and it enables me to experience the pictures in quite a different way than I’m used to, so long as I’m willing to engage with it.
ZUMTHOR: Those are small cabinets with artificial lighting for displaying a very small selection of objects. They’re placed according to specific rules. It’s an opportunity for the curators to do particular things and then afterwards there’s the big room with natural lighting again. My sketches for the Kolumba are displayed in one of those artificially-lit cabinets.
APPELT: What I found astonishing about the Kolumba Museum was that you aren’t presented with a series of perfectly lit rooms or pictures, instead you first have to adapt to particular situations, and this process of adjustment, this learning process, gives you a much more specific way of engaging with them. I started off going through the excavations downstairs and I was surprised that there was no lighting on the walls with all those signs, instead all the light comes from above, down onto the excavations. It’s artificial lighting, and on the walls there’s a shimmer where the light comes through from outside. Later, when I’d gone through the whole building, I understood why it makes sense that there’s no artificial light on the walls by the signs. So I went through a learning process, by going all the way up and then down again, by taking the time and opening up to it. After that, it all seemed very familiar and comprehensible. The hunters from San Bernadino, who you talk about in one of your essays, went through a process as well. They spent two days in the forest and when they came back to their village, they experienced the artificial lights as “light pollution”. They went through a kind of adjustment process during those days in the forest. Although I suspect that the reverse process also occurs, and that they very quickly adapt to lots of light.
ZUMTHOR: You always have to get people in the right state of mind. They have to calm down a bit, they have to develop new ways of seeing, they have to be re-tuned. It’s a great thing if you can set that in motion. I do that with most of my buildings. I try to encourage attention and attentiveness. To make people attentive, so they don’t just blunder in.