Achieving the Metaphysics of Architecture: The Architecture of Peter Zumthor

Luis Diego Quiros, David Burns, Ethan Repp


I felt something in that building that was not usual in my everyday experience of places, it was different and fulfilling says David about his experience of a building designed by Swedish architect Peter Zumthor. 1

The first thing you have to believe to understand this essay is that architecture is part physical and part metaphysical.

Architecture is made of physical materials, but it also produces experiences that go beyond the tangible world.

This is what a group of students from Kansas State University called The Metaphysics of Architecture during a course entitled with the same name during the Spring Semester 2001.

For their final paper they were asked to choose an architect whose projects they thought achieved this intangible component of architecture.

The objective of this essay is to show how Peter Zumthor consciously accomplishes this through his architecture. It will be demonstrated how he produces, in the users of his buildings, a basic, but strong, sensory experience through the use of nature, materials and light. And it is through this sensory experience that the metaphysics of architecture are reached in his designs.

The Metaphysics of Architecture

I felt different, weird... it is not a common building refers David, an architecture student, from the Swiss Pavilion designed by Peter Zumthor for the Expo 2000 in Hanover.

What David felt was something caused by being inside a building. His experience of space made his mind and body to feel different from how he usually feels.

The term metaphysics means beyond the physical nature. Many parts of the human existence can be considered to be metaphysical: thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, ideas or any other thing that goes beyond the physical word we live in. Humans have dealt with these intangible elements of life since the beginnings of consciousness.

Many philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, were concerned with the metaphysical because it is a fundamental part of human beings and their reality. And it is this reality, or physical world, that interests architects. After all, it is what they work with. The physical world, and architecture as a part of it, provokes metaphysical reactions in the individual -such as feelings, memories and thinking. Thus, building becomes a very important matter in our existence and for our experience of the world.

Heidegger wrote that to be a human being means to be on the Earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. Then he adds to the explanation of the word bauen (building): But if we listen to what language says in the word bauen we hear three things: 1. Building is really dwelling, 2. Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the Earth, and 3. Building as dwelling unfolds into the building that cultivates growing things and the building that erects buildings.2

Thus, building is critical for human existence. Since the destiny of humanity is to dwell on the Earth, and since the way we interact with the planet is by constructing, any structure we erect is an expression of dwelling.

Related to building as an expression, is the understanding of the built object. Then, how we express the way we dwell through a constructed entity -or built environment in this particular case- becomes part of the job of the designer. What the architect is able to achieve in his projects is what others will perceive.

The architecture of Peter Zumthor is the object of this study. His thoughts and ideas are expressed in his buildings. They produce a metaphysical experience. By designing spaces that enhance the natural and the real world, Zumthor makes the users participate in a relation with the environment. He produces an effect in the person; he makes them wonder about the most basic components of life. He refers to architecture:

Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life, which goes on, in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep. 3

There is poetry behind these words. They are not just words that describe features of a particular edifice, but that describe a sensitivity for what lies beneath the real world. When architecture becomes just an envelope and lets all the other components of human existence become more important, the metaphysical appears. Architecture is no longer a building; it is now the container of poetry, thoughts and dreams. Peter Zumthor achieves this in his designs, and what follows is how he does it.

David describes his experience as he walked in one of the buildings designed by Zumthor:

It was like entering a very different place. As soon as you step in, you can smell the wood, hear the music, see the different tonalities of light... it was amazing.

It is through the interaction between the human body-mind and the physical elements of a building that metaphysical experience is produced. Thus, what the designer does is to manipulate any effect that an intended object has on humans. In the case of the built environment it has been the architect who has change that effect.

The intention of the creator becomes very important since it is his idea that will guide the design of the future space to be experienced by others. In this sense, and in order to achieve reactions that go beyond the physical, Zumthor proposes:

I thus appeal for a kind of architecture of common sense based on fundamentals that we still know, understand and feel. I carefully observe the concrete appearance of the world, and in my buildings I try to enhance what seems valuable, to correct what is disturbing, and to create anew what we feel is missing. 3

It is reality then, what is important in Zumthor's architecture. He tries to give back the importance to the concrete appearance of the world. In other words to enhance the natural and the real. By doing this he intends to cause an effect on people. He explains it and compares this effect with what a work of art may also produce:

If a work of architecture consists of forms and contents which combine to create a strong fundamental mood that is powerful enough to affect us, it may possess the qualities of a work of art. This art has, however nothing to do with interesting configurations or originality. It is concerned with insights and understandings, and above all with truth. 5

It is the actual way in which he enhances the natural world that this essay explores; how he manipulates the components of his buildings in order to affect the human experience. In Zumthor's architecture there are six main elements that interact with each other to produce a complete metaphysical experience: the concept of archetype, nature, materials, light, the human body and the person's memory.


It was the permeability of the screens. Not just in terms of light, but how they allowed the smells, sounds and views to permeate through. I was in contact with so many things at the same time that it made me wonder. David answered when asked what was the thing that impressed him most of the pavilion.

David was in contact with things that were usual to him -wood, light, views of natural settings- but at that moment, those same things made him wonder . He explains:

Wood, for example, in a normal building, looses its smell. In this particular place it creates an envelope which the physical building fits into... it was like being in contact with the trees themselves

One of the most important concepts Carl Jung developed was that of the archetypes. He defines them as the tendency to form a representation of a motif (or what Freud called archaic remnants -mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual's own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.) These representations can vary a great deal in detail without loosing their basic pattern. This explains why some objects or concepts have been repeated through history as meaningful things or as objects of importance for the person himself or a culture. Examples of this are the stone, animal representations and the circle. 6

All these elements are considered archetypes. But how do they relate to architecture? Accordingly to Jung's theory, these basic elements or in other words, the act of making these elements and their meaning conscious, is what brings to the person the feeling of belonging to the world, of being alive. It makes people face the facts of history and existence.

This idea of archetype is present in Zumthor's beliefs:

Nevertheless, I am convinced that real things do exist, however endangered they may be. There are earth and water, the light of the sun, landscapes and vegetation; and there are objects made by man, such as machines, tools or musical instruments, which are what they are, which are not mere vehicles for an artistic message, whose presence is self-evident... They reach beyond signs and symbols, they are open, empty. It is as if we could see something on which we cannot focus our consciousness. Here, in this perceptual vacuum, a memory may surface, a memory which seems to issue from the depths of time. Now, our observation of the object embraces a presentiment of the world in all its wholeness, because there is nothing that cannot be understood. 7

Archetypes that can produce a reaction on any person --such as David- are the elements that Zumthor considers and tries to find with his architecture. Enhancing elements that could be considered archetypes, such as components of nature like mountains and water, is what this architect does through his buildings. The outcome is a very powerful experience of reality and the successive reaction in the person's body and mind.

Nature as a Source for Archetypes:

The smell of the wood, which is a constant in the pavilion, takes you back to the forest. The wood in the building transcends its physicality... you could touch, but I think it had a deeper meaning.

David refers to the natural smell of wood and materials in the project.

Nature can be understood as many things: the Universe, the Earth and everything that it includes. One would think that nature is part of our lives and that it is unavoidable to interact with it in a daily basis. But there is one thing that is separated from this given nature: and that is what humans have produced through their history, including architecture. These products of humanity have reached such a development and have been produced so massively, that humans are no longer in relation to the natural given world. Cities and big metropolis are the places that embody human lives today. Routine life is one of the products of this separation of daily human life and the natural world.

As Mircea Eliade states in his book The Sacred and The Profane, modern man, or non-religious man, as he calls it, is no longer impressed by the heavens (natural world) and rational thought has stripped them of their sacredness. Unfortunately, in his quest to rationalize the world, modern man has closed his mind to the possibility of transcending this profane existence. 8

Peter Zumthor talks about the actual human state in the world and suggests that:

We get used to living with contradictions and there are several reasons for this: traditions crumble, and with them cultural identities. No one seems really to understand and control the dynamics developed by economics and politics. Everything merges into everything else, and mass communication creates an artificial world of signs. Arbitrariness prevails. Postmodern life could be described as a state in which everything beyond our own personal biography seems vague, blurred, and somehow unreal. The world is full of signs and information, which stand for things that no one fully understands because they, too, turn out to be more signs for other things. The real thing remains hidden. No one gets to see it. 9

As a response to this, in Zumthor's designs we find that nature is the source of images and of sensory stimuli. The direct contact between the person and the natural setting is what becomes important. It is what causes the person's reaction. The user is place in a space where he wonders.

In this sense, Zumthor understands architecture in a similar way that Heidegger understood building. For Heidegger, two other elements that are closely related to the physical part of human existence, according to Heidegger, are the process of building and buildings themselves. He explores the process of building and its relation to human dwelling. He talks about the relationship between a bridge and what he calls the fourfold. The fourfold are the basic given components of human's dwelling on the earth, because by dwelling on the earth we dwell under the sky , we remain before divinities and that includes belonging to men's being with one another. 10 Thus, one basic character of dwelling is to preserve this fourfold by building.

He says in his essay Building Dwelling Thinking about the bridge -a built form:

The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream... The waters may wander on quiet and gay, the sky's floods from storm or thaw may shoot past the piers in torrential waves -- the bridge is ready for the sky's weather and its fickle nature... The bridge lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore... Now in a high arch, now in a low, the bridge vaults over glen and stream -- whether mortals keep in mind this vaulting of the bridge's course or forget that they, always themselves on their way to the last bridge, are actually striving to surmount all that is in common and unsound in them in order to bring themselves before the haleness of the divinities... The bridge gathers, as a passage that crosses, before divinities -- whether we explicitly think of, and visibly give thanks for, their presence, as in the figure of the saint of the bridge, or whether that divine presence is obstructed or even pushed wholly aside... The bridge gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals. 11

For Zumthor architecture should express this and he comments that occupying oneself with the inherent laws of concrete things such as mountains, rock, and water in connection with a building assignment offers a chance of apprehending and expressing some of the primal and as it were culturally innocent attributes of these elements, and of developing an architecture that sets out from and returns to real things. 12

There is a close relation between Heidegger's words and Zumthor thoughts. They both relate architecture to the real world. They think building expresses the way we dwell and that the there should be a very close link between both. In this sense architecture becomes an expression of life and of the world itself.

Materials and Light

It was not just the wood, but the floor -a plane hard surface- and the light. The intensity of light changed and was stronger as it moved further into the building. The views produced by this change of intensity guided me through the space. They call your attention as you move.

David expresses about being inside the pavilion.

Matter is part of the real world . Nature is the source for the materials we use to build. But Zumthor makes an important difference since he is dealing with the problematic of architecture and materials.

Zumthor is against a separation between materiality and human reality and life. For him, mass production and scientific-technological advances have contributed to the desacralization of materials. As far from its natural state a material is, the less sacred it is for us. For example, synthetic materials are not related at all with the natural reality. They are a product of years of technical advances and they have contributed to the desacralization of the act of building as a dwelling expression. We don't interact with nature directly anymore. We have manipulated and changed natural matter so much that we build with products that no longer relate us to the Earth -our real world.

Zumthor acknowledges the use of materials in his past experiences and his writings:

To me, there is something revealing about the work of Joseph Beuys and some of the artists of the Arte Povera group. What impresses me is the precise and sensuous way they use materials. It seems anchored in an ancient, elemental knowledge about man's use of materials, and at the same time to expose the very essence of these materials, which is beyond all culturally conveyed meaning.

I try to use materials like this in my work. I believe that they can assume a poetic quality in the context of an architectural object, although only if the architect is able to generate a meaningful situation for them, since materials in themselves are not poetic. 13

But was also the light David includes, there was this glow, this mood caused by light... it was just unreal.

It is important since we are talking about materials, nature and buildings, to talk about one thing that affects all three of them: light. Light is closely related to materials, and we may even recall how Louis Kahn defined materials as spent light . When reflected by materials it makes them visible, makes them have specific colors. It is what penetrates our eyes and makes us perceive the objects. In this way, the relation between light and materials is something very important to consider when designing.

Kahn says about light:

Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet. Silence, the unmeasurable, desire to be, desire to express, the source of new need, meets Light, the measurable, giver of all presence, by will, by law, the measure of things already made, at a threshold which is inspiration, the sanctuary of art, the Treasury of Shadow. 14

In this sense, we could relate Zumthor's work with Kahn's ideas on the importance of light. He treats light with great importance in his projects. He designs the interiors as spaces where light becomes the most important element. All the materials he uses are related to specific tones of light and this how he tries to impress people.

The Human Body

It was strange David says, as I walked in, I felt so many different things at the same time: the smell, the music, the light...

In this event, David sensed the space with his body and then his mind produced all kinds of strange feelings.

We exist on Earth as minds in our bodies. Our body is what produces the interaction between our minds and the real world. This happens through our senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste -though some argue that there are more than these five senses, such as thermal sensitivity.

Feeling the world is the job of our body. Carl Jung expresses this well in his book Man and His Symbols when he is arguing that there are four functional types of feeling that orientate our existence:

These four functional types correspond to the obvious means by which consciousness obtains its orientation to experience: sensation (sense of perception) tells you that something exists; thinking tells you what it is; feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not; and intuition tells you whence it comes and where it is going. 15

For Jung these are all part of the conscious experience and human behavior, and thus they produce a series of reactions in the person's mind and then become important issues in the analysis of dreams. But there is no need to get in the discussion on the human mind and the differences and functions of the conscious and the unconscious.

Zumthor acknowledges this in his works and clearly states that the experience of architecture goes beyond our daily interaction with functional spaces. He says:

To experience architecture in a concrete way means to touch, see, hear and smell it. To discover and consciously work with these qualities. He then adds about his own spatial experience: I like absorbing moods, moving in spatial situations, and I am satisfied when I am able to retain a feeling, a strong general impression from which I can later extract details as from a painting, and when I can wonder what it was triggered the sense of protection, warmth, lightness or spaciousness that has stayed in my memory. When I look back like this it seems impossible to distinguish between architecture and life, between spatial situations and the way I experience them. 16

In his architecture we can find all kinds of sensory stimulus that are meant to trigger feelings and ideas within the person. These incentives are directed to the senses of human body. Framed views of mountains are intended to penetrate the person's mind through sight, thermal comfort is meant to make someone feel good through his skin and smell is used to trigger memories from the past. All these designed moods make the person feel aware of the space. It triggers the aesthetic experience, which is what Zumthor looks for with his architecture:

The strength of a good design lies in ourselves and in our ability to perceive the world with both emotion and reason. A good architecture design is sensuous. A good architecture design is intelligent. 17

He makes the person think. And the word thinking here is not used as well develop thoughts, as the production of theories or discoveries of new scientific data. Thinking here is used as the process by which wonder is produced, by which awareness of life is achieved. Recall what Eliade says about the modern man and about his life: he never wonders any more, he is not religious, he doesn't think about his life and his world. For the non-religious man existence is just the rational movement of the body through space in time, no feelings, no afterlife, nothing. Zumthor apparently refuses this view. He highlights the importance of experiencing, of feeling alive, of thinking why and how do we dwell as humans.


The smell of the wood, which is a constant in the entire building, takes you back to the forest David remembers thinking while he was in the pavilion.

Memory is maybe one of the most important issues in Zumthor's architecture.

The fact is that humans, after the environment stimulates them, produce images, thoughts and feelings in their minds. But how this production of internal reflection affects the person is related to his or her previous experiences. It is just the same way as how the architect's previous experiences affect his designs. Zumthor explains:

When I think about architecture, images come to my mind. Many of these images are connected to my training and work as an architect. They contain the professional knowledge about architecture that I have gathered over the years. Some of the other images have to do with my childhood. There was a time when I experience architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon.

I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt's garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house... 18

Memory is very powerful. Our personality is shaped by past events and our future is deeply affected by our past experiences. The way we think is based on past mistakes or on knowledge acquired years ago. Thus, memory in architecture experience plays a very important role: relating the present stimuli produced by the environment to a past experience so that a feeling or a thought is produced in the person's mind.

Zumthor tries to relate the person to past joyful experiences -even archaic experiences when he uses archetypes. By triggering the person's memories he makes sure the actual experience of the building will also be related to the feeling of joy and of being alive.


The Experience of Existence

This essay demonstrates how Peter Zumthor uses the most basic elements found in the real world, such as materials, nature and light, to try and make people aware of their existence through memories, feelings and thinking. In other words, what he builds is architecture that allows the experience of basic components of human existence. And it is through this relation between the person and the world that the metaphysics of architecture are achieved in his designs. All of those reactions were probed by David's responses to one of his buildings, The Swiss Box. Zumthor caused this experience, and that is what he wanted: to make the user feel architecture beyond the physical plane, to achieve the metaphysics in architecture.


  1. David is a current fifth year student at Kansas State University and visited the Swiss Pavilion in the year 2000.
  2. Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language and Thought New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
  3. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  4. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  5. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  6. Jung, Carl: Man And His Symbols, Dell: New York, 1964.
  7. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  8. Eliade, Mircea: The Sacred and the Profane: The nature of religion Florida: Harcourt, 1957
  9. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  10. Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language and Thought New York: Harper and Row, 1975
  11. Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language and Thought New York: Harper and Row, 1975
  12. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  13. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  14. Lobell, John: Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn. Boston: Shambhala, 2000
  15. Jung, Carl: Man And His Symbols, Dell: New York, 1964.
  16. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  17. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999
  18. Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999


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