Monday, July 27, 2009

Holy Zumthor Battle Royal

What? Exactly.

I like the title because it is attention grabbing. But what exactly am I talking about? Well, I just crossed the border from Switzerland to its northern neighbor Germany a few days ago and have been doing some Peter Zumthor pilgrimages. On the list of projects to see [among others] were Zumthor's St. Benedict Chapel [San Benedetg] and Brother Klaus Chapel [Bruder Klaus]. The former in Sumvitg, Switzerland and the latter near the small small town of Wachendorf, Germany. Seeing both of the amazing pieces of architecture in such a short time apart got me thinking of what they had in common, and understandably thought they warranted a head to head contest of spatial might to see which would emerge the victor. Though, the architectural contest is more similar to the "dream league" of youth soccer in North Carolina. One where there are no victors and losers, and everyone gets orange slices afterwards.

Before we ring the bell, I first feel morally obligated to tell people how to reach the Brother Klaus Chapel, because it is not exactly easy through public transportation. Especially if you have such a loathing of posted signage and think you can find a quicker way by cutting through farmland [I can blame George Medlin for handing that trait down...]. But quickly, here are directions to the Chapel so others do not get into a situation where they are wandering down a busy highway with no shoulder.

From Cologne, Germany, take a train to Satzvey, one stop before Mechernich. There aren't many buses running, and especially on a Sunday so I recommend walking the 4km to the town of Wachendorf from the station. You're going to be heading roughly east by southeast the whole way if that helps. First thing is go south from the station and cross over the train tracks. Keep walking on that road and you'll get to a t-intersection. Whatever you do, don't turn right. That will put you on the highway and people will honk at you when coming around blind corners. Instead follow the sign to Wachendorf and take the left road. Walking along the bike road you should pass under a bridge in a few minutes, if you do you're on the right track. After you go under the bridge take a right onto Veyerstrausse. After walking on that road for about 10 minutes you should see yourself approaching a small town named Lessenich. Bear right once you get into town and look for signs to Wachendorf on your left. The aptly named street will be titled "Wachendorferstrausse" and will later turn into Iversheimerstrausse. After 15 minutes or so you should see the parking lot on the right hand side for "Bruder Klaus Kapelle" and the road Ribdorfer Weg. From the parking lot its another fifteen minute walk down the gravel road.

You're welcome.

Back to the real reason we're all here. Small Zumthor Chapels. I haven't read any texts comparing the two yet so I figured I would foster some of my own thoughts to fill the void. Both buildings are by the same architect, similar both in small size and remoteness of location. Both have a single entry with light coming in from above and religious program. Both have construction methods expressed as the act of making which shapes the design. With all this in common, what could be different? We'll start with site...

St. Benedict's is nestled along the mountainside, lush grasslands provide space for cattle to graze and flies to lazily drone around. Greens and browns dot the landscape, and hiking paths trace through the woods down the steeply sloping site. In contrast to the animals grazing are the surroundings of the Klaus Chapel. Golden in hue, fields of wheat and gentle flatland stretch out as far as you can see. Even from a distance the building rises above the low farmland like a concrete stump that has been allowed to reside on the owner's land for some time.

Getting up to the buildings beholds something different. You come from below the wooden chapel and its presence is hidden many times by the buildings sitting close beside it. Its concrete step-brother is in the middle of a flat farmland, and on the 15 minute walk to get there it is always is the foreground of your vision, even though the path turns and twists. Where San Benedict shows you the entry upon coming in contact with it, Klaus sits blank and stonewalled in expression, and only upon walking around do you find out how to get into the up-till-then quiet exterior.

Both doors are made of metal. Though the entry is coated in wood in the case of San Beneditg, hiding its true nature under slats of pine. Klaus on the other hand, makes no question of what its portal is constructed of. It appears as a solid piece of metal and its weight to open it proves its nature. The entry of the wooden chapel pulls itself out of the building and the other is recessed flush with the face of the concrete.

At Saint Benedict's, you are required to ascend a small staircase to elevate you to the floor height of the interior. The concrete staircase does not actually touch the building, but is held off by a small gap that separates it from the wood. In the case of Klaus, the lead floor meets a crushed stone entry path that is barely raised from its surrounding grass and gravel. The height difference and the actual meeting of materials is different and exaggerated in both accounts.

St. Benedict's takes the colors of the forest to heart, both philosophically and literally resembling the outer layer of bark on a tree. Rough and shaggy, the outside of the chapel is covered with weathered wooden shingles that show the passage of time and seasons. The exterior of the chapel devoted to Brother Klaus by contrast is smooth to the touch and eyes. Monolithic in appearance, the only secret it reveals about it's inside are the series of holes left by the concrete formwork used in construction. Benches on the outside allow you to sit after the short pilgrimage walk.

The inside of the chapels inverses itself in each individual case. The chapel from Sumtvig casts away its coarse exterior to take on the refined rectilinear form of smooth wooden pews and columns. The furniture is smooth to the touch and there is plenty of room to sit down and direct your attention forward at a horizontal angle to the alter. The craggy interior of Klaus is again a direct contrast to its smooth outer face. The process of construction for the inside was to stack trees up together in a tent like fashion and then burn them out, leaving a dark blackened surface that is jagged and eerily natural to the touch. There is only room for two grown people to sit down on the inside, and your views are directed upwards towards the religious fixture and light streaming in from above.

One from above, one from the side. The light that meets the warm wooden exterior of St. Benedict's illuminates the interior, flooding the seats and floors with rays of sunshine. Light bounces around easily due to the bright coloring of the material and paint. Dark and brooding, the majority of light comes into Klaus from the top, with small amounts radiating from the glass spheres put in place of the holes to the outside. The shadows that fall tend to exaggerate the rough interior and draw attention to its ribs.

There is plenty more to talk about in the case of these two long separated brothers of sorts. I wish they could meet one day and listen to the conversation they would have between the two of them. Do you think they would get along? Would one like Death Metal while the other is a Beatle's fan? Personally I think they are like identical twins separated at birth, raised in different houses, but with the same core of being.

Time to sign out now though, mosquitoes are eating me alive and look to be calling more of their friends over to an easy meal.


Mark said...

Really a good article and so nicely posted the comments and a valuable information provided thanks for sharing the article...........

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Anonymous said...

best article on architecture i've read. keen observations. zumthor is on anther plane