words Beatrice Galilee
Six o’clock on a misty Wednesday morning in a silent field in southern Germany and we should be alone with Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus chapel. But there’s another photographer spoiling the view and he’s been here since dawn. Such is the anticipation surrounding this building, a humble chapel commissioned by the owners of the nearby farm – husband and wife Hermann-Josef and Trudel Scheidtweiler – that photographers, journalists and architectural pilgrims have been arriving daily in this small town in the Eifel region since its inauguration last week.
There is little sense from afar of what might be inside this windowless, sandy-coloured concrete tower. A single blackened room tells the story of an unusual act of form-making. It was cast in concrete around a cluster of 120 tree trunks, cut from a local forest, which were then slowly smoked away. The meticulous arrangement of the trees into a tear or leaf shape created the oculus that provides the only light for the small dark space. The chapel was built to honour Nicholas von Flüe, the patron saint of Switzerland also known as Bruder Klaus, and contains his statue along with a single bench and some candles.
We arrived at the Scheidtweilers’ farm late on Tuesday night to pick up the key to the chapel – they plan to keep it at the house for passers-by but I sense they will change their plan soon. Or get a very big dog. They were warm and polite, but visibly exasperated. People had been ringing their doorbell non-stop for the past two weeks. “We wanted a chapel. We didn’t want a famous piece of architecture,” says Trudel. “We didn’t know anything about the media showing up.” Her husband explains that she’d cleaned the door to the chapel three times that week so it would be nice for the photographers. One might wonder what they were expecting inviting Pritzker Prize-winning architect and notorious perfectionist Peter Zumthor, whose Thermal Baths in Vals turned the Swiss town into an architectural destination, to design their chapel.
“It was just chance,” says Hermann-Josef, who ten years ago decided with his wife that they should build a chapel in thanks for “a good and happy life”. He wrote Zumthor a letter after seeing that the Swiss architect was going to be in nearby Cologne after winning the competition for the Diocesan Museum. “It happened that the saint was also the favourite of Mr Zumthor’s mother. He came to visit us and we got on very well,” he says. “We went to look at a lot of his buildings and his chapels and we understood that he was the best person for us. And so it began.” He didn’t mention that Zumthor donated his services free of charge as a gift for his mother.
No wonder this story has attracted so much attention. With the ceremonious burning of the wood, the fervent commitment of the patrons and the chapel’s monolithic quality (with only the barest religious symbolism), it could be the remnants of a pagan ritual. The more we hear about the space, the more anxious we are to visit.
We park the car in a small lay-by and walk towards the building. As our photographer exchanges pleasantries with his early-bird rival (“A friendly chap, but seriously into Zumthor,” he later reports), I head up the stone path lined by a rickety barbed-wire fence to the highest point of the Scheidtweilers’ farm. The approach to the building is from the side, but, as Hermann-Josef tells us, many people have been driving right up to the chapel, ploughing over his fields. He shakes his head as he looks at the tyre tracks – “I don’t understand it.”
The six 12m-high walls of pale concrete, forming an irregular pentagon, are serious, circumspect and unwieldy. Each 50cm layer of concrete, made up of local sand and gravel, was piled and pressed by local farmers, one layer per month for two years, making up 24 layers. Each layer represents an hour of the day, encompassing the idea of a day’s work. The slightly uneven levels, varying colours and textures betray a sense of human endeavour in this otherwise impenetrable facade.
We open the intimidating three-metre-high door and enter a dark, corridor-like space. A strong smell of burnt wood remains from the construction process. The walls lean in and any memory of daylight has vanished as the door closes behind us. It feels like we’ve been plunged underground until after a few more paces a sharp gasp of light from the oculus casts shadows across the imprints of the trees – reminiscent of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture – in a spectrum of browns, blacks and unexpected hues.
Three-hundred-and-fifty small holes, around five centimetres in diameter and punctured by a neighbour’s beer pipe, penetrate right through the building. Every one of these holes, where the smoke escaped during the burning process, has now been filled with a small, shining glass ball giving the impression of a constellation of stars in this increasingly unworldly space. Despite its size, barely three paces across, there is no notion of claustrophobia. The light from above is so intense that it’s impossible to spend more than a few minutes without following the slim flutes of the charred concrete walls up to the heavens.
At first the space wasn’t quite black enough for Zumthor. “We smoked the wood for seven days,” says Hermann-Josef, “then Mr Zumthor inspected it and it wasn’t the right colour. We had to cover up every hole in the building and set another fire for seven days.” The floor isn’t quite right yet either, admits the farmer. The idea is for the rainwater falling through the oculus to collect in a small pool within the chapel but at the moment the lead floor is not thick enough and the water is seeping through, absorbing the red-brown of the clay beneath.
In his book Thinking Architecture, Zumthor ponders the idea of beauty and form – the experience of shapes, textures and smells more than the solid physicality of a building. The Bruder Klaus chapel, with the light, wind and smells permeating its textured walls, is like a distillation of this philosophy. You wouldn’t want more than four people in here. It’s an intense space and the result of serious thought – Zumthor spent seven years refining the project. He often talks about the importance of art and music in relation to architecture and it strikes me that the space might best be translated through a John Cage score – its density and richness, with the rhythms of its walls and rough floor of poured molten lead.
By 11am visitors are coming thick and fast. Ramblers have detoured from their usual walks to incorporate the chapel and local people are bringing friends. Some hunters arrive and park their van – their opinions vary from reverence to disgust. One man doesn’t believe it fits in with the local landscape and looks anxiously, the other glows with pride as it is explained to me that he was one of those that helped pile the concrete and form the layers. Hermann-Josef arrives around noon to restock a stack of cards – with a poem on one side and text about the chapel on the other – putting them into one side of the small silver collection box. By now the sunlight is streaming in and it is almost unrecognisable from its dark, crypt-like state at 6am. He takes a seat on the little bench beside me, clasping his hands and following the photographer’s line of site up to the oculus. “For me, it’s a place to pray. A quiet place to find a way to God.”
One of the most pertinent analogies between architecture and phenomenology, the philosophy that favours touch, smells, materials and sounds and is often associated with Zumthor’s work, is the relationship to the womb. It is difficult not to associate this dark space with a somewhat cervical opening, with notions of birth and the fundamentals of life. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Bruder Klaus spent 20 years living in a cave.
This relationship between the building, the myth and a search for a higher plane serves to provide visitors to the chapel with the kind of silent, spirit-stirring experience of architecture that doesn’t get discussed in the pages of agazines or come across in interviews – the kind of experience that is the main currency of Zumthor’s work. Initially the Scheidtweilers wanted a small, traditional chapel, explains Hermann-Josef, “but it soon became something more special.” He looks up with a mixture of pride and a slight bashfulness at Zumthor’s oculus and down again at his clasped hands. “We hadn’t imagined how special.”