June 30, 2007

Chur (Switzerland)

Peter Zumthor is arguably one of the most respected and talented Swiss architects. His works speak for themselves, especially in terms of detail and craftsmanship. He carefully chooses materials and expresses them in an honest form. We visited his hometown of Chur to see a handful of his projects.

The first stop was the Roman Excavations, a carefully enclosed open-air archaeological site, surrounded by a screen of thin wood fixed louvers. A steel box with an inset panel of dark glass intersects the street-side facades of the main rectangular volumes, allowing a view from the outside into the ruins. (A light could be activated from the exterior for better and night viewing.) We obtained a key for access to the interior from the visitor information center at the train station. The transition from the exterior to the interior is carefully thought out. You enter from a portal that cantilevers from one end of the complex that starts as blackened steel and transitions through an accordion-like portion lined with black felt to a steel door. After entering the interior, it becomes clear that the space and form of the building are clearly informed and shaped by the existing ruins. A thin-member galvanized steel bridge bisects the rooms at the same floor line as the previous roman house stood. On either side of the bridge were deep light wells in square form made with thin gauge steel, bringing down deep pools of natural light onto the gravel floor of the ruins. At the center of the bridge in each room a folded metal stair descended to the ruins below touching lightly (floating just above the ground). A series of fixtures housing artifacts and a row of benches behind a steel book with interpretive panels are also carefully detailed. All wood structural frames utilize hidden kerf joints and specific nailing patterns. Very much art of the craft.

In the center of the city we visited the Bunder Kunstmusuem, which was having an opening of
H.R. Giger gallery exhibit. Chur is actually the birthplace of H.R. Giger, the artist behind Necronomicon and other-worldly creations like Alien (from the film). Many full-sized canvases of his original works were on display, dark, serpentine, reptilian, anatomical visions from worlds beyond. His delicate attention to detail and interaction of organic with mechanical forms demonstrates an incredible imagination. Strong emotional messages and perspectives were projected through his works in many forms of media (airbrushed canvases, sculpture, pencil drawing, ink, furniture, masks, etc.)

The museum itself was a century old, with renovations by Zumthor. Most interesting was a bridge connecting from one gallery to another, with a sloped floor plane and flat roof. Windows were meticulously detailed, almost too much so.

Later in the afternoon we visited a Home for Senior Citizens designed by Peter Zumthor. A long slab contains two rows of apartment housing that looked like it could be a series of lofts. The exterior was a combination of concrete, tufa and glass, with larch wood used for window frames and the guardrails.

In the outskirts of Chur we drove through a very small town filled with old buildings and narrow streets. We were navigating to a house project that seemed to be an incorrect address, when a simple, gabled-roof form wood house caught our eyes. We got out of the car for a closer look and realized it was Studio Zumthor, marked by the conspicuous metal plaque next to the door. We quietly walked around, imagining what it might be like working on projects in this place.

All seemed picturesque... with the exception of our hostel. On the surface, JBN (Just Be Nice) was slick and new, with full-size photographs enlarged on the walls, and an aesthetic similar to the Ace hotels in Seattle and Portland. The only catch was that the hostel sits on top of the owner's club. Awful, throbbing disco, bad techno, and loud michael jackson riffs literally shook our room until 4am each night. It was impossible to sleep. Earplugs and alcohol did little to dampen the effects.

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