Excerpts from my diary as I ventured into Swiss and German terrain in search of the work of the master, Peter Zumthor.
“We were planning on visiting K but I was not expecting to see it tonight. I was just looking for cigarettes”
Koln, Germany | 22.12.2014
It is a rare pleasure to stumble upon a great building. Normally when touring there is an agenda, a map, a backpack, a timeline. Sometimes it is different. Those are nice moments; when a place very kindly lets you in and reveals a part as if you belonged there. We were planning on visiting K but I was not expecting to see it tonight. I was just looking for cigarettes.
Sitting here, looking at it, really is a gift. I think I’m the only person on the street. The building is dark and solid. The night agrees with it – shadowy veils and opacity add some mystery. You are free to imagine all manner of mysteries and surprises concealed within. There are no lights on. It isn’t shouting for attention. This is a welcome a change from buildings that seem to be ridden with LEDs. It’s like a plague, spreading from building to building, finding every nook and cranny to infest. The rebirth has been facilitated gently. And it carries itself in this gentle dignified manner.
Writing is becoming difficult. My hands are starting to ache from the cold. I should get back to the Hotel. V is probably wondering what is taking me so long. And if I sit here any longer a passer-by might get the impression that I am as weird as actually am.
“The snow didn’t help the travel but did make for a memorable setting…”
Mechernich, Germany | 26.12.2104
Getting to BK is when it starts feeling like a pilgrimage. It’s difficult to get there; two trains and a taxi to a small sign and path into the landscape. The snow didn’t help the travel but did make for a memorable setting. It is in the middle of nowhere.
While we wait for the taxi to return we move around to stay warm. Naturally a snowman is built. It’s almost embarrassingly cliché. Almost, because it’s actually amazing fun. But only to people from the Southern Hemisphere. Snow is still novel to the people of the south. Two of us at least. As V finds eyes for the monster, a man and his dog approach. Communication is difficult. My German is terrible and I suspect he doesn’t speak English. He looks like he has lived here long and that he knows these hills well. The dog loves the snowman and inspects it carefully. V instigates a game of snowball fetch. It ends up being slightly one sided. More fetching than bringing back. It’s not long before the snowman is included in the game.
They don’t stay long, probably feeling the cold as much as we do. With a smile and a nod they walk off. We destroy the collapsing snow figure, stare at the mound of disturbed snow for a moment and then make our way back to the main road.
The concrete monolith silently watches over the landscape.
“I don’t quite understand why R was disappointed by this place. Perhaps he built it up too much in his mind…”
Vals, Switzerland | 29.12.2014
I don’t quite understand why R was disappointed by this place. Perhaps he built it up too much in his mind or perhaps he didn’t spend enough time here. This is definitely a place that needs to be appreciated slowly. You can’t just pop in for an afternoon and expect to be blown away. When booking to stay there is a mandatory minimum of two nights. You must do it slowly. You must let it do its thing at its own pace. Glacially slow if need be. (This is a bodily experience and the body needs time to adjust).
And for that matter it starts far before you actually arrive. It is about the slow train through frozen woods, between black mountains dusted in white, past surreal aquamarine rivers. When you arrive it is the chauffeured drive on warm leather seats from the station to the hotel, the uncharacteristically heavy room key and keychain, the pristine white dressing gown and slippers (which may or may not find their way into my suitcase). And then the Red Restaurant and Blue Bar.
The Therme was open for night time silent bathing tonight. An indulgence reserved for guests only. The elevator takes you down to the basement level. The underground passage to the baths is removed from the circulation of the building, so that you can move freely in gown and slippers to the dim entrance. Z really does praise shadows. The order of the various bathing rooms is unscripted. At night it is almost empty. One can wander from cavern to cavern in near isolation treating the senses to heat, cold, scent, texture, steam, gentle showers or high pressure jets. Your feet touch stone and your hands touch brass. The light is soft and incandescent. Views outwards adds a dualistic dimension as your eyes touch frozen mountains while your skin is warmed by the water from those mountains. The exterior pool is linked to the interior by a submerged passage that keeps the cold comfortable. Floating outside, the dark sky is framed by the valley. Snowflakes hurry earthwards stubbornly trying to reach the warm water but disappearing in the cloud of mist blanketing it. Time seems to dilate.
Somewhere in the depths a soft and rich metal bell tolls once. At first it seems like a figment of the imagination. A few minutes later it gently sounds again. Without explanation it is a reminder to return to time. It gently rings again. You presence is requested back to the hotel. There are no glaring flood lights to jar you back or nasal voice over a P.A. telling you that the pool is closing and that you shouldn’t forget your key. Just a bell – a perfectly cultish detail for such a hedonistic place.