Monday, June 21, 2010

Going to the chapel

Vals is not the sort of place you drop in on for a quick morning tea. For a start it is about half-way between Zurich and Milan and then there is the long winding road that takes you high up into the Swiss Alps. But Vals is also the village where Swiss architect Peter Zumthor built one of his greatest works, a thermal spa. This extraordinary complex is well documented online (you can see it along with the Zumthor designed hotel rooms here). About an hour away from Vals and up another winding alpine road is Zumthor’s Kapelle Sogn Benedetg in Sumvitg. If we had wondered why it was that Zumthor designed a small chapel deep in the middle of the Alps, it was made clear on that drive. This is a region remarkably rich in churches and chapels, some majestic, some modest and some only big enough for a small band of worshippers. Walking up the uneven path to Zumthor’s chapel the building looked for all the world as though it were covered with glossy brown feathers. The feathers turned out to be small wooden shingles more like the roughly dressed flax used in Maori pake (rain cape). Given the way both chapels and cloaks protect and decorate the connection felt apt. As with every Zumthor building we have seen, Kapelle Sogn Benedetg is a perfect combination of a memorable location with arresting materials and fearless metaphor. In this early building Zumthor made direct reference to local rock formations and Alpine spectacle as well as the distinctive wooden and stone farm architecture of the region. Zumthor won architecture’s top award The Pritzker Architecture Prize last year for his work to date. We’d have given it to him for Kapelle Sogn Benedetg alone.

Images: Top, the chapel and wall shingles. Bottom exterior and interior of chapel. You can see a YouTube walk through here