A Pilgrimage to Zumthor's Chapel

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October 5, 2010

I recently made a Peter Zumthor pilgrimage to Switzerland, where many of his seminal works sit within a 40 mile radius one another in the northeastern part of the country. An architectural journey surely not for the faint of heart, it took a day's harrowing drive through the northern Alps with steep cliffs and crazy European drivers, but in the end, it was well worth it.

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  My first stop was Zumthor's celebrated St. Benedict Chapel in the snug village of Sumvitg. Designed in 1988, this serene, mysterious structure was built before Zumthor was an international household name.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    My first stop was Zumthor's celebrated St. Benedict Chapel in the snug village of Sumvitg. Designed in 1988, this serene, mysterious structure was built before Zumthor was an international household name.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  Unassuming, yet exceedingly elegant, the chapel is very petite next to the neighboring houses (and the Alps in the background), and blends in well with its environment.   Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    Unassuming, yet exceedingly elegant, the chapel is very petite next to the neighboring houses (and the Alps in the background), and blends in well with its environment. 

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  The color gradient in the cladding is quite beautiful - much of the bottom has lost a good portion of its original wood hues, due to weathering and the harsh climate of Switzerland.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    The color gradient in the cladding is quite beautiful - much of the bottom has lost a good portion of its original wood hues, due to weathering and the harsh climate of Switzerland.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  The door was an extremely interesting element, from the long vertical slats to the metal door handle that felt just right for the silent procession into the heart of the building.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    The door was an extremely interesting element, from the long vertical slats to the metal door handle that felt just right for the silent procession into the heart of the building.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  Its unconventional fish-like shape and signature wooden ceiling backbone with fins create a symmetrical, anchoring feeling while sitting in the pews.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    Its unconventional fish-like shape and signature wooden ceiling backbone with fins create a symmetrical, anchoring feeling while sitting in the pews.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  Here is the perspective from behind the altar. The high windows let in an ethereal sense of daylighting without the distraction of direct outside views.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    Here is the perspective from behind the altar. The high windows let in an ethereal sense of daylighting without the distraction of direct outside views.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  Before Zumthor was an architect, he was a carpenter, and his father was actually a cabinet maker. His attention to woodworking detail - simple, minimal, light - is evident in all of the construction connections in the chapel.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    Before Zumthor was an architect, he was a carpenter, and his father was actually a cabinet maker. His attention to woodworking detail - simple, minimal, light - is evident in all of the construction connections in the chapel.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  A view of the surrounding mountains, after a pebbly uphill path to the chapel.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    A view of the surrounding mountains, after a pebbly uphill path to the chapel.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  "In 1984 an avalanche destroyed the baroque chapel in front of the village of Sogn Benedetg (St. Benedict). A recently built parking lot had acted like a ramp pushing the snow from the avalanche up against the chapel. The new site on the original path to the Alp above the small village is protected from avalanches by a forest. The new wooden chapel, faced with larch wood shingles, was inaugurated in 1988. The village authorities sent us the building permit with the comment senza perschuasiun (without conviction). Yet the abbot and monks of the Disentis Monastery and the then village priest Bearth wanted to build something new and contemporary for future generations."
--Peter Zumthor, 2009 Pritzker Prize Laureate  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    "In 1984 an avalanche destroyed the baroque chapel in front of the village of Sogn Benedetg (St. Benedict). A recently built parking lot had acted like a ramp pushing the snow from the avalanche up against the chapel. The new site on the original path to the Alp above the small village is protected from avalanches by a forest. The new wooden chapel, faced with larch wood shingles, was inaugurated in 1988. The village authorities sent us the building permit with the comment senza perschuasiun (without conviction). Yet the abbot and monks of the Disentis Monastery and the then village priest Bearth wanted to build something new and contemporary for future generations." --Peter Zumthor, 2009 Pritzker Prize Laureate

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  The chapel is continually open, and is accessible by both public transport and car. (These are the directions that I found most helpful.) I would heavily recommend either taking the train or plane to Zurich, then renting a car to drive the 3.5 hours to Sumvitg. I was here in mid-September, so the leaves were starting to change - but I imagine it would be even more magical in the middle of a snow-blanketed winter.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    The chapel is continually open, and is accessible by both public transport and car. (These are the directions that I found most helpful.) I would heavily recommend either taking the train or plane to Zurich, then renting a car to drive the 3.5 hours to Sumvitg. I was here in mid-September, so the leaves were starting to change - but I imagine it would be even more magical in the middle of a snow-blanketed winter.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  For an experiential visit (from the comfort of your chair), you can also watch this video of the journey up to and inside the chapel.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    For an experiential visit (from the comfort of your chair), you can also watch this video of the journey up to and inside the chapel.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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