Peter Zumthor is No Longer A Ghost

Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor

Traveling from Vienna to Zurich was one of many photographic journeys that felt like an immersive journey into a world of architecture. The slow pastoral excursion through varied landscapes: hillsides and mountainous ascents and descents was exhilarating. With options of “Planes,Trains and Automobiles” at my disposal, the pacing I experienced on a train seemingly slowed the the earth’s rotation. My mind felt like the god Mercury racing up the sheer north face of the Eiger. Every image, every thought came hurtling through my brain like asteroids on steroids. Faster, faster and faster the world blurred before my eyes. But I was able to grab hold of the slowed earth rotation and relished my recent days making portraits with the famed architects Wolf Prix on one day and Hans Hollein on another. The generous time they shared with me enabled me to bring a fresh perspective on their architecture and architecture in general. I was given a green light to interpret as I saw fit.

Initially I had entered Vienna with Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” and Harry Lime as my visual template. When I travel I always use a photography navigational system to guide me through the streets and vistas. It allows me to view through a separate lens until I discover my own. Using Graham Greene to help me see Vienna was amazing. I followed the dark streets and shadows softened by fog. I saw “The Third Man” everywhere. My experience with the two fab architects enabled me to come alive. I was able to see what they felt. Graham Greene, Wolf Prix, Hans Hollein at once was plenty of ammunition to awaken me to what Vienna offers. Eventually I made my own Vienna. Looking back, I love what I was able to conjure with my camera.

Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor

Swiftly the Viennese immersion compelled me to realize that one experience does not make a life. It only sharpens your insights and prepares you for tomorrow.

The train was careening past Innsbruck and more Austrian charm. I was under a spell.

With all the bucolic wonderland before me, I was struggling with the vile creature in my intestines I met in the American Bar in Vienna. Bent over like “The” Hunchback... I arrived in Zurich.

I had many difficult moments to find the strength to move forward. Initially my mind was lost in another type of search. Tom Stoppard had me guessing that “Travesties” was everywhere. As in my Viennese apparitions, I was hoping for Lenin and Joyce at every turn, but I was too sick to find them. Zurich could have been a fantastic treasure hunt for my camera. 

Timing and Health prevailed. I had an appointment with a ghost. I was back on the train from Zurich to Haldenstein to meet the man who was famous for his creations for a Zen moment. At this moment, the architect Peter Zumthor was more mythical than real to the general public. There was always a prevailing whisper swirling about. He had designed fabulous projects. The whispers sang, “Did you see? Have you heard? Do you know?”. I understood that if I was to make a success of this mission I had to will myself into better health. My health was not ready for my will.

I traveled by train so I could spend some morning time considering what my camera may do with the ghost. I needed to choreograph the possibilities. Pre-visualizing truly gives a photographer a leg up when visiting new environments.

I arrived in Haldenstein  looking like I had a conversation with death. I was not a pretty picture.

Climbing the hills via taxi to my destination made me think about what I understood to be the extreme privacy for the  mysterious figure. I arrived at his studio. I entered with my equipment. Twenty people looked at me as if an intruder had interrupted their way of life. I explained my purpose. I had a date to photograph Zumthor.

Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor

The assistant scurried out and came back with, “Mr Zumthor has no recollection of this appointment”. I stammered loudly, “I am not leaving. I have traveled thousands of miles for this, and I have an appointment”.

My whole body was struck with pain from whatever befell me in Vienna. The master entered the room.

He whispers as if words from an Ewok, “I have decided against having my portrait photographed”. There is no such thing as a stare beyond incredulous. I froze for a few ticks. I then bellowed, “not only have I traveled thousands of miles just for you (I lied a bit), and I saw that you posed for that cheesy picture in Vanity Fair!” Our eyes met. He mannered an apology. “My PR people made me do it.”

With that, he asked me to meet him outside. He was heading back up the hill from his studio, presumably to his home (hopefully not to call the police). He said he would return momentarily.

I strolled to the end of the property. I looked out over a princely domain, the municipality of Haldenstein. I was able to stand erect. I needed to immerse myself in lives beyond... This was one of the great reasons I became a photographer.  Thousands of Portraits, thousands of buildings, and I still obsess about why I am a photographer, and what I need to do with my “mind’s eye” in the moment.

I heard some gravel race down the hill. Peter Zumthor walked to me with a tray carrying cappuccinos and cigars. “Do you smoke?”.  And then our session began.

We walked the grounds for about an hour, a cigar’s life. He spoke about his plans for his new atelier. He wanted me to understand the process and the concept for the materials as it related to his vision and the marriage with Haldenstein. He was alive. He was animated. He was speaking to me and addressing his passion(s).

Maybe it was the cigar, the cappuccino or simply the love for what I do...I recognized “god’s light” on my subject and my pulse returned.

We made an interesting collection of images that day. He asked me to stay for lunch. 

I felt I had come to see if the the ghost was real. Peter Zumthor was more than that. They say,”truth is stranger than fiction”. That day, reality was greater than the myth. 

Peter Zumthor was no longer a ghost. For that moment that day he shared his considerations for architecture. I was able to envision his future footprints/designs. As he spoke, they all appeared before me... I was/am privileged.

“Trains, Planes and Automobiles”. I headed back to the train station. The train ride allowed me to reflect on the morning. But the plane flight to my next destination filled me with the time to reflect on my experience.

Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor