A MONOLITHIC ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARK CONCEALS A MYSTICAL AND SCULPTURAL INTERIOR, WHERE LIGHT, MATTER AND FORM CREATE A UNIQUE SPACIAL EXPERIENCE
To design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction. This concept rings true in Peter Zumthor’s design for the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, where a curvy, breathtaking and intimate interior is masked by a very rigid outer shell.
The small concrete chapel, built by local farmers on the edge of a field close to their village in the west of Germany, is dedicated to Swiss Saint Nicholas von der Flue (1417-1487), a 15th century European hermit and holy man known as Brother Klaus. It was commissioned by farmer Hermann-Josef Scheidtweiler along with his wife Trudel and largely constructed by them, with the help of friends and craftsmen.
When the farmers wrote to Peter Zumthor, who had just won a competition to design the Kolumba museum in nearby Cologne, the Swiss architect was already much celebrated, and unlikely to accept small private commissions. However, when he realized the Scheidtweilers had decided to dedicate their chapel to Bruder Klaus, who is not only the patron saint of Germany’s Catholic Rural Communities, but also Switzerland’s patron saint, and – as good fortune would have it – a favourite of Zumthor’s mother.
The Chapel is made of pine logs and reinforced concrete. Peter Zumthor accepted the commission and set about creating a building that would celebrate both the local area and the hermit-like life of Klaus. When internationally known architect John Pawson visited the building, he wrote: “Zumthor’s five-sided structure has a shape-shifting quality, its appearance morphing with every twist and turn of the footpath that winds its way between the fields.”
Concrete is cast around a group of 120 tree trunks, cut at a local forest. The 24 concrete layers were built up gradually, in a style more like rammed-earth walls than commercially poured concrete. Finally, the inner wigwam was set alight, burning the wood away to leave a bare space, lit by a single bare opening in the roof. With its charred concrete and cast metal floors, the seemingly uninviting chapel remains an anticipated destination for many people. In this unique and intimate space, the only decorative elements are a statue of Brother Klaus, a bench and some candles.
Oculus: The directionality of wall leads the eye upward to the point where the roof is open to the sky and night stars. This aperture controls the indoor climate in the chapel. Both sunlight and air and rain penetrate the opening and create an adaptive environment and experience based on time of day, season and weather. Plus, the oculus is an obvious reference to several historical religious buildings, across multiple cultures and civilizations.
Perforated walls: In addition to the oculus, daylight enters the chapel through 350 small holes located in the concrete walls. These boreholes were made using steel pipes to perforate the layers that held the inner formwork before it was burnt and were later covered with small hemispheres of blown glass: this technique transforms light into a unique palette of colored fireflies. Besides, Le Corbusier used a similar system for his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. In addition to that, the pinhole openings were essential due to air currents that originated inside the chapel.
“To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self- evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuality; a building that is being itself does not represent anything, it’s just it… “(Peter Zumthor )