Often, an architect’s design mettle is proven in small scale projects. Whilst massive projects may be complex programmatically, it is modest projects that showcase an architect’s eye for detail and refinement. Saint Benedict Chapel by Atelier Peter Zumthor in Sumvitg, Switzerland best puts on display what Peter Zumthor is most passionate about: space and materials.
In 1984 an avalanche destroyed the old baroque chapel in front of the village of 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 very same path to the Alps above the small village is protected from avalanches by a forest. It is here that the new wooden chapel, faced with larch wood shingles, was inaugurated in 1988. The village authorities sent Zumthor 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 had a desire to build something new and contemporary for future generations.
When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It’s not about paper, it’s not about forms. It’s about space and material.
On the outside, the chapel is modest and unassuming, even aloof. It is easy to take for granted how the building has with time come to ‘grow’ with the surrounding environment. Perhaps it is the exterior skin of wooden shingles and snips that helps it blend with its context; or maybe it is its simple fish-like form. Regardless, Zumthor does an uncanny job of creating a beautiful human-scaled object that seems to stand guard for the alpine village.
Inside, the design team borrows the concept of the hull of a boat, inverted up side down to create an immaculate and engaging roof plane. It is here that Zumthor’s craftsmanship shines. One can appreciate how his background as a carpenter and his father’s influence as a cabinet maker enable him to create a delicate ethereal space with the variation of a single material. The floor plane seems to be floating as it almost, but doesn’t touch the wooden columns that rise to soften the space’s boundaries.
At the top, a cornice of vertical windows slats illuminates the space, causing the roof plane to hover perpetually. And just as Tadao Ando uses light as a design element in the Church of the Light, Zumthor intentionally obstructs distracting eye-line exterior views for the worshippers and instead directs theirs eyes towards the heavens. In as much as Saint Benedict Chapel is a seminal work for Peter Zumthor, it encapsulates crucial lessons for cultural and religious architecture.