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Swiss architect wins prized Pritzker award

Peter Zumthor's designs for an art museum emerging from a bombed-out church and thermal baths both caught the jury's eye.

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Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is seen in front of his home in Haldenstein, Canton of Grisons, Switzerland, on April 13. Mr. Zumthor has won the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Arno Balzarini/Keystone/AP

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The 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most honored name in its field, will be awarded to Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The ceremony will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, May 29, which marks the first time the award will be held in South America.

On receiving the news, Mr. Zumthor said, "It is such an honor to receive this award for the architectural work we have done over the past 20 or so years. We are a small company, only 20 young people, from eight different parts of the world, and we're located in the remote village of Haldenstein, Switzerland. To have our buildings and museums recognized by the professional world makes us humbly proud."

The Pritzker selection jury, as well as fellow architects worldwide, have been impressed by the works Zumthor has done not only in Switzerland, but in Germany, England, the United States, Spain, Austria, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands. At present, he is working on a design for Norway, right near the North Pole, a memorial for 92 slain martyrs, accused of being witches. He says, "Recognition of their bravery is belated but not forgotten."

"The Pritzker is 'the' honor," he says. "Your work must stand for itself. Even though you are relatively small, that it can be recognized by a renowned body such as this, is truly humbling. I have never been money driven, it has always been the use for the building that makes me passionate. I tell young people not to continue doing a project if you think of a better way. Scrap it, and start again, for the end results make it more worthwhile."

In its citation, the jury noted the schools, chapels, apartment buildings, museums, art galleries, civic centers designed by Zumthor. They singled out the Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne, Germany, which emerges from the remains of a bombed church. It is a startling contemporary work, yet is also at ease with its many layers of history.

Many say that the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, are Zumthor's masterpiece. Talking to Zumthor at his office in Switzerland he commented, "I told my team I didn't mean for only fashion models to look good here, but for a heavy woman with thick arms and jowls to feel beautiful too. We worked to determine where the lights and shadows should be. It was more than worthwhile when an elderly lady came up to me at the opening and said, 'Did you build this lovely place just for me, I feel beautiful and look good.' This was the greatest compliment, for the exact person I had in mind, liked the baths and building. Passion paid off."

Currently Zumthor is doing two projects in Los Angeles – LACMA (the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art) and a private residence.

His father, Oscar Zumthor, was a cabinet maker in Basel, Switzerland, who thought Peter would follow him in his work. The young Zumthor went to work for him. "I always dreamed about being an architect, but thought it was not accessible to me. I learned to build cabinets, then graduated to furniture, then went to several schools to learn about design." He even attended the Pratt Institute of Design in New York, hoping to eventually design his own furniture. "One day I decided why not do the whole thing and design a house. It was then that the process of schooling began. Your dream becomes possible when you can see yourself in it, and start working towards it. I always tell my students this."

Zumthor lives what he says. He has been a professor at the Academy of Architecture, Universita della Svizzera Italiana, Mendrisio, and a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, at the Technical University in Munich, Germany, and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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The award ceremonies will take place at the Legislative Palace in Buenos Aires. Tom Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, will give the award, plus a bronze medal, and $100,000. This will be followed by a dinner at the Palacio San Martin, one of Argentina's most important and beautiful locations. Peter Zumthor receives the Pritzker Prize as it enters its fourth decade of selecting the best of architects from around the world. Although he is from a small village in Switzerland, his talent is exceptional and his joy at receiving the honor is unbounded.

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