During my visit to Switzerland last June I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Bregenz, Austria, to see the Kunsthaus Bregenz. After staying at the cabin in Leis, this space marked the second I had seen that was designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
The Kunsthaus is located near the center of Bregenz on the edge of Lake Constance, a feature that did not go unnoticed by Zumthor. According to the designer, the building was inspired by the mist that hovers above the lake in morning light. The goal was to achieve a similar diffused glow to illuminate the art. The museum, which houses three nearly identical galleries, is supported by a series of concrete shear walls. Each floor is separated from the one above by a large interstitial space. This space allows light from the exterior to pour through the translucent glass walls and into the interior space. The light entering the galleries is further moderated by frosted glass ceilings. This system of natural daylighting is used in conjunction with a series of fluorescent fixtures to provide optimum light levels on each of the floors.
In addition to focusing on lighting, Zumthor put a great deal of thought into the way the visitor’s path is choreographed through the space. Instead of housing everything in one building, the administration offices and cafe were placed in a separate space that sits off the entry plaza. This allows the visitor experience to focus entirely on the art. Entering on the ground floor, people can make their way past the admission counter to an elevator that takes them to the top floor. After viewing the gallery on that level, they can walk down a daylit concrete stair to the next gallery. The building’s modest scale and simple layout help to alleviate the museum fatigue that often arises in its larger cousins.
After my visit to the Kunsthaus, I was further impressed by Zumthor’s strength as an architect. He seems to approach each project with a rigorous simplicity that leads to solutions of great honesty and power. By focusing on a few aspects of design—light, tectonics, and spatial sequencing—he was able to craft a space that served the needs of Bregenz in a truly profound way.