Sacred Stories - Bruder Klaus Field Chapel
How did Pritzker laureate Peter Zumthor come to build this tiny, rural chapel? Our book, Sacred Spaces, explains
About 18 years ago, the German farmer Hermann-Josef Scheidtweiler wrote to the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Scheidtweiler was no architecture fanatic, just an elderly Roman Catholic who wanted a small chapel on his land, to give thanks for the long and happy life his wife Trude had led. Hermann-Josef didn't quite pick Zumthor out of the phone book, though, as we explain in our new book on religious architecture Sacred Spaces, he chanced upon the contemporary architect, after reading about Zumthor's winning designs for an art museum in relatively nearby Cologne.
Zumthor, who went on to receive the Pritzker Prize in 2009, is known for turning down lucrative projects, yet accepted this strange commission for a nominal fee, partly because the saint the Scheidtweilers wanted to dedicate the building to had been one of his own mother's favourites. Niklaus von Flüe, also known as Brother Klaus, was a 15th century Swiss agriculturalist turned Christian mystic, popular among the German rural community, and also the patron saint of Switzerland. Indeed, this austere Christian figure, who was said to have survived for 19 years on no other form of sustenance than the Eucharist, may have appealed to the architect's own particular tastes.
This field chapel, which opened in 2007, is a wonderful embodiment of both Klaus's asceticism, and Zumthor's own reserve. Its initial structure was constructed from 112 local pine trees, cut and arranged into a kind of wigwam by Scheidtweiler's friends and family. The same community group also oversaw the mixing and application of the chapel's concrete, which was formed using local sand and gravel, and built up in 50cm-thick slabs on the outside of the pine logs to a height of 12 metres over the course of 24 days.
Once the concrete was in place, the chapel's wooden innards were set alight, the pine burning away slowly over the course of three weeks. The floor was lined with molten lead, and glass beads were fixed into the ends of the walls' steel tubes, which had held the setting concrete in place, allowing daylight into the chapel's dark centre.
There are a few other design details, including a sculpture of the saint, yet the main visual element within the chapel is its unglazed tear-drop oculus, which is said to reference a vision Brother Klaus experienced, of floating in his mother's womb and seeing an enormous starburst.
As a building, it resembles a pre-Christian menhir (standing stone) more closely than any Catholic church. Yet, perhaps as Mies van der Rohe once put it, God is in the details. In its austerity and simplicity, as well as in its genesis, as a simple farmer's project, the Brother Klaus chapel brings us closer to a religious experience of Niklaus von Flüe than any large-scale place of worship might.
As we explain in our new book Sacred Spaces, this singular building can “take the visitor back to the life of a fifteenth-century hermit who chose to give up his prosperous family life in favour of an existence of hunger and exposure to the elements, for the sake of spiritual clarity.” That alone is certainly worth giving thanks for.
We hope you've enjoyed this sacred story, taken from our new book Sacred Spaces. Check back soon for another, and if you like what you've read, you can order a copy of the book from the people who made it, here.