Peter Zumthor. Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum – Striving for Objectivity

The primal action of digging into the ground is about a persistent tension between the worker and the soil. At the beginning there is only a working plan, an abstract scheme of what and where, and the mountain, a mute surface, showing nothing more than meets the eye. As you start working, putting effort in modifying the natural condition of the stone, an irrational sense of expectation arises.
This work is about unveiling what is invisible, what lies underneath, but is there.

When Peter Zumthor was contacted by the Norwegian Public Road Administration Ryfylke in 2003 to build a museum to honor the meaning of human labour at the Allmannujuvet Zinc mine in Sauda, this particular question was already in his mind. Though, unlike miners, he barely had physical evidence of their presence when the commission was given. Zumthor’s practice has frequently questioned the meaning of history and traces, even when they have almost vanished. History is not intended to be a vague, fleeting speculation nor a mere catalog of findings from the past.

“Everything that I see is history. […] The feeling of history is different from the factual history conserved on paper […]. This is a kind of “history-history”, an intellectual system that works from document to document, from paper to paper;”1

In Zumthor’s practice, history is a precise intellectual understanding of a given condition: an active and rational process of thinking, as a strong, hard work of the mind. This is the case in Allmannajuvet, where the architect’s thoughtful understanding strives to take form as spatial experience. A strive for objectivity, so that the same object produces one precise effect through the haptic experience of the buildings. An experience meaningful for everyone, affecting people regardless specific conditions of one’s mind or knowledge.
It’s about matching individuals through one gesture of construction.

Four pavilions, clearly rising from the ground as independent objects, are carefully positioned along the old mine pathway, so that each building works as a singular, meaningful spot. There is an interdependent relationship between the pavilions and their positions: only there they could have been built.

“At about the spot where ore used to be washed and a miner’s barracks once stood on a rocky outcrop”2

The project of four dark rooms reveals something hidden, something you can barely see. They are not touching each other; they are mysterious encounters on the way to the mine. Their striking presence circumscribes a singularity, a specific environmental condition, as each of them takes advantage from a different, extremely precise, characteristic of their position on the route. When walking towards the first building, one has the chance to carefully see it, entering it, touching it, perceiving it as one, only object. However, moving towards the followings, one starts to connect them in a sequence, comparing them in terms of dimensions and experience.

A succession of rooms.

Room I

A robust wall mixes with the rocky soil around, as an unexpected regular shape on the edgy landscape of Sauda. Then something over the stone retaining wall takes place: a solid black volume, firmly supported by a lightweight wooden frame emerges from it. The service building acts as a long wall of 12x2m in plan. When entering you leave the whole landscape behind, is not even possible to realize that you are high up, above a 15m high overhang.

The first stop, an ouverture to the path.



Room II

An 8.5×8.5m squared plan volume is lifted from the ground. It is clearly belonging to the same family of the first pavilion, yet there is a striking difference: the two-storey building, much bigger than the other, is detached from the edge of the mountain. The black volume seems to be floating, as a solid weight almost precariously positioned within the thick wooden planks of the exposed bearing structure. The extremely dark, low space of the pavilion is violently filled by the outside view; the indoors becomes a protected vantage point towards the landscape. Nature is coming from outside, colours are sharply entering through the almost disappeared glass.
Then you realize how high up are you, from inside.



Room III

The sense of vertigo and instability is getting stronger: the dark linear volume is longer than the previous ones, it doesn’t touch the ground. It stretches towards the canyon, rising for around 15m from the steep rocks of the mountain. The wooden structure is flexible, it adapts to the local condition of the soil, it is tilting and changing orientation according to the sloping surface it is attached to.
It literally vibrates while you’re inside the 1.5m width.



Room IV

Where the ore used to be thrown off, ten short wooden columns hold up a thin zinc canopy: a place where to be exposed to the thrill of the altitude and perceive the whole system from below, down a deep gorge. 
The condition of being vulnerable, almost at risk, is in this case inverted.



The empty room

The last piece, the one not designed.
A room found on site. It is the tunnel where miners used to work: A dark space, tough, dangerous, where the height and the width of the space compress the body to the limit. It is not a comfortable room, nor a welcoming experience. The path is eventually ending with a closed space, a blocked way.
There’s no way out, unless you go backwards.

A whole ambiguous

Four persisting buildings stand out from the old mine pathway where nothing grows anymore. Even though the pavilions are recognizable as isolated objects, they clearly show a dual nature represented by the contrast between the exposed wooden skeleton and the solid black volume within. The core of the experience of the pavilions lies in this duality. The outside image of the constructions is almost one of a slender, precarious structure barely holding a heavy mass, stretching over the edge of the cliff. The scale of the two is not comparable. The first is made of several smaller elements in combination, the second is a whole object apparently impossible to divide. Yet, you experience the instability from a very stable position, when you are not yet on the structure. You have to walk alone on the ladder, suspended on a deep gorge, and then suddenly a dark room. Everything you have seen is neglected and forgotten.
It is impossible to understand how the building works.

Even the space inside is not safe: Standing by the window you are exposed to the landscape as a vertigo evoking view, while feeling the slight movement of the floor shaking as the weight of the visitors stress the structure.
The room is floating and you only see the canyon.

The Objective Individual

The visitor is left alone against four pavilions clearly denouncing their presence in the space compared to the human scale. No trace of subjectivism or any romantic interpretations of the northern landscape: The zinc mine museum uses the existing condition of the place to put the experience at the centre of the whole project. An experience that strives to reach everyone, yet challenges the individual confronting the question of tourism against the industry of the mass and of the mainstream.

It must be an individual experience, even if the individual is coming from the big bus: it is a fact that people have to climb on the ladder one by one, that the inside space is too tight, that the windows are very small. All these clear decisions make the individual have an active and precise reconstruction of the experience, connecting each small action to the whole picture. It is a fact that the building challenges the visitor.
An introverted experience.

Four constructions, four extreme conditions in the surrounding landscape. Everybody can perceive them. The simplicity of the joint allows one person to reconstruct the construction process and to possibly deconstruct it, not by means of a specific technical knowledge, but simply by an immediate and intuitive thinking of gravity. The whole construction can be considered as an almost maniacal celebration of the structural detail, where the wooden planks comes together in one.

“Buildings consist of single parts which must be joined together.”3

The physical construction corresponds to the experiential understanding of the building. Buildings are concrete things, simply standing there, representing nothing more than themselves.
The substance of these buildings in their form, in their presence.

They produce spaces based on natural reactions of the body. The fact that these buildings are lifted from an extremely dangerous canyon is indisputable, as it is clear for everyone to recognize the scaffolding as the load-bearing structure, where each wooden plank is connected to stand against gravity.
The natural fear of falling down from the cliff is here objective.
The bearing capacity of the structure is verified and is the result of hard engineering.
The character of the experience is embedded in the construction, this is a fact.



1. Peter Zumthor, A Feeling of History, pp. 15, 16.

2. Peter Zumthor, Peter Zumthor: Buildings and Projects 1986-2013, Vol.4, p. 77.
3. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, p. 13.

Lending, M. and Zumthor, P. (2018) A Feeling of History. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess AG.

Zumthor, P. (2010) Thinking Architecture. 3rd edn. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Zumthor, P. (2014) Peter Zumthor: Buildings and Projects 1986.2013. Vol.4. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess AG.
Lending, M. (2011) Architecture at the limit. Peter Zumthor’s Witchburning memorial in Vardo, in Louise Bourgeois/ Peter Zumthor: Steilneset Memorial. Oslo: Press Forlag.

Other sources
Interview: six questions to Meri Lending (30.10.2018).

Video: interview with Peter Zumthor, directed by Tonje Tjernet (22.11.2016).

5, 6, 8, 9. Image free from copyright.

1, 2, 3, 4, 7. Aldo Amoretti ©

All the drawings are made by the author.