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Major award goes to 'real' architect

SWISS architect Peter Zumthor, who spurns the limelight while creating a handful of meticulously crafted buildings at his alpine retreat, has won his profession's top honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Zumthor, 65, who says he's more about "the real stuff" than designing "beautiful images," is the third native of Switzerland to win the award.

Many of his works dot the mountainous canton where he has lived and worked for the past 30 years, including his best-known project, Therme Vals. The luxury spa, which opened in 1996 after a decade of work, consists of 60,000 precision-cut quartzite stone slabs built into a hillside surrounded by soaring peaks.

A pair of works in Germany evoke a similar spirituality: the Kolumba art museum in Cologne and an austere chapel on a nearby farm.

In Austria, he designed the lakefront Kunsthaus Bregenz museum, which looks like a lamp from the outside.

But Zumthor has no completed projects in either the United States or Britain. And he eschews large commercial buildings and vanity projects.

"If I ever do a mountain lodge for a wealthy person, for him it's just a mountain lodge, and for me it will be three years out of my life. So I have to be careful," Zumthor said.

The scarcity of his work, and the years he puts into each project, has made him something of a hero in an industry where celebrity architects win headlines and lucrative commissions for what he describes as "beautiful images."

"I'm more about the real stuff, about substance," Zumthor said. "That's why I take a little bit longer."

He spent a decade transforming a bombed-out church into Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Cologne Archdiocese. It was finished in 2007, the same year he completed the Brother Klaus Field Chapel for a couple in Mechernich, Germany. The tiny building consists of a concrete shell over a conical tent of 112 tree trunks that were later dried out and removed.

The Pritzker Prize was established in 1979 by the Pritzker family, the Chicago-based clan that owns Hyatt hotels.

Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, designers of Beijing's National Stadium, or Bird's Nest, shared the prize in 2001.

Last year's winner was Jean Nouvel of France.


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