Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat – a simply miraculous piece of architecture

Peter Zumthor's Secular Retreat - a simply miraculous piece of architecture
Photo © Jack Hobhouse/Living Architecture

In the Secular Retreat, the latest in the Living Architecture programme of building beautiful modern holiday homes, a thick slab of concrete hovers over a long, glass-sided corridor. Future visitors may not pay it much attention – they’ll be distracted by the lovely Devonian hills revealed and reflected by the glass – but it takes a lot to stop it toppling over: a lot of steel reinforcement, of its engineers’ mathematics, of arduous processes of construction and ultimately of money. It is a feat of building whose achievement is to make you look somewhere else.

If it would have been simpler and cheaper to insert a column or two, that would have undermined the “horizontality” essential to the house’s architect, Peter Zumthor. “Look at the landscape,” he says. “There’s horizontality all about,” and a column would indeed have jarred. Highly engineered nuance, effort in the service of the effortless, artful simplicity – all are essential to the effect of this work. It’s a gliding swan of a building, propelled unseen by furiously paddling feet.

This five-bedroom, single-storey house, 375 square metres in area, has been 10 years in the making (it has been under construction for four). Its site was acquired early in the life of Living Architecture, which the writer Alain de Botton set up in 2006 to enable people to enjoy the pleasures of contemporary architecture at relatively affordable prices. Zumthor (b1943), a famously meticulous son of a Swiss cabinet-maker, is not one to be rushed. He is demanding of his clients: “I don’t do buildings for a quick return,” he says, “that is not what I am offering in my shop.”

He goes beyond ordinary attention to detail. Zumthor interrogates construction methods, pummels them, stretches them, drives them like an exacting athletics coach to do what they didn’t know they could. And so the stone floor required a long-range discussion about the placing of every piece, between the quarry in Somerset and Zumthor’s office in Switzerland, which also required a two-year search to find a quarry with both the right kind of stone and a willingness to take part in the intricate design process. House-high panels of triple glazing had to be shipped to site from a preferred German manufacturer via narrow West Country lanes.

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