Tuesday, April 24, 2012


"The notion that our work is an integral part of what we achieve takes us to the very limits our musings about the value of a work of art."
Peter Zumthor

The Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, is a remarkable work of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker Prize laureate. In a display of mastery and sensitivity, the architect manages to fuse the ruins of a destroyed  Catholic church, with modern, sober and minimalist architecture, and highly sensitive to the theme of the works it houses: religious art.


A church dedicated to St. Columba, located relatively close to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, used to be the most important church of the diocese. Unfortunately, the building was completely devastated after the allied bombing that reduced the city into ruins during the Second World War, with the exception of an old Gothic image of the Virgin placed on a pillar, which survived intact.

Church of St. Columba before the bombing
The church after the Allied bombing. Note the curved corner of the Manufactum Warenhaus also recognizable in other aerial views.

This icon, called "the Madonna of the Ruins" was considered by many a symbol of hope during the painful and difficult years of the  post-war reconstruction.

Photo courtesy of Thomas / Archikey

In fact, an octagonal chapel, designed by Gottfried Böhm in 1950, was built to honour the image. A precious historical value was added to the symbolic importance of the place, when in 1973  Roman , Gothic and medieval  ruins were discovered under the old church.

For this reason, the Kolumba art society, which keeps a large collection of Christian art (ranging from a portrait of the Emperor Tiberius' daughter from the first century, to the present) commissioned in 1997 a contest in order to revalorate the church and also to provide a space for displaying their collection in an area of ​​1.600 m2.


Peter Zumthor won the competition with an ambitious and humble idea at the same time: the building completely surrounds the ruins of the church and in fact merges with them while using the upper level and a side wing to house the exhibit areas.

First, second and third floor

Externally, the building is characterized by its massiveness, a simple and severe composition of warm-colored volumes and thus integrates both to its urban context as well as the historic site where is located.

However, despite this massiveness, the building is surrounded by garden areas that allow the space to permeate within the urban fabric.

The texture of thin gray brick, handmade by Tegl Petersen of Denmark, frams the remains of the old chapel achieving a remarkable integration between new and old.

Part of the success in this fusion lies in the simplicity of form, color and material that embed these Gothic-style fragments.

Detail of the door. Photo courtesy of d.teil

Detail of the back stairs.  Photo courtesy of Dorena .

Photo courtesy of teraform

Another noticeable feature are the perforations on the facade, forming a kind of lattice made on the basis of  the bricks themselves.  This effect lightens the perception of the volume.

It is however in the interior of the building where Zumthor's work can be better appreciated. The architect has wrapped both the octagonal chapel as well as the Roman ruins with a double height nave supported by thin metal columns. This monumental space is dramatically lit up since indirect light filters through the lattice in the walls. This effect reminds me of that used by Luis Barragan in the Chapel of the Capuchinas in Mexico.

Photo courtesy of  Jose Fernando Vasquez

The visitor is able to walk throughout the chapel by means of a winding passage which lies over the ruins. This is a resource is used in some archaeological sites in order to allow visitors to experience the sites from up close, but reducing the impact on heritage (as, for example in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey ).

Photo courtesy Jose Fernando Vasquez
Photo courtesy Jose Fernando Vasquez

Besides the chapel, the building includes 16 exhibition rooms arranged on three levels, including the area on top of the church. In these areas, works of ancient and contemporary religious art works are displayed, including some books of sacred art.

The exhibition area of these galleries is dotted with large windows from where the architect frames some superb views of the surrounding cityscape, also reflected in the polished white floor of these rooms.

The building also opens its views to some courts designed in a serene Zen minimalism, which houses works by famous sculptors like Richard Serra and Joseph Wolf.

 Photo courtesy of  Jose Fernando Vasquez

In sum, both by the use of form, material and light, the architect of manages to imbue the museum with a sense of serenity and meditation that, while it is perfectly suitable to house the collection of Catholic art, it transcends the boundaries of a specific religion to imbue the visitor with an atmosphere of spirituality away from the worldly bustle of the city.

""The architectural drawings trying to express the aura of the building in place as closely as possible. But the very effort of this representation often serves to underline the absence of the object itself, and what emerges is the type of deficiency culaquier representation, curiously about the reality that promises, and perhaps, if the promise has the power to move-a longing for his presence. "
Peter Zumthor

Claudio Happy Birthday Claudio! It was a pleasure to visit the Kolumba together. 

Monday, April 23, 2012



A surreal atmosphere surrounds the underground Cistern Basilica, also known as Yerebatan Sarnici in Istanbul, Turkey. The underground forest of columns is reflected in the water, resembling an Escher picture .

A visit through the walkways located over the water reveals a unique combination of engineering and art worthy of a palace, which lies in the basement of the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (that's why the monument is also known as Yerebatan Sarayi, the Sunken Palace).


Located about 100 meters from the famous Hagia Sophia, the complex receives its name from an ancient basilica stood on it. It was built by the Emperor Constantine (272-337) and then enlarged by Justinian (527-565) in 532, in order to provide water to the imperial palace and to the city of Constantinople in general, in case it would be  besieged. The water tanks that supplied the cistern was brought through aqueducts from a fountain located 19 km from the city.

In fact the cistern remained hidden after the city fell conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century and was rediscovered by the Dutch traveler P.  Gyllius, between 1545-50. He heard stories of people who drew water and even fish  from wells located in the basements of their houses.

Armed with a torch Gyllius delved into the cisterns and in really difficult conditions carried out the first survey of the monument. He later published his discovery, attracting many travelers and scientists fascinated by the wonder of the cistern.


The cistern occupies a rectangular area of ​​140 x 70 m, surrounded by walls 4.8 m thick.The construction technology, based on brick and concrete, is similar to that developed in Hagia Sofia.

The roof of cross vaults rests on 336 columns that reach a height of 9 m, arranged in a gridiron layout, that is 12 rows of 28 columns each.

Some of them have Doric and Corinthian capitals, but some others have really unusual ones, regarding both the form of capital as well as the shaft of the column.

The marble of which the columns are made also differs from column to column. According to our guide, this was because  many of the elements were reused from existing structures.

In its 9800 m2 of surface, the tank has a capacity of 100,000 m3. The floors are made of brick and covered with mortar to ensure the impermeability of the cistern.

However, as we walked  among the columns, in some places drops of water  that seeped  through the roof fall over our heads, which is due to a park which is currently located on top of the cistern.


One of the aspects I found most striking was the presence of two columns whose base represented the head of Medusa, the Gorgon guardian with that hair in the form of snakes which, according to Greco-Roman mythology, turned to stone to those who looked at her.

I was surprised to find these magnificent sculptures used as bases of two columns, one of them arranged upside-down and the other one on the side.

Apparently the emperor's message was clear: the pagan gods were dead, and therefore he intended to "crush" them under the columns, and for that reason  in the vicinity had engraved a cross. Other sources  indicate that the faces were placed in that way as not to "petrify "people who looked at them.  Poor Medusa ...  first she was beheaded by Perseus and then her head was used as the base of an underground column by Justinian.

In front of the Medusa   a cross etched in the column can be seen.


The complex has undergone three restoration processes. La primera fue hecha por los otomanosen 1723, bajo el reinado del sultán Ahmet III. The first was carried out by the Ottomans in 1723, under the reign of Sultan Ahmet III. The second one was made in the nineteenth century under Sultan Abdulhamid II, covering one third of the tank with brick and concrete to prevent collapse. The third one was carried out between 1985-87, when  50,000 tons of mud and sediment were extracted from the complex floor.
Today lighting effects and music  have been added to the gentle murmur of water, accompanied by the colorful presence of ornamental fish.