EXCLUSIVE: Zumthor for Serpentine Pavilion 2011
June 27, 2011
Editor’s Note: London’s Serpentine Gallery opens its doors on July 1 with its 11th summer architecture commission. This morning, our contributor (and staff member at the esteemed AA) Daniel Ayat attended the press conference to get a peek of Peter Zumthor’s first completed building in the UK.
Peter Zumthor’s offering for the annual Serpentine Pavilion sits surreptitiously amongst the green pastures of London’s Hyde Park. Nestled amongst the foliage, its dark, austere silhouette stands out at times like a bomb shelter, yet at others it is almost invisible, like a shadow.
Seen from the exterior, it is a black rectangular box that weighs heavily against meandering concrete pathways that lead up to three squat punctures in its single-story façade. Slipping into the deep shadows cast by these openings creates a momentary instant of blindness as the eye adjusts in the diminished light.
Finding yourself in a cloister-like passageway, sunlight seeps in from jostled openings on each side creating a play of shadows across the dark walls made of plywood covered by a thick tar coated over a loose canvas mesh.
Emerging from this somber threshold into a 250 square meter rectangular inner courtyard, you are confronted by a jostle of colors created by a garden by landscape designer Piet Oudolf, which contrasts vividly with a sense of silence that is broken only by the buzz of insects. Surrounded by a pathway and a low wooden bench, plants sway lazily in a rectangular plot open to the sky via a wide and gently inward sloping gash.
Photo: Daniel Ayat for Architizer.
Called the hortus conclusus, the pavilion takes its name from a term for an enclosed garden typical of medieval monasteries. And rather monastically, the space is intended to act as what the architect describes as a contemplative space, where we are urged to “gather around” and to “become observers.”
Photo: Daniel Ayat for Architizer.
Entering the pavilion’s courtyard is an immersive and meditative experience, transporting the viewer from one garden typology to another, and in so doing transforms the viewer’s relationship with their natural surroundings. You might wonder if a garden is a necessary intervention given the setting of Hyde Park for the annual pavilion, yet Zumthor’s carefully conceived sanctum offers a spatial understanding completely different from that the park. The built enclosure becomes a medium for introspection, offering a new perspective from which to pause and reflect on the sights and smells of the vegetal composition.
Contrary to previous pavilions at the Serpentine, like SANAA’s effervescent cloud-like floating surface in 2009 or Jean Nouvel’s boisterous red folly in 2010, Zumthor’s proposal is a pensive and determinately non-commercialized space. Whereas previous Serpentine Pavilions have typically hosted cafés and lively events and exhibitions, the hortus conlcusus is to stage poetry, music and theater performances, reflecting the serenity that the space is intended to convey.
Peter Zumthor and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Photo: Daniel Ayat for Architizer.
Known for his quietly masterful approach to architecture as well as his deep appreciation for the material qualities of his structures and their integration into their surroundings, Peter Zumthor may seem like an unlikely choice to design a temporary structure. Yet typically of the Swiss designer’s architectural approach, the pavilion evokes a sense of solidity and repose, modestly absorbing and playing with the subtleties of the natural environment. The heightened materiality of the structure and the Zen-like garden begin to evoke a rare and sublime sense of the timeless, where, as the architect describes, we might come “not to look at nature, but for nature to look at us.”
All photos by Daniel Ayat for Architizer.