Peter Zumthor’s monolithic black box is slightly at odds with the whimsical and extrovert structures that have made up the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion programme over the last decade, but architectural journalists were glad of the shade provided by its deep eaves at a press launch this morning, on the hottest day of the year.
The facades of the rectilinear building are blank save for three entrances on each of its long sides. These lead into a closed ‘transitional space’ running around the whole perimeter. The entrance doors have offset pairs on the inner wall, which lead from this ambulatory route into the main space, an outdoor room lined with benches and dominated by a central flower bed, the work of Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudolf.
This is the eleventh Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, and like the others, its architect has not yet completed a building in the UK (previous pavilions were by Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Toyo Ito, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond, Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, Frank Gehry, SANAA and Jean Nouvel). Where most previous pavilions made space for a cafe and the parties and events programmes that occupy the structure between June and October, Zumthor’s design privileges the plants. Visitors must make do with the paved walkway and blue timber benches around the edge of the room.
At the opening Zumthor explained that the pavilion was the product of a thought process that has taken place of several years, beginning with an unrealised commission for a garden in Somerset, which prompted the question ‘what is the role of the garden, for us, today?’ In that case his initial response had been a lookout tower offering views of the landscape, but he quickly came to realise that this was ‘a really stupid idea’: rather than making a space for us to look at nature, he wanted instead to make one where ‘nature is looking at you’ – hence the central position of the planting at the Serpentine pavilion.
Other references apparently include the fenced, fragrant vegetable gardens on Alpine farms and, more broadly, the potential of cultivated nature to suggest that ‘we come from nature and we return to nature… we live and die; we rot or burn and vanish into the earth… But in my time I belong to the process of life on this planet; for a little while I am part of the organism of human beings, animals and plants that exists on this planet and that passes life on.’ The objective in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, said Zumthor, was to make a haven away from the traffic noise, sights and smells of the city, a garden within a garden where visitors might come to forget the cares of the world. And indeed with the paint barely dry on the walls, bees were already busy among the plants, voices were instinctively hushed and birdsong could be heard above the snapping of camera shutters.
Despite its massive appearance, the 390 square metre pavilion is in fact a timber frame structure covered in sheets of ply and finished with a flame-retardent coating called Idenden. The same material is used for the floor of the ambulatory. If the lightweight construction is not immediately apparent visually, the acoustics give the game away; the materials reverberate with the sound of footsteps.
Zumthor is often called the architect’s architect, and many will be pleased to sample his work first hand, even if it does not have the refinement and solidity of the thermal baths at Vals, the Bruder Klaus field chapel or the Kolumba diocesan museum in Frankfurt. A sceptical public may be initially doubtful – the pavilion has none of the winsome formal kinks and quirks of its popular forebears – but is bound to be won over by the inclusion of a garden. The garden may be trickier for the Gallery itself to appreciate – it will make staging parties and lectures difficult, but commissioners Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist must have felt that such considerations were unimportant when weighed against the coup of securing Zumthor’s first UK building.
Arup has engineered the pavilions since the programme began, and Mace has provided project and construction management for the last five years. Other key supporters include Stanhope, in an advisory role, and sponsors Maybach, Viabizzumo, Weil, Gotschal & Manges and Knight Frank.