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Year of Living Sedately
This year's Serpentine Pavilion, more cloister than cocktail party.
Courtesy Peter Zumthor / Walter Herfst

Every summer, the Serpentine Pavilion offers the chosen architects of the plot adjacent to the London gallery a chance to offer a meditation on essential qualities in their work. In this way the pavilion is not only a showcase for designers who haven't yet built in the UK, but also a physical gauge of architecture’s current preoccupations. This year, it is the garden.

Rather than open out the pavilion to the surrounding rolling green of Kensington Gardens, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, working with landscape designer Piet Oudolf (also responsible for the plantings on New York’s High Line), has enclosed his own patch of green. If the pavilion is any kind of bellwether for the current social condition—for it clearly is not a reflection of the UK's current economic condition Zumthor tells us we should take note and be quiet. Inside his cloistered pavilion—“coffin-like,” as one observer commented on Jonathan Glancey's recent article for The Guardian—there is space only to sit and to reflect.

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Indeed it is a far cry from previous pavilions: Kjetil Thorsen and Olafur Eliasson's 2007 conical viewing platform, Gehry's bombastic theatre-cum-promenade in 2008, and SANAA’s translucent and shimmering surfaces in 2009 offered follies in the landscape, a pleasant interlude in a visitor's trip to the gallery and a unique space to house a cafe. Zumthor's design, however, eschews the pavilion's requisite commercial opportunity and presents an altogether prescriptive program. The tar-textured enclosure forces the visitor to do nothing but look and think. The central atrium, a sharply cut rectangle open only to the sky, compels the viewer to look inwards or upwards but never outwards. As Glancey notes, the experience at times stirs claustrophobia more than contemplation: “Outside…you suddenly feel free and here is that very thing he's trying to encapsulate...nature.”


The design is intended to create a palpable contrast between the open space of Kensington Gardens and the pavilion's interior. While lights have been fitted along the corridors, these are not always switched on creating a somewhat menacing threshold. Perhaps the intention was to provide a sense of danger sandwiched between idyllic places—a compelling aspect of the design that has not received as much attention as the cloister courtyard. Landscape designer Oudolf has spoken of an integrated design to draw in passersby. In The Telegraph in June, he said, “I want visitors to see that architecture is simple and planting is complex. Looking into plants brings you into another kind of thinking, connected with inner space.”

If the pavilion, a 4,200-square-foot timber-frame structure wrapped in scrim and covered with a black duct sealant, reflects architecture today, it is a fitting collaboration between Zumthor and Oudolf. Their rectangular box enveloping a courtyard garden is in tune with a wider movement towards ground-skimming designs and landscaped architecture such as Stephen Holl’s Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, China or Morphosis’ Shanghai Giant Interactive Group Campus. Zumthor, in The Independent, cited this year's pavilion as a memory machine: “I think of gardens I have seen, that I believe I have seen, that I long to see.”

Gwen Webber