(image: John Offenbach)
With a hidden garden of wild flowers at its heart, this year’s design is a call for architects to reassess the relationship of building and garden
After weeks of rain, the sun blazed for the opening of Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London. The pavilion is the 11th in the gallery’s series of summer architectural showpieces, and the Swiss architect’s first completed building in the UK.
As you approach across Kensington Gardens, the pavilion appears as an enigmatic black slab. Visitors step at first into an almost lightless wood-scented corridor space that runs around the building between an exterior and interior wall. A second doorway penetrates the inner wall, leading to a courtyard, at the centre of which is an exuberant bed of wild flowers. The walkway and seating around the flowerbed are shaded by an overhanging, inward-sloping roof; the overall shape of the structure is revealed to be something like a tissue box or a hotel lobby ashtray. This is what Zumthor calls the “hortus conclusus”, a closed garden within the broader park.
“It’s a little bit of an experiment,” Zumthor says. “The garden needs quietness; the garden has to fight the noise of the city, and as you come in you should start to behave differently, more quiet, more relaxed.”
The garden is planted by Piet Oudolf, the horticulturalist celebrated most recently for his work on the High Line park in New York. Zumthor is happy to make the garden the main event of the pavilion, describing his structure as “a frame” for Oudolf’s work. Oudolf’s plants are wild and shade loving, picked for the enclosed space and the unreliable British summer. “It’s not a push-up Chelsea Flower Show kind of composition,” Zumthor says. “It’s the flowers you would find in your back garden.”
Zumthor’s decision to build a garden is also a plea to his fellow architects. “Gardens belong to architecture, not to agriculture,” he says. “So architects should think about gardens. What is the role of the garden today? What should it be?”