The 2011 Serpentine Pavilion by Peter Zumthor

Rosamund Diamond

This roof is covered with leaves, tightly enough packed for neither the sun nor the rain to penetrate, and here our man is lodged ..Such is the course of simple nature; it is to the imitation of its processes that art owes its birth. 

From Marc- Antione Laugier ‘Essai Sur l’Architecture’, (1753) ‘An Essay on Architecture’ trans. W and A Herrmann 1977 

Each summer, the Serpentine Pavilion makes its strange ritualistic appearance as an adjunct to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, one of the parks in Central London. In the British world of art and architecture, its arrival is now a familiar part of the ‘season’, its opening falling between famous flower shows and sports events and contiguous with the period of exclusive summer parties. Except the Serpentine Pavilion is free, completely public and not quite so ephemeral. It is placed in front of the Gallery for about three months, to coincide with a cultural programme of events entitled Park Nights, culminating in October with a marathon of non-stop live presentations.

The Serpentine Gallery, a public institution with an ambitious, contemporary, world-class art programme, is housed in a single-storey neo-classical brick and stucco building, which was constructed as a tea pavilion in the 1930s and, typologically, is more like a bourgeois nineteenth-century orangery than the purpose-made modern galleries with which we are now familiar. It is in the same genre as some of the other public galleries of London housed in nineteenth-century buildings which have undergone recent adaptations, including the Camden Arts Centre (Tony Fretton) and the Whitechapel Art Gallery (John Miller and Robbrecht en Daem with Watson Witherford Mann). By contrast, the free-standing unspecific brief of the Pavilion invites fluid interpretations by ‘world-renowned’ architects. What is the aim of the Serpentine Gallery in the commissioning of such a project and what is the purpose of the temporary building? The ‘self-funded’ Pavilion has been sustained for eleven years by private financial support and an annual sponsorship in kind by consultants including Arup and Mace. Its three-month display culminates in its sale to help perpetuate the project the following year, in a potentially endless cycle. The genuine opportunity to create a temporary place of unprogrammed social encounter, or even contemplation, and to speculate on its fundamental nature, lies trapped between the hyperbolic claim of the Serpentine Gallery for it as a unique project of ‘landmark buildings’ and the resultant architecture of its purposefully functionless brief. Its ‘natural’ location even presents the possiblity to reinterpret Laugier’s theoretical eighteenth-century preoccupation with the ‘primitive hut’, albeit in the public park context of earlier, small, neoclassical buildings, now inhabited by cafes and offices.

The Pavilion project was conceived in 2000 as a temporary canopy for a fund-raising party, which was designed by Zaha Hadid as a tent-like structure and was, then, unexpectedly retained, leading to an annual installation. (Hadid was eventually awarded a commission for a permanent addition to the Serpentine Gallery, which is due for completion next year). A number of typologies are discernible in the ten previous incarnations of the Serpentine Pavilion, which raise questions about its role in the cultural vision of the Gallery. Its autonomy and open brief as locus of a summer arts programme is fundamentally demanding in the production of an architecture not obviously identifiable by function, whilst simultaneously acquiring status as a full-scale work of art. Because the project is only available to architects who are well established but have previously not built in the UK, the buildings have all been designed by foreign architects (apart from Zaha Hadid) inadvertently presenting an opportunity for an external interpretation of the British pavilion.

Previous designs have experimented with the idea of the pavilion within the genre of the architects’ own preoccupations, the results tending to be materially focussed, self-sufficient objects. Daniel Libeskind, Toyo Ito, and Alvaro Siza/Eduardo Souto de Moura’s were self-regulating forms composed from geometrically configured or unoriented grids of partly light-admitting wall and roof components. To varying extents, they offered generic propositions to the undefined, lightweight, temporary identity of the Pavilion. Whilst making different versions of ostensibly airborne structures, Rem Koolhaas and Olafur Eliasson/Kjetil Thorsun’s Pavilions were objectified, the former recalling a nineteenth-century hot-air balloon in its appearance and facility to react to higher temperatures by self elevation. Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel made more substantial personifications, somewhere between buildings and pavilions, their homogenized materiality gesturing in a Venturian architectural polemic. MVRDV’s was the most fanciful, engulfing the existing Gallery in a mound of earth which could not be built. Of all of them, Oscar Niemeyer’s was the most solid modernist evocation: a white and red two-storey building, which excavated a concrete basement into the Serpentine’s lawn in an historicist gesture of amnesia to its temporality. It was SANAA’s structure with its floating, reflective, aluminium roof and nebulous shape accommodating the existing trees, which, with a glancing wit, appeared the most site specific, acknowledging the natural qualities of the park. It was an ethereal nymph-like solution, reflecting the Gallery and the trees into which it retreated.

The history of the previous Pavilions relates to their conception as a product specially commissioned by the Serpentine, and then marketed for sale. Reminiscent of the history of some large works of art, the results have been variable in terms of their subsequent visibility and access. Hadid’s original canopy was bought by the Royal Shakespeare Company and temporarily installed in a courtyard. Whilst public information is limited as to the whereabouts of the previous Pavilions, Libeskind’s was bought by an Irish developer and briefly reexhibited, while Ito’s was bought by developer Victor Hwang, originally as a visitor centre, but then installed abroad. The Gehry, Niemeyer, Siza, Koolhaas and Eliasson Pavilions were bought by a single, anonymous buyer as pieces of art, confirming the tendencies of some art installations to hover between art and architecture.

The current Pavilion, designed by Peter Zumthor along with Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, is that of a ‘hortus conclusus’, an enclosed garden inside a mute, dark, rectangular box. It is a place of contemplation, which he claims as a response to the dense urbanity and noise of London, wherein the visitor may quietly repose within ‘nature’. It abstracts a monastic or collegiate courtyard form generically familiar to many Europeans. The cloistered quadrangular typology is frequently encountered and understood, irrespective of whether it is divested of its original purpose. In Zumthor’s Pavilion, a plant-filled inner garden, enclosed by a cloistered sitting space, protected by a tilted roof canopy, is extricated from a surrounding, dark ambulatory. Its abstracted form is perpetuated in the homogenized timber-sheet construction, entirely clad, inside and out, in a black Idenden coating over scrim. Once the Pavilion becomes subservient, as it does in this case, to the garden within, there is less ambiguity as to the artistic role of the building – as the box instead of its display, that is. Similarly, its explicit temporality, as a large black housing to a short-term garden, is manifested by the undemonstrative crafting of its fabrication. Because the garden is the main focus, the building successfully resists the architectural self-referencing of several of its predecessors and is neither materially overworked, nor ornamented. The visitors’ cerebral and emotional engagement, engendered by the materiality of several of Peter Zumthor’s other buildings such as the Bruder Klaus field chapel and the Kolumba Art Museum, is more instantaneous here, directed towards the effects of the garden, with the abstraction of the ecclesiastical conceit.

Intentionally or inadvertently, this Pavilion is loaded with external meanings, constructed from the superimposed contexts of its designers, broadening the discussion from the physical architecture and the very act of building. It feels as if Swiss, Dutch, and English sensibilities have briefly been aligned to produce a reflection on the role of nature in the city, and perceptions of beauty and memory. A meditation as it has resulted from nearly three hundred years of landscape development in Holland and Britain, which from the seventeenth century made gardens as places of escape, in which the wealthy could maintain and observe their horticultural treasures. Zumthor’s Pavilion courtyard is planted ‘naturally’ by Piet Oudolf, with many species which would be familiar to the reasonably serious exponent of the ‘gardener’s garden’. Its conception derives from a picturesque history in which all nature could be seen as a manageable source for human intervention. Zumthor and Oudolf’s garden, which Zumthor has described in terms of how nature is looking at the viewer instead of the converse, is an inheritor of the eighteenth-century philosophical idea that beauty is a subjective phenomenon, residing in the individual viewer’s mind rather than on the composition of nature.

There are several unwitting ironies to the presence of this pavilion in a London park. Firstly, its inwardly tilted courtyard roof with its rolled edge detail designed to discharge water into the garden, appropriately responds to the typical English summer. Zumthor’s desire to engender a temporal sensory experience is much enhanced by experiencing rain sheeting onto the aromatic plants. Then, the somewhat mannered external concrete paths leading to the entrance of the Pavilion help keep visitors ‘off the grass’, in an act reminiscent of institutional courtyards instead of a public park in which visitors wander freely. This, of course, also inverts the typology of the private, gated garden in the London square, of which there are many nearby examples. The small garden is transformed into a place anyone may inhabit, with physical as well as mental freedom. In a wider context, it is based on the original domestic enclosure, with the fencing of gardens from fields. Of course, some of the earliest enclosures from the wild were of cemeteries. Zumthor captures the pleasure and artificiality of the garden by simultaneously framing a view through the roof, of the park trees and the sky, as a counterpoint to the picturesque vision of the interior. This reflexive act sets the Pavilion into a broader context. It intimates at the temporality of the cultural agenda, allowing the Serpentine to end it or let it become something else, its radicalism lost in the repetition of its annual reconstruction. Zumthor’s Pavilion would be a fitting finale to the series.