Magazine article Artforum International

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion: Serpentine Gallery, London

Magazine article Artforum International

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion: Serpentine Gallery, London

Article excerpt

SOME WEEKS AGO, whipped by wind and driving rain, I navigated a just-plowed field on the lazy slopes of the Eifel, fifty-odd kilometers southeast of Cologne, in search of the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. This small, celllike sanctuary, completed in 2007 and dedicated to a fifteenth-century hermit and mystic, offers a telling contrast with Zumthor's most recent work, a pavilion designed for London's Hyde Park this year. Whereas the chapel assumes the form of a simple tower, the temporary pavilion, now dismantled, proved unexpectedly severe, almost forbidding. Sheathed in a coarse fabric painted black, its somber volume was punctured on each of its long sides by a trio of unadorned doorways leading into a narrow corridor that hugged the perimeter wall. The secluded garden within was magically luminous in comparison with the dark, confined space of the passageway that accessed it. A luxuriant combination of wild grasses and flowers, this highly structured artifact appeared less the product of close cultivation than did the carefully tended park outside. With its unchecked profusion of mostly humble (as opposed to exotic or rare) plants, this "natural" garden embodied the vision of Piet Oudolf, Zumthor's partner on this project. Inherent in the celebrated Dutch landscapist's privileging of perennials and prairie grasses are the inescapable effects of decomposition. Given that the pavilion was open only from July 1 to October 16, its short life span offered limited opportunity to perceive Oudolf's hallmark process, yet intimations of decay were increasingly evident as autumn approached.

Zumthor's project is the eleventh in a highly acclaimed series of commissions initiated by the Serpentine Gallery that has featured such star architects as Jean Nouvel, Oscar Niemeyer, and SANAA. Annual interventions in London's most popular public park, the pavilions usually attract vast audiences. Most have consequently aspired to be more than just architectural wonders, taking on nominal functions. Sometimes they incorporate a caf[contains]; sometimes they serve as spaces for performances and related pro-gramming. Modeled loosely on the concept of a medieval walled garden, Zumthor's design stands apart in this bustling company. Rather than encouraging social encounters, his hortus conclusus offered a sanctuary where visitors tended to linger. A generous overhang provided shelter for the benches and small tables and chairs clustered around the garden, reinforcing the impression that this was a place of retreat. People automatically lowered their voices on entering. Cell phones were rarely in use. On one of the days I was there, a lowering sky at once keyed up the saturated hues of the blooms threaded through the swaying grasses and enhanced the prevailing sense of inwardness and reverie. Viewers hovered as if loath to return to the more manicured park, which, by contrast, seemed crowded and boisterous.

Like the pavilion, the chapel has an austere exterior coupled with an interior open to the sky that is animated by nature's cycles. Fluctuations in weather, light, and temperature choreograph visitors' experiences. The ghostly traces of tree trunks, used by Zumthor to create a wigwam like scaffolding around which the outer concrete shell was formed, shape the inner walls. When the shell was finished, the trunks were burned, producing an intimate chamber whose vertical surfaces are soot-stained while the floor, a shallow depression sealed with molten lead, collects the water that falls through the narrow oculus and streams down the concave concrete surfaces when it rains. …

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