PRINT December 2011

Lynne Cooke

Zumthor, Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, 2011, London. Interior courtyard. Photo: SmallMoon/Flickr.

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, cell-like 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 café; sometimes they serve as spaces for performances and related programming. 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 wigwamlike 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. Formal religion—references to which are confined to a bust of the chapel’s namesake and a modest cross—has been subsumed into an encompassing spirituality embodied in the elements: fire, air, water, earth.

Initial impressions notwithstanding, it did not take long to realize that my experiences in these two very different places were quite closely related. Both buildings reflect Zumthor’s abiding preoccupations—above all, an uncompromising adherence to an idea of architecture as the generator of resonant places. His understated structures do not merely accommodate their inhabitants; they ground them. The fleeting and unpredictable effects of change generated by the movement of light, wind, or cloud cover ensure that the architecture becomes more than just its physical frame. Precisely because he cedes so much agency to the immaterial—to the interplay of space and elemental forces—Zumthor’s work seldom seems self-regarding. It rarely draws attention to itself as the focus of our admiring gazes. This distinguishes it from, for example, the elegant folly designed by SANAA for the Serpentine, which is otherwise Zumthor’s pavilion’s closest kin among previous entries in the series. An undulating polished aluminum canopy that wove itself in and around a stand of trees, SANAA’s 2009 project elicited reflection in only the most literal of ways.

Peter Zumthor, Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, 2011, London. Interior courtyard with landscape design by Piet Oudolf. Photo: Hufton+Crow.

Doctors, sociologists, and others have lately pointed to our ever-increasing disconnection from nature as a major cause of depression and malaise. Though problems associated with light deprivation, for example, have been recognized for some time, it has only recently been accepted that mental as well as physical disorders may be linked to our isolation from the natural world. (“Hard” science is catching up with cultural and social theory, in that such recent research bears out the idea, as propounded by Georg Simmel et al., of anomie as the quintessential ailment of modern—specifically modern urban—life.) Part of the deep satisfaction and pleasure that visitors feel when spending time in Zumthor’s structures stems from his architecture’s finely regulated engagement with natural cycles, materials, rhythms, and forms. That sentimentality has no place in his aesthetic is due not only to his awareness of mutation and change, but also to the role of destruction and decay—forces that operate as barely perceptible undercurrents in most of his work. The life span of the London pavilion was little more than a season; its audience was a summering metropolis. The chapel, by contrast, was designed for centuries of use by intermittent wayfarers. The two buildings nonetheless engage the singular and solitary individual within a communal space. The effects of composure and resolution integral to each confirm that resonant places may still be created.

Lynne Cooke is Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.