The Secret Garden: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011, Designed by Peter Zumthor, Hyde Park, London.

Review by Emily Sack, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

Each year the Serpentine Gallery commissions a new architect to design a summer pavilion for Hyde Park. Such architectural stars as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and last year, Jean Nouvel have graced the site with stunning creations for public enjoyment.

This year Swiss architect Peter Zumthor created the Hortus Conclusus alongside the Serpentine Gallery. From the exterior, the pavilion is intense and a bit foreboding – the black rectangular mass is pierced by several doorways, yet each appears to lead only into darkness. Walking through the entrances the visitor finds him or herself faced with a corridor with doorways exiting the building and entering the centre courtyard. None of the doorways between the interior and exterior are aligned causing each entrance and exist to have a sense of mystery. The double layer of walls with the dark corridor surrounds the central space of the pavilion – a beautiful courtyard garden.

It is perhaps easiest to classify Zumthor as a new Modernist as his minimalist style and emphasis on materiality harkens back to the architectural giants of the first half of the twentieth century. The most notable comparison relates not to similarities of aesthetics but rather to a related notion of space. Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings often feature a sense of compression that eventually releases into a space of expansion, and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion induces the same juxtaposition of sensations on visitors.

The interior space of the pavilion is actually quite small, and the central garden takes up a considerable percentage of the space so that visitors are permitted to only circle the perimeter of the interior. The garden is lovely featuring a variety of flora – the mostly green varieties of ferns and leaves are pleasantly interspersed with vibrant reds and purples. A sign on the exterior lists the species incorporated in the garden for those with a keen interest in plants.

Around the interior wall is a continuous bluish-black bench. Silver metallic tables and neutral seating provide a stark contrast with the coarse black walls of the pavilion. From this seating area visitors are confronted with a James Turrell-like experience of viewing the sky isolated from the ground and the horizon. The tops of several trees are visible, but the opening in the pavilion, surrounded by the steeply pitched roof, reveals a rectangle of blue where the clouds pass by and the changing weather conditions can be observed. The seating area of the pavilion is covered so that visitors are protected from the sun and summer showers but are still able to experience nature.

Zumthor’s creation is not meant to necessarily be a beautiful structure, but rather to enclose a beautiful space. The pavilion is meant to serve as a place of isolation from the noise and distraction of the city. The Zen atmosphere of this garden within a garden encourages visitors to sit and enjoy the temporary reprieve from contemporary urban life.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011 is open until 16 October.

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Courtesy Peter Zumthor
Photograph: John Offenbach