Peter Zumthor is complaining about the speakers and the amplifier for his forthcoming speech. And the buzz of the generator needed to power them. We are in a black box enclosing a garden in the middle of a park, this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens. It has been conceived as a space for retreat, for silence, for refuge.
“The garden needs quietness,” Zumthor says, pointedly refusing to speak into the mic. “It needs to fight the noise of the city. It needs to be a place where we can relax, where we don’t need to put on a façade.” So he makes the nervous gallery staff switch off the generator. “There, you hear the silence?” he asks. “The birds?” Later, in a taxi, he says, “Everything today is connected, amplified. This,” he says with a sly smile, “is the unplugged pavilion.”
Zumthor is as close a thing to a cult architect as there is. He works from an exquisite house (in which he has meticulously designed every subtle detail) deep in the mountains of Switzerland’s Graubünden, where the sound of cowbells gently filter in through the windows.
He seems uninterested in becoming a star. Although hugely sought-after, he consistently refuses all but a few opportunities. With a smallish office of around 30 people housed in an annex to his engagingly minimal Alpine house and a steady stream of clients eager to commission him, Zumthor is in a privileged position for an architect.
What criteria does he use to accept the few commissions he does undertake? “The task has to make sense. They need to be buildings for places I like – though not necessarily always beautiful places. But most of all I need a client who needs to do this from the inside out – not to make profit or just to sell something but because he believes in it. But I am always hearing about projects I have turned down, projects I have never heard of. Just yesterday I learnt that I turned down a commission to build a library in an Oxford college. Why would I do that? A wonderful job.”
His recent work embraces strange pieces of constructed magic, such as the memorial to women murdered as witches in the bleak arctic landscape of northern Norway and a chapel to the eccentric visionary hermit-saint Bruder Klaus in a field outside Mechernich in Germany.
What he has designed for the Serpentine is, in many ways, just as strange. A mute black container lurks outside the dainty brick-built gallery. On entering you are confronted with a sinister dark corridor and then, suddenly, a splash of colour in the rich mix of meadow flowers and plants at its courtyard centre, a canopy of sky above. The building has the dark, light-absorbing angularity of a stealth bomber but at its heart is pure delight; a garden within a garden, the planting conceived by the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, whose work along New York’s High Line park has created an entirely new natural layer in Manhattan. “How could you do something where you are not looking at nature,” Zumthor explains, “but nature is looking at you? Where you can become part of it? This is not a pop-up Chelsea Flower Show but a collection of ordinary plants you’d find in your garden or that might sprout up in an alley.”
In the heat of London’s hottest day this year, the garden really does appear like a retreat, a shady glimpse of something other. But, with the snapping of lenses, the aggressive jostling for media position and the thrusting of microphones, this isn’t, perhaps, the perfect day to experience it. Then again, will any day be? These pavilions have become so popular, so keenly anticipated, that the idea of this place becoming a refuge is perhaps a little hopeful – though it is being opened at dawn every day through the summer. Get there early if you want contemplative.
Is it, I wonder, what Zumthor imagined it would be? “It’s better,” he flashes back like a shot. “If you’re lucky, and a building succeeds, the real product has many more dimensions than you can ever imagine. You have the sun, the light, the rain, the birds, the feel.”
Zumthor himself is an imposing presence. His steely blue eyes and steady gaze puncture stupid questions. His short silvery hair and beard, the muted tones of his collarless linen shirt and long linen jacket, lend him a definite air of the ascetic. But while his kind of devotion to the seemingly simple is often characterised as monkish, he talks, in fact, of the sensuality of material, the luxury of craftsmanship.
Zumthor’s background is not conventionally architectural. His father was a cabinetmaker in the countryside near Basel and he trained in the craft, only coming to architecture later. How, I wondered, had that craft experience affected his work as an architect? Did it make him different from architects who had come through the academic route? “I grew up in a craftsman’s home,” he replies, “where things were done with our own hands. I did cabinetmaking for four years and I hated it.” I look up at him from my notes in surprise (the furniture he designs – including the delicate folding steel stools and tables at the pavilion – is exquisite).
“The first 10 years of my career were spent running away from my father who wanted me to take over his shop. What that background gave me though was an idea of making, of what’s possible and what’s not possible. If, early on, you know how things are put together then you can build. The architect is in charge of making – he is not an artist.”
Is he implying his most successful contemporaries try too hard to be artists? “What I try to do is the art of building and the art of building is the art of construction, it is not only about forms and shapes and images.”
His buildings have made such an impact because they affect us in a way we have become unused to. His pavilion too is as unsettling as it is enigmatic, dark, concealed, strange. I was wary of how an architect such as Zumthor, who deals in a kind of permanence, with a deep connection to the earth and the place, would cope with such a weightless brief. His response has been the hardest thing in architecture – to make a place.
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011, open until October 16. www.serpentinegallery.org
It could seem like the most ephemeral architecture imaginable. A pop-up pavilion in a park lasting as long as the fleeting British summer and then gone. But somehow, the Serpentine Pavilion programme, now in its 12th incarnation, has become a forum for extraordinary architecture and ideas, a moment in which wonderful, unexpected things can happen. It began in 2000 with a party tent designed by Zaha Hadid that became such a success that it stayed for the summer. Increasingly elaborate constructions came from a series of distinguished architects, the key condition being that they had not yet built in Britain. Daniel Libeskind built a jagged, spiralling shelter, Toyo Ito a complex, seductively crystalline room.
Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer made a monumental modernist statement, a structure that realised the exquisite expressiveness of his sketches while the following year Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura built a curious timber armadillo.
In 2006 Rem Koolhaas topped his pavilion with a balloon which could lift up when exposed to too much hot air and buildings followed from Zaha Hadid (this time wonderful mushroom-shaped canopies), Olafur Eliasson and Frank Gehry.
Perhaps most elegant of all was the sinewy, reflective delicacy of SANAA’s effort in 2009 while last year’s building by Jean Nouvel was the diametric opposite of Zumthor’s, a scattered, pop-culture French café for enjoyment, leisure and consumption.
But what, if anything, has the programme achieved? Arguably, it has become London’s annual moment of pure architectural joy, a design event on a lawn to equal Ascot or Wimbledon and an artistic highlight every bit as much a part of the city’s consciousness as the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installations.
It presents the opportunity to strip architecture of function, to reveal it as pure, playful space and matter. It is an affirmation of an often buried idea that architecture can be theatrical, provocative or just sheer fun and a perfect platform for the kind of formal and sculptural experimentation that would seem wilful or wasteful in a building meant to stay here forever.
Every building has an afterlife – they are sold on to raise funds for the next one’s construction but most importantly they live on in the city’s collective memory, a glimpse of a particularly English idea of a folly in the park.