The Serpentine's Secret Garden

Posted by Joanna Chard on 09th August 2011

Every summer for the past eleven years, the Serpentine Gallery has unveiled architectural wonders within the landscaped confines of Kensington Gardens. The gallery selects and commissions international architects of worldwide renown to design a pavilion for this unique outdoors space, showcasing the most contemporary architectural practice. Previously commissioned architects have included Zaha Hadid’s reinvention of the marquee; Olafur Eliasson  and Kjetil Thorsen’s magnificent spinning top; and in 2008, Frank Gehry’s steely glass masterpiece. 

Olafur Eliasson  and Kjetil Thorsen, 2007 pavilion

This year’s commission, by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, sits low-slung beneath the trees. From the outside, the structure looks to be a shadow of a building; it’s black austere exterior absorbing the summer sunlight. However, enter inside and viewers will be richly rewarded with a beautifully tranquil garden, offset by the architect’s choice of black stained wood. 

The austere exterior of Zumthor’s new pavilion

The design emphasises the role the senses and emotions play in our experience of architecture. With a refined selection of materials, Zumthor creates contemplative spaces that evoke the spiritual dimension of our physical environment. Recently described in the Independent as ‘Mr Atmosphere, the unchallenged master in creating spaces of sensual, pregnant stillness’, Zumthor has stated that "the concept for this year’s Pavilion is the hortus conclusus, a contemplative room, a garden within a garden. The building acts as a stage, a backdrop for the interior garden of flowers and light. Through blackness and shadow one enters the building from the lawn and begins the transition into the central garden, a place abstracted from the world of noise and traffic and the smells of London – an interior space within which to sit, to walk, to observe the flowers...".

The Serpentine’s Pavilion commission has become a challenge of sorts. Allowing an architect free reign to design their dream summer hangout, without constraint or instruction, I would imagine to be pretty daunting. Last year, French architect Jean Nouvel clearly relished the freedom. His bombastic red structure, complete with bean bags and Ping-Pong tables, was a cacophony of different materials and clashing styles. The result was a loud and showy caffeine-friendly social space, attracting park goers like bees to a giant red coffee filled honey pot. 

Jean Nouvel’s 2010 pavilion

In stark contrast then, the restraint and sophistication of this year’s pavilion aims to achieve something quite special. The building itself is a modernist take on a medieval monastery, with four symmetrical open-aired corridors providing just enough space to sit and contemplate the nature contained within. It obeys classically elegant long thin proportions and, in reverence to light, the roof opens up at a gentle slant so that the sun feels like it is pouring in, rather than being blocked out by the dark walls. The new pavilion is therefore a beautifully mesmerising addition to Kensington Garden’s this summer, and definitely one not to miss. 

The interior garden of Zumthor’s pavilion


Peter Zumthor's Serpentine pavilion is open until the 16th of October. For more information, please click here.