Monday, November 14, 2011

Oasis in an oasis

Peter Zumthor's Serpentine pavilion this year proves once again the architectural axiom of "You have to be there and feel it." Upon arrival, you only see an ordinary black box. It looks much more permanent and severe than most of the previous pavilions at the Serpentine. Following a curved gentle slope, you enter a narrow and dark corridor that circulates the perimeter of the box. Through another door, voilà! You are in a hidden inner space, a calm and wonderful wild garden designed by Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf. Away from the noise and traffic and the smells of the busy city outside, here is a sanctuary with the full powers of nature.
Peter Zumthor sketch
Piet Oudolf sketch

Material is always key to Zumthor's architecture. This time, he uses a lightweight timber framed structure covered in gauze and painted over with a black Idenden coating. It gives a heavy and intense impression when seen from afar, almost like stone or concrete. But up close, you will see the softness of the scrim and its irregular texture. A slightly blue wooden bench surrounds the covered inner wall to provide seating.

Obviously, the garden is the heart and focus, and the architecture is just a frame, or a stage for the flowers and light. The sloping roof also draws attention to the sky and the trees beyond the walls. After staying for a while, I found myself starting watching other people, observing their behavior and interactions. People participate, but not in a party way. This is a place to relax, to contemplate, or to enjoy a slow lunch; a place for kids, young moms, senior friends and alike to hang out and chat.

There is no loud gesture, no big statement. In the era of icons and spectacles, Zumthor has delivered serene and almost spiritual atmosphere. If Hyde Park is an oasis in London, the Serpentine pavilion by Zumthor is another oasis within it.

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