Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Summer at the Serpentine - Zumthor goes creosote

To this year's Serpentine Pavilion, Hortus Conclusus, which was designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a man that many would put on their 'greatest living architect' shortlist.

Hortus Conclusus - 'enclosed garden' - didn't do it for me (though if you are interested in architecture you should go and see it).  As an idea, a garden within a garden in central London is a bit odd, since arguably people not already in a nice park, for example in large areas of Tower Hamlets where there aren't any, might benefit rather more from the planted space offered by the project - which was a nice enough bit of planting, but hardly memorable.  But even if you accept the idea of an inner sanctum space for quiet contemplation away from the frisbee throwing throng in the park, unfortunately, everyone and their dog had gone there at the same time as us, and opportunities for contemplation were limited.

As a building, this seemed to me one of the less interesting or inspired manifestations of this annual event in recent years.  The 'all black' finish - same on roof and walls and floor - was another nice idea in theory, but the reality - thick black paint on scrim tape on ply  - just looked a bit cheap, and to an English viewer, strongly reminiscent of a creosoted garden shed - not sure if they do that in Switzerland.  You could see the joints but not very clearly, and I couldn't work out if the intention had originally been to suppress them or celebrate them, the result rather falling between the two.  The result was a bit like a rapid in-house mock up of a structure meant to be made properly in due course.

Of course there are architectural ideas underlying all this and there are connections with other projects by Zumthor and others like him - the interest in 'materiality' (architect-speak for 'materials', or perhaps 'materials with added theory'), and in the enigmatic quality of the simple building form.  But Magritte could make a real garden shed look more enigmatic than this, by painting it in the right light and, crucially, detaching it from the hubbub of the everyday.  You can get that effect up an Alp too, but it's harder in W2.

All rather disappointing, and it made me ponder on what you do as a client if you have sought out a great architect and you don't think much of what they come up with.  Let's hope the Serpentine is better served by Zaha Hadid who is designing their new Sackler Gallery nearby.

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