The work of the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor – winner of the Pritzer Prize 2009 – is characterized by contemplative spaces that evoke almost spiritual experiences through precise but simple composition and carefully chosen materials. His latest building, the 11th Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London, is no different.

“The concept for this year’s Pavilion is the hortus conclusus, a contemplative room, a garden within a garden,” says Zumthor of the structure that is part an ongoing architectural program that since 2001 sees the Serpentine Gallery commission a temporary pavilion each summer. As he describes, Zumthor has created a stark structure that at its center hides a lush garden planted by Piet Oudolf. Renowned for his award winning garden designs that reveal the natural archeitcture of plants, Oudolf’s chose plants that mirrored the form and texture of Zumthor’s encasing structure.

“The building acts as a stage, a backdrop for the interior garden of flowers and light,” adds Zumthor. “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.”

Typical of Zumthor, the Serpentine Pavilion 2011 features a labyrinth of walkways and narrow corridors with meticulously created moody natural light. Lightweight timber frame walls are coatd with black Idenden over scrim heighten the atmosphere. As Zumthor remarks: “This experience will be intense and memorable, as will the materials themselves – full of memory and time.”

Hortus Conclusus by Peter Zumthor

We come from nature and we return to nature; we are conceived and born; we live and die; we rot or burn and vanish into the earth. I rarely thought about such things when I was young. Now I do. I see a great cycle and I am part of it. For a little while, I am here. I did not exist before my time and I will no longer exist after my time. But in my time, I belong to the process of life on this planet; for a little while I am part of the organism of human beings, animals and plants that exists on this planet and that passes life on.

Looking back I realise that I have always taken plants for granted; they were part of my
surroundings; they were self-evident and I enjoyed them as meadows, gardens or woods. That has changed. I have become more attentive to the plant world even though I never studied it and know only a few plants by name. But I like being with them. To me, their presence is quieting.

The hortus conclusus that I dream of is enclosed all around and open to the sky. Every time I
imagine a garden in an architectural setting, it turns into a magical place. I think of gardens
that I have seen, that I believe I have seen, that I long to see, surrounded by simple walls,
columns, arcades or the façades of buildings – sheltered places of great intimacy where I want to stay for a long time.

The centre of my pavilion is a garden; it invites us to gather around. We will meet in the
garden. I am looking forward to the natural energy and beauty of the tableau vivant of grasses, flowers and shrubs that Piet Oudolf has created and will plant for our hortus conclusus. I am looking forward to the colours and shapes, the smell of the soil, the movement of the leaves, the scent of the Bugbane and Joe Pye Weed. Piet tells me that butterflies and bees love their smell.

Peter Zumthor
Haldenstein, May 2011

“Enclosed gardens fascinate me. A forerunner of this fascination is my love of the fenced
vegetable gardens on farms in the Alps, where farmers’ wives often planted flowers as well.
I love the image of these small rectangles cut out of vast alpine meadows, the fence keeping
the animals out. There is something else that strikes me in this image of a garden fenced
off within something big.”