Time of the anti-iconic

Peter Zumthor in London

Last years Serpentine Pavilion marked a radical about turn for the annual temporary summer structure, as well as the Swiss architects first completed project in Britain. The press interest was as telling as the cities enjoyment of Zumthor's muted reflective interior garden.

The gardeners were busy on the monday of the Peter Zumthor Serpentine pavilion Serpentine pavilion press launch. I had got off a no 52 bus a stop too early and walked from the Kensington Road stop across the park, a view of the Prince Albert Memorial in the distance. There were tractors and hoses, men and women with efficient looking boots, holding rose clippers or digging into the finely cropped lawn, and the earthy fringes around the plants and flowers. The sun was not yet high in the sky, but already the heat was rising on this midsummer day, a day radio 4’s weather person had announced would be the hottest of the year so far - at least in the south of the country. On the other side of the Serpentine road, beside the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery was a table with two female members of staff, a clip-board and list of the invited press folk.

“The speeches begin at ten,” one of the girls said, as I began heading towards the pavilion. Making my way round to the pavilion entrance and into the interior garden, the question of whether the proceedings would start on the dot, given the Swiss obsession with punctuality, surfaced. From outside, the anonymity of the pitch black pavilion revealed nothing, leaving visitors to guess at what lay inside. A series of narrow slits opened into a transitional inner corridor running the perimeter of the rectangular wooden structure. Phased entrances at the corner points, brought people into the open interior garden with its plants, flowers and grasses. The garden sat there, a long strip running end-to-end and bordered by a circulatory terrace, with chairs and tables, a bench leaning out from the walls and stained a rich almost royal blue. It was the grasses I noticed in the garden, their thin tall stems bringing to mind wide open prairie spaces. The plants, flowers and grasses were the kind you might find in the wild; untamed or domesticated, at the side of some dusty road, on the continent and elsewhere. During the interview Zumthor would later take a swipe at ‘design’; On the continent, he exclaimed, it’s considered pejorative to describe his and others work as design. Here he had made a container, with an ceiling open to the sky as part of the framing of the natural world in front of your eyes, growing from the ground up. It brought to mind a first possible paradox; the wild enclosed and controlled by walls. I had no way of telling, but it seemed that both Zumthor and the Serpentine had decided upon a garden type, which was a modern day Hortus Conclusus an interior garden the origins of which, could be traced back to medieval monasteries. The first page of the press release quoted Zumthor, speaking of the inner space as a ‘contemplative room, a garden within a garden.’

Those thoughts came later, during the summer. At the time, distracted, I wondered where to sit, as inside, the space was already teeming. Zumthor had brought the architectural media out in force, like bees to nectar. Three of the four UK architecture magazine editors were present, one-ex editor, and at least two of the broadsheet architectural correspondents, amongst what must have been close on a hundred people in attendance. There seemed to be scores of photographers, the clicking of cameras sounding like crickets in a cornfield. Some, such as the Serpentine’s PR company were part of the infrastructural machinery of the creative industries, busying themselves with their clipboards, as if they knew exactly what they were doing. When I arrived, Zumthor himself was sitting in conversation with a woman with long hair. Before long he was on his feet, being introduced and talking to one or another of the press people. Like many there, I imagine, my eyes kept returning, despite myself, to see where he was, what he was doing, who he was talking with. What must it be like to have all eyes on you? He is a tall man, above average height, quite imposing. He was wearing one of those easy fitting, slightly hippi-esh jacket and baggy trousers; what, when I was young, trendy academics wore at social do’s. After a while I found myself looking at his shoes, again easy fit, almost moccasin-like, leather slippers.

The blackness of the building contrasted sharply to the differing colours of the plants and people. The way the pavilion both exuded presence, half monolithic, while also slipping into the backdrop was disconcerting. Constructed from wood the structure – which, early on, had been going to be in brick, until this was nixed as too expensive – had been covered with a hessian netting – apparently almost at the last minute; and then the whole building painted, with a tar-like bitumen black. The bitumen and the hessian canvas were rough against the hand. Textural; tacit; physical. Later in the summer, at least two people said they thought it was this that made the structure.

Above the pavilion’s roof, the sky was clear of clouds. The dark roof-line and its overhang, brought to my mind Japanese traditional homes, the gutter line designed to create a shimmering waterfall when enough rainwater fell. People said how magical it was when this watery element occurred. I made a mental note to myself to return later in the summer to witness this, but didn’t. The building’s blackened form ensured a sharpness of contrast with the skyline, and looking up reminded me of James Turrell’s sky-shelters, and for a short period my mind began taking in birdsong in the Hyde Park trees mingling with the sound of traffic along the Serpentine road. The long strip of garden, which lay as the peaceful centrepiece of the pavilion, sat silently, behaving itself.

Looking at the plants and flowers that the Dutch landscape gardener, Piet Oudolf, had carefully hand-picked and then had planted in the immediate weeks leading up to the launch, threw me into an old mindset; how little I know about the lives of plants. Some weeks later I returned with my mother, who saw through different eyes, and tried to convey something of what Oudolf was doing. At the launch, with my uncertainties to the fore, I wondered how many architecture writers are interested in plants, flowers, weeds, and the living world, whether found in the few rectangular feet of earthy ground or in any other places. Very few of the assorted media people appeared to be giving the centre-piece much attention, as I scanned around or listened in to conversation. The talk was on Zumthor, the launch seemingly slanted towards the architectural world. Another paradox began gestating, about a Swiss architect introducing a beautiful garden into the heart of Hyde Park, to the English, among the planet’s most ardent garden enthusiasts. Not quite carrying coals to Newcastle, but not so far off either.

The presentations began shortly after 10. Julia Peyton-Jones the Serpentine’s director, spoke first. Tall and composed, Peyton-Jones welcomed the press, her words flowing off her lips in measured, precise sentences. She talked about the idea of the Hortus Conclusus, about Zumthor and about the history of the pavilion, and of course about the sponsors. She was followed briefly by gallery’s co-creative director, Hans Ulbrich Obrist, before the floor was handed over to Zumthor.

Thinking of Zumthor’s reputation of having been on occasions, intransigently non-communicative in public talks, almost challenging the audience, I was struck by how relaxed and sprightly Zumthor came across when it came to his turn. He too spoke about the inner garden, and how it was a place of relaxation and reflection in the middle of a vast global city. He seemed animated, and it felt difficult to imagine this was a performance,

He talked about the Hortus Conclusus idea, and of how he hoped this inner space would, over the summer, become a sanctuary from the noise, speed and hustle and bustle of the vast city, its non-stop life only a few hundred yards from the pavilion. “Yes, I know everything is about economics,” he mentioned at one point, before underlining that the space was for people to slow down and stop for a moment and forget the financial underpinnings, enough to take in the parallel world of plants, the earthy loam of soil with its nutrients and the insects feeding off and replenishing the plants. At some point he stopped and noted how the bees were busily working away, harvesting pollen, oblivious to the human world. And how, if we stopped for a moment, this world would speak to us, slow our thoughts, our hurried and worried ways of life, down a mite; and, perhaps, calm and, ‘ground’ us. And then he amplified the entire story by noting how at the heart of his idea for the Hortus Conclusus, was a reversal. We were the audience, or at least could be so, for the plants and flowers.

It was dawning on me that he making a pitch for slow culture and the secret life of plants. And that implicit in making the garden the centre of attention, the pavilion, could be understood as almost a small scale manifesto for the values of green living. Not only slower, closer to and in harmony with the natural world, but seemingly also conscious of, and acknowledging the interdependence of the human world with this larger than us world and its different alien, although real intelligence. Or in Zumthor’s rhetorical device; people being the audience for the garden’s plants - that we humans are part of this world; sharing in our breathing, our need for sun and sustenance, for water and rest, and, despite our various sophistications, will continue to be intimately connected. Later I was returned to the various visits I’d made to Graubünden(and the times I’d spent in the mountains, and the sense of slower, older ways of life that the farmers, and others living out their lives in the higher reaches of the Canton were still in touch with. It felt as if Zumthor was also bringing something of that world to a park in the middle of London.

The press launch talks were over soon enough, and the three speakers were quickly led to their appointed first interview slots. I had been wondering whether he gardened himself, having seen the somewhat tattered condition of his Haus Z studio and home garden when I visited to interview him for the Fourth Door Review feature.

A first tranche of the invited slipped away, others stood or sat around mainly talking shop. “I know we always say this, but we really must meet up soon.” As others waited for their respective ten minutes, the mismatch between the UK archi-press pack and Zumthor, that don’t begin to fit together, made its presence felt. The Brit architectural media, almost all London living or London based, are intensely metropolitan, urban types. There is none of the wild that is encompassed in the wilderness aspect of the mountains reaches, a permanent backdrop to Zumthor’s life and work in the eastern Swiss Canton of Graubünden. It also felt as if the Brits were ill at ease with Germanic seriousness, the intensity seemingly bringing out a case of cultural difference butterflies which the these English journalists, true to character, tend to turn into running jokes. Overall, the media are a pampered lot. In the interaction between architectural journalists and architects, architects will generally go a long way to give their journalistic visitors the best slant on everything; the building, themselves, the writer. It is shallow and restless, modern, and part of the game of the media saturated world. It is also a symbiotic, mutually dependent world. The journalist, writer, media-gate keeper, needs the source of the story they are writing about. Without the source there is usually much less of a story. Again, the architect generally needs the media to publicise his or her or their work, and in the best light. Everyone knows this. Most play the game. A few don’t, Zumthor at times being a protean example.

Zumthor's discomfort, what can come over as a quiet restlessness, as if he is waiting for the whole exercise to be done with, affects the press. Again and again there were comments about how difficult he is to interview. I was standing next to the Guardian's architectural writer, Jonathan Glancey, when he said how difficult his slot had been. "He just doesn't say anything," protested Glancey. This was familiar from my previous impressions of the man. Another in the group, The Independent's Jay Merrick suggested that Zumthor reserves his heart for his work, and everything else is incidental. He doesn't see it as important. Which is why, at least in part, he didn't engage that much in interviews. And anyway, continued Merrick, Zumthor is difficult to place. There's a case to be made that he isn't an architect in the normal mode. He is one example of the emerging artist-architect field existing across both spaces, though still not really of either. And then there's the monkish secular spiritual dimension, which had been pushed in the broadsheet pieces that featured in the couple of weeks before his arrival in Britain; and to which while giving short shrift to in the interviews, Zumthor also plays to in the choice and symbolism of his work; the chapels, the monastic inner garden, the secular retreat. So, the space in the landscape he occupies is singular, underlined again by the pavilion, mixing mysticism, gardening, landscape and structure.

The interview caravan was making its way along one side of the pavilion’s terrace. A film crew asked him to look in a certain direction for the camera. “You don’t need to answer any of the questions, talk about anything you want,” said the film crew interviewer.

I had asked for an interview slot, but had not expected to get any time. So when I heard that I was booked in I was surprised. It turned out to be a group-slot with three others. There would be ten minutes, the Serpentine's head of PR, Tom Coupe, had said over the phone a few weeks earlier, his voice dropping to emphasise the seriousness of not exceeding the time window. Now as we waited for Zumthor to finish talking with a group two tables along the terrace, the four journalists began introducing themselves to each other, exchanging brief pleasantries. One was from the Architectural Review and another a freelancer doing the piece for Blueprint the architecture and design magazine. The fourth I didn't quite figure out, though she seemed to be a friend of the Blueprint woman. The Architecture Review journalist turned out to be quite brusque, a 'just the facts' man.

Each of us tried to humour Zumthor, impress him with our attempts at competing to appear the most naturally knowledgable and appreciative of his work. The Blueprint woman began by asking about the contrasts between this collaboration and the Northern Norwegian Vardo project, where he had worked with Louise Bourgeois. I asked about how he had come to be interested in gardens, and the Architecture Review man asked him about the materials and how the form of the pavilion had been arrived at. Just as the Blueprint woman was beginning to ask about the materiality of the pavilion, Coupe, who’d been hovering, jumped in. “I’m so sorry, we’re going to have to end it now.” Zumthor, ignored him saying, let her ask her the question, he had time. Before long we were finished, and the ritual of gratitude and pleasantries completed, Zumthor stood up, and moved back along the terrace. There was one further interview waiting.

The PR launch morning was drawing to a close, and the final interview, by a German TV station was nearing its end. They talked in German, the interviewer leaning forward earnestly. By now the journalists present had diminished to a trickle. Later outside the gallery entrance I asked the two-person German TV team, who they were from, and they mentioned the TV company’s name. Berlin I think, and the item was going out on Friday. I could watch on the website if I wanted to, they said. I made a note, thinking my German wouldn’t be up to the conversation.

Coupe and his colleagues began herding the remaining people out. We moved along the east side of the pavilion, slowly making our way towards one of the exit slits. A smallish bespectacled man asked for just one question of Zumthor; why had he tinted the seats the deep royal blue? And how? Zumthor looked back, the small smile on his face, and didn’t say anything. Or maybe he answered “Why?!” a twinkle in his eye, and no answer, A young Japanese woman, asked could she just ask one question. I didn’t hear the question, though Zumthor, exhaled afterwards, “Yes! Yes ! Yes!” said slowly, a long and heavy emphasis on the end of the word, repeatedly. She asked for his autograph. Against my better judgement I did too, and he took my pen and scribbled his surname on the opening FDR pages of the themed Graubunden section. I looked disappointed, having been expecting the precise Z followed by small th, that had accompanied his paintings and other work among the Bregenz exhibits. It was really a scrawl. “Did you read the piece?” I asked, probably too eagerly. His small smile remained, enigmatic. No words.

We were at the exit by now. There was a call for a last photo-op. One of the photo-people shouted, something like “this way Mam,” to his wife, Annalise, who was walking just to one side. Zumthor misunderstood, and suddenly bristled. “Don’t you call my, wife mum!” he half-bellowed. A woman in the group of photographer’s, responded matter of factly; “that’s what we say in England.” He stood, they clicked, and then the group and remaining hangers-on moved on. I found myself next to Annalise and asked how long they had been here. She was a well-dressed woman with alert brown eyes, quite conservative in her choice of clothes, at least for London, which made me think of how much more ‘proper’ people across parts of Switzerland and Austria seemed to be. Hard working, whether protestant or catholic, the sense of permissive city life doesn’t quite reach into the mountains. She answered that they’d flown in the previous night, and said how surprised they were about it being so hot. I told her about it being the hottest day so far in the year, before adding that heavy rain-storms and summer thunder were forecast for the next day. Her eyebrows rose in surprise. A moment or two later we fell out of the corridor into the open and the shining sunlight, and Zumthor and wife began to be ushered towards a waiting car. I imagined they would be whisked off to a celebratory lunch after the press ordeal.

There was a question I wanted to put to Peyton-Jones and Ulrich-Obrist. How had they first made contact with Zumthor? I went looking for them and found them standing against the trellis in front of the main Serpentine Gallery entrance. They looked at each other, trying to recall, Peyton-Jones saying they’d first made contact through an intermediary while she attended the Davos Economic summit early on 2010. Davos is in the same Graubünden canton Zumthor lives and works in. They had then gone to visit him in Haldenstein. He had been interested early on, and they had bonded over art. Poetry, she said when I asked what sort: Gerald Manley Hopkins. I tried to square the English romantic poet with what I knew of his tastes in poetry. I’d been told he was obsessed for a while with William Carlos Williams. In music Modernists such as Eenakis, and in art Beuys and Arte Povera had long been on his radar. I couldn’t quite get Manley Hopkins into this frame, but perhaps, I thought, this displayed a lack of imagination on my part. Peyton-Jones and Ulrich-Obrist did seem very pleased with their catch. “It’s our dream come true,” said Peyton-Jones.

A dream or otherwise, it is timely, if not a bit late in the day. Iconic wow architecture’s reputation has been on the slide for the last two or three years, with the economic recession casting a different, less indulgent, light. The contrast between the Zumthor pavilion and the techno-glory days of the early Cecil Balmond pavilions, that repeatedly celebrated strange and impossible geometries, and overlapped with complexity and computer modeling informed by the Balmond-led Arups Advanced Geometry Unit, is stark. The Zumthor pavilion, with its emphasis on the natural world, with its interior garden and plant life, is quite a shift for the Serpentine. It is also the least showy, most restrained, seemingly quietistic pavilion to have been built. As the eleventh in the series it could be seen as, after a decade, as hitting the reset button. Time will tell whether it’s a one off or a longer term re-positioning for the whole Pavilion strand of the Serpentine’s architectural programming.

Its contrast to almost all of the predecessors is striking, the contrast helping suggest something anti-iconic, or talking the language of the absence of the iconic. The shift was masked by the big deal for the Serpentine, scooping the first Zumthor – albeit temporary structure – in Britain, though now it has happened, how long will it be before a backlash will start? As the first building it was also a big deal for the architectural media world. Hence, in part, the turn-out. Hardly immune to the cult of Zumthor, the British architectural fascination with him and his work continues unabated. But it is radically at odds with much of the dominant character and direction of British architectural culture.   Will it last? The Observer’s main architecture writer, who’d written a feature the weekend before, had dipped a toe in controversial water, suggesting some of Zumthor’s work was ‘creepy.’ What will follow?

Two months later, on an early September evening as dusk turned into night, I arrived late to the third in three talks, which Zumthor had presented during the day. Zumthor and Oudulf were sharing a makeshift stage to talk about the garden and the building. One of Zumthor’s children, Peter Conradin Zumthor also performed a drumming and electronics set. The evening, which was the complete support programme for the entire four month period seemed so minimal as to be almost non-existent. Particularly when set alongside other years; Olafur Eliasson’s weeks of events in 2007, for instance. He was there though, and for most of the 200 tightly crammed-in audience, I imagine that was enough. Zumthor had already begun talking when I arrived, and was speaking about landscape, and of resonating with the land, though it would take a while to realise that he was laying the ground for the origins of how he came to the Serpentine Hortus Conclusus idea. Poetic Landscapes a project in Southern Germany where architects worked with poets that he’d been involved in, was mentioned, something I knew had not happened. He moved onto another abandoned project, this time in the ground of a Somerset stately home, where he’d first thought of a look-out tower holding a library of all the landscapes. But then he’d had a change of mind, and it had become “a really stupid idea”, a nineteenth century all-seeing, all-knowing panoptican that he had, it seemed, become quickly disenchanted by. But Poetic Landscape had initiated something, it sounded like; how to work with the resonances of landscape; and this had continued and deepened with the Bruder Klaus Chapel. This was the prehistory, seeds to ideas which had stirred, apparently, new thoughts about the natural world around him. And from there, the Serpentine, and the idea of an enclosed garden. “All of a sudden it came,” he said, bringing people into a space ‘an instrument, or looking device’ though the shape, took longer; an ellipse, or cube, preceded the rectangular form, which emerged. “I wanted the plants to be next to me, so I thought it should be long.”

The garden itself came much later, earlier this year. Zumthor had already stated in our group interview at the launch, that when he was shown the Dutch gardener’s work, he immediately knew, “this is the one.” Oudolf, who spoke after Zumthor, added that they are from different worlds. Although this is true, the complementary sensibilities are immediately evident. I can’t help thinking this is partially to do with their age similarities; there is only one years difference. Like others of his generation across many fields, Oudolf’s sensibility is about looking and finding beauty in different places. In his case in gardens. In the common, in the humble, and in the modest. The plants he grows are the plants and flowers of the everyday. Ones that might be growing beside a country path, reminding me of how people used to talk of how weeds were just flowers growing out of place. It’s also about knowing, he says during the evening, what will grow when and how, so that there is a sense of looking into the future, an ability to foresee how the colours, structure and scale of many plant combinations will turn out. When he talked Oudolf referred to this as four-dimensional, “this is not a garden. It’s a performance, it’s an installation,” he said. Looking at the grasses and the various repeated patterns of flower combinations, there was a wildness to it, I could see, like Nick Drake’s song, Heaven in a wild flower, though a carefully calibrated wildness. My mother pointed out monk’s hood, and milkweed, and how the catalogue identifying the plants for visitors gave these in their common, traditional names, alongside the Latin. In the press release architect’s statement, Zumthor had acknowledged that he had only recently begun attending to the plant world, and did not know many plants by name. Recently though, he’d learnt, he’d said before Oudolf began speaking, that the species of plants outnumber the world’s human population. “There are always more plants than people.” This brought a round of laughter from the audience. Oudolf’s Serpentine garden numbers 1100 plants. Along with noting his recent awakening to the plant world, he’d written that he’d only recently come to
think about his human place in the cycle of life, coming ‘from nature’ and returning ‘to nature.’ He had said something similar during the group interview slot; that his awareness of gardens was recent and gradual. In the brief period that he had talked with myself and the three others, he mentioned that the influence of his wife, her enthusiasm for gardening. He left the garden at Haus Z to her. I couldn’t help thinking that age and mortality had returned him to first and last things. A couple of years earlier I had heard that the Bruder Klaus chapel, was connected to the project being his mothers favourite catholic saint, and that had kindled something of an interest in religion. If there was any perceived identity Zumthor is known by, it’s one which speaks to a mystical dimension; the secluded monk, working at some distance to the fallen world of mammon, creating buildings and structures which become pilgrimages of sorts to the new contemporary religion of art and art destinations. Perhaps, this is what is difficult for some of the British cultural world to fathom, home of Richard Dawkins and a significantly more atheistic society than that of many parts of central Europe. And the architecture tradition here is still dominated by technical prowess, our official heroes are Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Zumthor is quick to insert the secular into discussion of his work, the working title for his contribution to the Living Architecture project, his first permanent building in Britain, is A Secular Retreat.

As the week passed it became evident that Zumthor was being put about by his Serpentine PR minders. By chance I happened to be listening to Night Waves, Radio 3’s cultural magazine on the Wednesday evening, and there he was mixed in with other offerings from Planet Culture. The evening’s presenter, Philip Dodd, moved seamlessly from Robert Hughes to the architect. There were a couple of set-the-scene questions and then one for possibly a slice of the Radio 3 audience, something like. “You and I are of an age who begin to think of old age. Do you try and express this in your architecture?” To which Zumthor immediately referenced an early work, an old people’s home in the outskirts of Chur. They got onto something else, and then, I cannot recall how now, the Japanese girl who’d been standing next to Zumthor at the end of the press day, came into the conversation. “There was this very beautiful, young Japanese girl who asked me a question. Mr Zumthor, is this work possibly influenced by Japanese Zen stone gardens? Yes…” he roared and I had the answer to that un-overheard conversation from two days earlier.

By thursday Jonathan Glancey’s interview had gone up on the Guardian site. He used the word ‘enigmatic’ twice within his just short of six-minute report. Glancey asked an intriguing question to which Zumthor again didn’t rise. “At the Vals thermal baths,” he stated, “you did something very few architects have managed to do. You managed to make a building like weather.” Zumthor smiled quietly, politely and said very little. It was like being on tenterhooks. Glancey didn’t really get anywhere. So he did what journalists do in those sorts of situations, he asked another question. They moved on to Haldenstein, the village where he lives outside Chur. He said he was only still there because of his wife, who’s from the region. His ancestry was from French Alsace, and only in recent generations had they moved to the big Swiss city on the North Eastern French border, Basel. I thought of a Guardian report by one of Glancey’s staffer colleagues who, after Zumthor’s award of the Pritzker prize was made public in 2008, filed the rather inane line about the architect living in a ‘remote’ part of Switzerland, making it sound as if you had to trek for three days hacking to clear a path to his home, while Chur the town Zumthor lives near, is actually a ten minute drive away, with the town itself only
an 80 minute car or train journey from Zurich, one of the richest cities in the world, served by at least two trains an hour. This was the problem with the media, I had thought when I’d seen the piece. And also that, this may account in small measure, for his separation from the buzzy up-to-the-second urban, media saturated world.

Over the summer I went back to the pavilion five times, once after dropping off a second batch of FDR’s in the gallery bookshop, twice with friends, once with my mother, and once the evening of the Zumthor talk. Apart from the evening talk, each time I visited there was a quiet, undramatic stillness, and a peacefulness of atmosphere to the inner sanctum; I imagined the interior garden, with its silent backdrop, as working similar healing magic on others who’d passed through and sat a while. The contemplation, the invitation to stillness seemed almost the opposite to the frenetic speed and froth of the press launch. A necessary evil, and one I’d participated in, what kind of work will it have done? What comes next, after the press cuttings and visitor numbers have been collated? Will this introductory taste, to the realms of silence which Zumthor’s work at times embodies, be too much of an acquired taste for the Brits, or will it become a taste which swells in numbers and appeal?

Click here to download a transcript of the full interview with Peter Zumthor