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Interview: Peter Zumthor

The AR speaks to Peter Zumthor who is to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal this year

Though Peter Zumthor is rarely described as an innovator, being more widely celebrated for orchestrating atmospheric spaces than for developing technologically advanced details, he describes his Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011 in London’s Kensington Gardens as a working experiment. He spoke to the AR about facades and frames, painting with plants and how this temporary space represents a significant stage in his development of a fresh attitude to architecture and the garden.

AR Tell us about your first built project in the UK, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011.
Peter Zumthor I am ashamed to say I started this project about five years ago, when I was invited to think about a park in Somerset. Having started with the notion of a look-out tower, within a couple of weeks I discovered that this was a stupid, 19th-century idea, where you go up in order to look out at beauty. But we have now developed another understanding of what nature can be, which is more about being inside nature, close to nature, where nature is looking out at you.

So I looked for a way to place the viewer not at the centre of the landscape, as you would be in a tower, but instead to let the viewer become part of the environment. This project extends this idea, and is a bit of an experiment about how a garden needs quietness, and how a garden can fight against the noise of the city. As you come in you have to start to behave differently, more quietly.

AR You said you have come to appreciate plants later in life, having previously taken them for granted. What opened your eyes? And do you garden yourself?

PZ It was a gradual process. My wife has a passion for gardening, so maybe it has a lot to do with her. If I look back, the garden was always present in my work, but my attitude has changed. For me gardens went from being outside, with the viewer looking out at the garden, to the opposite - with the viewer looking inward. This is the first time that I have turned it around completely, so that the garden is no longer part of the surroundings; now I surround the garden. My motivation here was to see whether this could be done in the city. But it led me to question what kind of plants I should use. What did I know about plants?

About 10 years ago, I said to a landscape architect that I would like to know more about plants. He said, ‘well how much do you know, now?’ I said ‘next to nothing’, and he said ‘too late!’ But I remain interested in gardens, architecture and landscape, and how to incorporate the garden into architecture; or to go one step further, how to have the architecture feature the garden, which is what we are trying to do here.

AR And to do that you collaborated with Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf?

PZ Yes. In terms of the collaboration, it was clear to me that I would do the frame, the viewing device, and that I would have to ask a really good landscape architect or horticulturist to plant the garden. So we found Piet. I did not know him, he was proposed to me by someone in the gallery. But when I looked at his work I thought, ‘that’s the guy’, as I could see that he could paint with plants. He looked at my watercolour and I gave him carte blanche, which I have never done before in my life. But I could not do the planting, so someone had to do it for me. I just did the frame.

AR What came first with this pavilion, in terms of the garden or the aperture that you created to frame it. And is there anything specific about the proportions or scale of the room? Was any of this negotiated with Piet?

PZ No, there was no negotiation. When Piet came into the picture everything was finished. He only got involved three months ago, but when he looked at it, he said ‘that’s beautiful’. I started to ask him about the situation of the pavilion. He said, ‘it doesn’t matter?’ I said, ‘what about orientation? If we turn it this way, you will get much less sun…’ He replied, ‘forget it.’ On seeing the garden he has made, I now understand his reasoning. The plants are like those taken from around the edge of a forest; they don’t care if they get half an hour, or an hour of sun, or whatever. This is not a pop-up Chelsea Flower Show type of garden. These are ordinary plants that you could find in your back yard.

AR It is surprising that this timber building has a very different material expression from pervious projects, encapsulated in a tar-like bituminous paint on a hessian-like cloth membrane. Can you talk for a moment about the material you have used?

PZ I don’t think in a linear way, so sometimes themes reoccur, and with this building I am purely trying to design the best possible frame for the garden. This kind of material should trigger memories. This is not an abstract black box. When you look at it some things come to mind. I hope these will be associated with the garden, with sacks and sand, and zinc-coated metal watering cans. It looks simple but there is a certain vocabulary here, and a spirituality, which I am very moved by.

AR You’re very sensitive to nature, and have commented about the plants and insects here. How is this going to inform the buildings you do in the future?

PZ Yes, I already am with a project called The House of Seven Gardens in Doha. It took 10 years to get to this point with this client, and now I am happy to proceed. It will be based on a structure of seven things, as seen in this Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, but maybe bigger or squarer, with walls connecting this pattern. The house will be held in the pattern of walls, as a kind of garden void.

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