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Peter Zumthor: ‘My work is not about design’

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AJ editor Christine Murray talks to Peter Zumthor about his Serpentine Pavilion, enclosed gardens and the role of the architect

The Serpentine Pavilion is an unusual commission in that it has a very open brief. Where did you begin?

I heard they were going to ask me [to design the pavilion], and I had the idea to do a garden. Gardens are something that I’ve been interested in for the last 10 years or so, and I was drawing in the morning at the breakfast table, and thought this was a possibility to do a hortus conclusus [an enclosed garden]. When [Serpentine curators] Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans-Ulrich Obrist came here to tell me about the brief, they walked by a big model of the design and asked, ‘What is this? Is this our design?’ And I said, ‘Yes, this is for you’.

What is it about gardens that interests you?

Plants have unquestionable beauty. There are no ugly plants. I never studied plants, but then again, it has nothing to do with study. Even if you had studied plants all your life, there is something beyond scientific knowledge. Plants can move you. The garden is the most intimate kind of landscape. Landscape has various degrees of nature and intervention; but the garden is pure intervention, in a way. But then it grows.

Section: The Sepentine pavilion

Section: The Serpentine pavilion

Can you tell me about the concept of the garden at your pavilion?

It sort of emerged, the idea of architecture framing a garden. In medieval history you see enclosed gardens, herbal medicinal gardens, gardens for lovers, gardens for a virgin, and so on. The atmosphere is one that everybody recognises somehow; an enclosed garden at the centre, with people collected around it. We’re not there to pray – I designed some tables and chairs, you can have a drink and something to eat, and it’s nice for us to be there and have a chat. It’s not holy, not a sacred place, but I hope it will be intimate. I hope you go there and think, I have to come back with my friend. That’s what I want.

Does the pavilion respond to the landscape of the park?

No. It’s a black box in the park. It’s exotic. You have no goddamn idea what it’s all about. It’s fun. You go in, and see what happens.

You’ve excluded the gallery’s café and the event space from your pavilion design. Why was this important?

Personally, I’m not so interested in events. I like them, but this pavilion has to do with my work with landscape, architecture and gardens.

Planting schedule: The Serpetine pavilion

Planting schedule: The Serpentine pavilion

Piet Oudolf will be designing the garden itself – have you worked with him before?

I don’t know him very well. I saw his work, and thought this is exactly what I’m looking for, because he does not have a theoretical design background, he comes from planting, he’s a horticulturalist. I wanted a landscape architect, or maybe a gardener, who doesn’t have a big ego in design, but knows a lot about plants – not the opposite.

Why was that important to you?

Because the whole pavilion is not about design. My work is not about design. I didn’t want a designed landscape, I wanted to feature the plants, the flowers. It’s not how the flowers are arranged, it’s about the plants themselves.

And the material of the building?

It’s not important; it’s secondary. It’s a frame. It’s material over a simple timber construction that can be taken apart and reassembled (see overleaf). I wanted to use roofing felt, but the European regulations… In Switzerland, I could have done it, as we are not part of the EU.

How have you found working within the UK system for both the Serpentine and the Secular Retreat for Living Architecture in Devon?

What I’ve observed from working in the EU, not only in England, is the over-regulation of things. Wherever you go, somebody somewhere is thinking of your health and well-being. If you follow all these regulations, you should flatten the Alps for sure, because they are far too dangerous. It’s all done with the best intentions, but it’s also about shoving off responsibility, for the lawyers. We have to speak up and say that for each new regulation, at least one regulation should go – at least. Then people will think harder about what they regulate.

What, in your opinion, is the role of the architect in society?

I select my clients based on the simple criteria of whether the project is worthwhile socially or culturally; whether I would like to do it; and whether the client has some kind of good intention other than making money. If you’ve heard that I am arrogant, then this is just people seeing from afar what a selective person I am. I think this has nothing to do with arrogance – it is the way I have always been. I’ve always said yes, or no, without looking at the money.

So the role of the architect, to get to the core of your question… I can only speak for myself. I’m an architect who designs from the inside out; from the use of the building to the form of the building. If you give me a brief and say please implement this, then I say I do not implement, I think. That’s how I see the role of the architect. I don’t like this splitting up [of projects] – personally, I cannot work if one person is thinking about the programme and somebody else about the facade. The architect as a specialist is not my thing.

There should be someone in charge of how the orchestra sounds – imagine playing a Beethoven symphony with no conductor. This is what I do – I’m the conductor-composer and I work with everybody on the building, from the people who lay the floor to the client. Without these conditions I cannot offer my best. You can talk to my clients. They’ll say it was a pain in the ass, but it was worth it.

Your way of working is one that many architects envy but think impossible. They say, Zumthor doesn’t work in the real world.If I turn down a client, I
can’t afford to pay my staff.

I have no money. Nobody is sponsoring me. I remember times when my wife and I were counting our money to see if we could afford to take the train to Chur. But it wasn’t a problem. The money came the next week, or whenever. And when I ask our children, they say, ‘We didn’t realise about the money, we were happy’. It’s an attitude, isn’t it? A choice.

What is the current size of your office, and how many projects are you working on?

Almost 30 people, so this is the maximum. I’m existing on the limits of what I can do every day and still counsel people, and not leave them alone too long. The number of projects is never ideal. We have maybe 35 projects, and six are seriously stopped, six are temporarily stopped and six we have to really go on like hell. I prefer having too many projects than too few, as I know from experience that they stop for various reasons.

What would be your advice to young architects or students starting out?

Be yourself, love the profession, love building. I didn’t set out to make a career, I set out to make good buildings. I never advertised, I never made a telephone call. If you do good work, it will get recognised.

The Serpentine Pavilion opens on 1 July

Site plan: The Serpentine pavilion

Site plan: The Serpentine pavilion



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