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Why Zumthor is perfect for the Serpentine

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Zumthor will make the Serpentine Pavilion a place of architectural pilgrimage, says Christine Murray

Before the current pavilion has even been taken down, the AJ has exclusively uncovered that Peter Zumthor will design next year’s Serpentine Pavilion.

And there could be no better choice of architect to reinvigorate the decade-old commission to design a temporary rain shelter and tea room in London’s Hyde Park.

Everything Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, and his elemental work has a broad church. His Therme Vals baths in Switzerland is Mecca for architects, but full of ordinary folk too. His chapels, St Benedict and Bruder Klaus, satisfy visitors seeking either the spiritual or material sublime.

And as if by magic, in 10 months the Serpentine Pavilion will bring the singular experience of Zumthor’s work, until now only found in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, to central London.

The Serpentine brief could not be more ideal for Zumthor. Many an architect has publicly struggled (and failed) with this unique, carte blanche commission. I remember interviewing Kazuyo Sejima in the run-up to last year’s pavilion. She told me the lack of constraints left her practice, SANAA, wondering where to begin – a rough start to a project that must be executed in months.

But Zumthor is a different breed of architect, famous for his lack of deference to clients and his insistence upon complete freedom. His dismissal of client input is legendary, and an approach few architects could afford, justify or indeed stomach. British architects are educated to (and excel at) design within the parameters set by context, budget and client. In contrast, Zumthor is a strange beast: half artist, half architect – a master at work sponsored by open-minded patrons. This certainly makes his work difficult to emulate, and his singular approach is alienating and arrogant, if alluring.

As for his work, it is labour-intensive and design-intensive – the work of an architect’s architect. It is also loaded with contradiction. It’s monastic but not hair-shirted; spectacular but not bling. Were it not so expensive to build, it could almost be described as austere. The words that come to mind are elemental, monolithic, singular. This is the architecture of fairy tales – cave and labyrinth, solid and void, light and shadow. It is something a visitor instantly, instinctively understands, without the plastic cheapness of what passes for wow-factor.

Indeed, my great hope is that Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion will widen the public’s narrow definition of ‘wow’. I hope it has walls that the public can’t help but touch, and a presence that makes them shiver. I want to see them run their fingers over an impeccably detailed pavilion in enraptured wonder.

One final note: when I imagine a Zumthor pavilion, it has a permanence that is ill-suited to a temporary structure. In fact, it has already been described as a ‘big concrete block with a garden in it’, which does not sound like a building that, after three short months, will be crated and carted away.

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