Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine pavilion

This case study is presented as a phenomenological account of first-person embodied experiences of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in London.

Zumthor is known for his striking integration of sensory qualities in the design of his buildings (Ursprung 2014) and I had the opportunity to visit his London Serpentine Pavilion twice. The first time the weather was bright and relatively sunny while the second time, it was raining abundantly. The weather is mentioned here because it had a significant impact on sensory variability in the pavilion due to its design. According to Kellert (2008) sensory variability, the level of variation in sensory phenomena such as light, sound, touch and smell in an environment, impacts on human satisfaction and wellbeing and as such, can impact on people’s ability to develop intimate connections with their surroundings.

In the first instance, my experience of the corridor as I entered the building was especially powerful. Inside, intimate proportions, the modulated light, the mellow darkness and relative quietness provided a welcome refuge from the vastness and brightness of Hyde Park as well as the noise of traffic nearby. Robinson (2015, p. 57) highlights the significance of surface materials in Zumthor’s pavilion design. She explains how he seduced visitors by coating the burlap walls in black paste to introduce texture and micro-shadows to deepen the darkness of the interior (Figure 1). She doesn’t write about the smell but through my own experience, I know that a faint, but comforting smell emanated from the walls. Upon entering the corridor, my body attuned to its environment, ‘[t]here was no need to hurry, no urge to move on’ (2014, p. 39), I felt emotionally connected to my surroundings.  Zumthor had designed the outside of the pavilion as a simple black rectangular box hiding the inside so the experience was unexpected and serendipitous. By including an opportunity for an unexpected phenomenon with special qualities to occur, Zumthor created a significant and memorable experience whose image still resonates with me today.

Figure 1: surface material and light qualities.

The corridor entirely surrounded the interior and the thresholds, from the outside into the corridor and from the corridor into the interior, were cleverly staggered. This design feature protected the intimacy of the interior by providing a refuge from the more chaotic and entangled reality of the outside world. Covatta (2017) equates this form of intimacy to mental wellness and the interior, a simple cloister-like space with a rectangular garden of wild flowers as a central focal point, did present a peaceful and restful outlook. The experience was pleasant. The edges of the space were lined with benches integrated into the architecture, as well as tables and chairs inviting people to pause. Tuan (1977, p. 138) identifies pause as one of the conditions necessary for individuals to experience a sense of place. He writes that ‘[p]lace is a pause in movement. Animals, including human beings, pause at a locality because it satisfies certain biological needs. The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a centre of felt values.’ The ability to pause can thus be an opportunity for individuals to attune to their surroundings.

Beyond the biological need to rest however, people tend to prefer secure and protected settings (Kellert et al. 2008, p. 13) and the recessed sitting area nested against the wall and protected by a short overhanging roof presented a nested opportunity for private positions from which to enjoy the garden at the centre of the space. Bachelard (1958) relates the nest to the concept of inhabiting, linking the ability to withdraw into one’s intimate territory to pleasure, while Nakamura (2010) adds sensory precision to the concept of pleasure by explaining that, due to their intimate size, nests minimise distances and maximise opportunities for bodily contact with space through an active relationship between the structure of the space and the body.

Aside from its role as a natural focal point, the variety of plants created a complementary effect where a rich complexity of details and variability contrasted with the order and structure of the architecture and the simplicity of materials. This complexity also contrasted with the view to the sky above. Although the design of the pavilion eliminated all connections to the outside and people could seek protection under the overhanging roof, the garden remained open to the sky with the top of the trees in the park still visible. This feature provided a distinctive and enticing, even poetic, geographical connection to the outside.

The edges of the space were busy, occupied by people, adults and children sitting on the furniture provided, some chatting, some eating, a few people reading, some simply resting, and a few others strolling around the garden, all seemingly relaxed and enjoying the space (Figure 2). Following the more contemplative experience of the corridor I began to attune to the more convivial mood of the garden. Mallgrave (2015, p. 6) explains that the recently discovered mirror mechanism underpins human empathy and is the reason why we can easily share emotions with others. As such, the sight and sounds of people relaxing can have a positive effect on the mood of others as they did on mine.

Figure 2: interior and garden at the centre.

During the second visit, the interior of the pavilion, was almost devoid of human presence and quieter and I was able to immerse myself in the experience of watching, listening to, touching and even smelling the humidity of the Summer rain falling onto the garden through the open roof. Drops of water fell heavily onto the edges of the metal tables, creating a rhythmic sound pattern and visual liquid explosions (Figure 3). Even though it was raining, the roof offered protection and the experience was comfortable and relaxing. With little disruption, the mood was contemplative. As during the previous visit in the corridor, my body attuned to the environment however, while previously, it happened as a sudden unexpected force, this time it occurred more gradually, as if my body was slowly easing into the atmosphere of the space. First person embodied experiences of both visits were captured in a phenomenological map (Figure 4).

Figure 3: interior and garden in the rain.
Figure 4: phenomenological map of first person embodied experiences.

Even though the pavilion was temporary its design as a refuge, the choice of materials, the garden, the visual connection to the park and the thoughtful integration of natural elements, grounded the interior and gave it a natural relational presence. It felt authentic. Interior designer Mary-Anne Beecher  (2008) expresses a link between authenticity and atmosphere and argues that for a place to cultivate atmosphere, the setting requires an authentic and meaningful contextual grounding. Moreover, despite knowing that it was a temporary space, the environment also exuded continuity, projecting a temporal connection between past, present and future. Till (2013: 95)  refers to it as ‘thick time’, when ‘[in] its connectedness, time places architecture in a dynamic continuity, aware of the past, projecting into the future.’ In this instance, a feeling of continuity emerged from the choice of surface materials such as the worn patina of the burlap walls and aged timber whose slight imperfections could be imagined as a reference to past occupancy while the cloister like design also seemed to reference an architectural historical context. Although the black box of the exterior felt incongruous in Hyde Park, once inside, it felt that the interior had always been there.

Bibliography

Bachelard, G. (1958) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Beecher, M. A. (2008) ‘Regionalism and the Room of John Yeon’s Watzek House.’, Interior Atmospheres. Architectural Design., pp. 54-59.

Covatta, A. (2017) ‘Density and Intimacy in Public Space. A case study of Jimbocho, Tokyo’s book town.’, Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, 3(5).

Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J. H. and Mador, M. L. (eds.) (2008) Biophilic Design. The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Mallgrave, H. F. (2015) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo, Finland: Tapio Wikkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.

Nakamura, H. (2010) Microscopic Designing Methodology. Tokyo: Japan: INAX Publishing.

Robinson, S. (2015) ‘Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility’, in Tidwell, P. (ed.) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo, Finland: Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.

Till, J. (2013) Architecture Depends. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.

Tuan, Y. F. (1977) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Ursprung, P. (2014) ‘Presence: The Light Touch of Architecture.’, in Wilson, V. & Neville, T. (eds.) Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. London: royal Academy of Arts.