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Hortus conclusus at the Serpentine Pavilion

Posted on 1st Aug, 2011

The Serpentine Gallery summer pavilion is always worth a visit and this year’s is no exception.

Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor this year’s pavilion is the 11th in the gallery’s annual series of architectural commissions, which give international architects a platform to realise their first built structures in England.

Approaching the pavilion the visitor is confronted with a low black box nestling among trees. Concrete paths lead up to entrances  set at regular intervals along the sides of the box – these entrances are dark and forbidding the black of the building being echoed in the interior. On entering eyes have to adjust to the darkness of  a long corridor, shafts of sunlight penetrate the corridor at intervals and the visitor is drawn towards the light. The play of this light and dark can be followed around all sides of box as the corridor provides a perimeter walkway.

Drawn to the light – the visitor stops at the entrance to the inner sanctum, where the darkness is suddenly contrasted with a riot of colour, movement and texture. Here is an inner garden – hortus conslusus conceived by dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf.

The dark walls and roof of the structure create a feeling of enclosure, but the sky pours light into the centre. A long border spans the centre with a tableau of plants with give the internal space a feeling of inviting calmness, atranquil space to sit and contemplate, meet, relax.

“I dream of an enclosed garden open to the sky. Every time I imagine a garden in an architectural setting,
it turns into a magical place. I think of gardens I have seen, that I long to see, surrounded by simple walls,
columns, arcades or the facades of buildings – sheltered places of great intimacy where I want to stay for a long time.
At the centre of my pavilion is a garden; it invites us to gather around…..I am looking forward to the natural energy
and beauty of the tableau vivant of grasses, flowers and shrubs”

Surrounding the walls of the interior are benches and freestanding small tables and chairs inviting the visitor
to take time to sit and relax and enjoy the magic of this hidden garden. On the day I visited the pavilion was being used as a meeting point for friends gathering for coffee; as a quiet space for reading & contemplation; as a kids runaround – the corridors and entrances creating a fun interactive “playground”  – but above all it seemed a place people wanted to linger and enjoy.

For the keen horticulturalist there is a very helpful laminated planting list and plan – which in itself deserves to be studied. I found it fascinating seeing what plants had been chosen to provide successional colour and structure from
June through to October.

Visiting as I did at the end of July – the planting was in full flow with repeated groups of Eupatorium maculatum standing tall and structural against the black backdrop and a bright red Monarda offering a riot of brightbrash colour. Grasses such as Deschampsia, and ferns offer foliage and texture to compliment the perennials.

I will certainly make the effort to go back later this summer to see how the planting has changed and developed.

I would encourage everyone to make time to visit this very successful summer pavilion and enjoy the magical hortus conclusus.

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