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Pritzker Winner Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion Is Quiet Retreat

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Serpentine Gallery pavilion 2011
The new Serpentine Gallery pavilion 2011 in London. Designed by Peter Zumthor, the temporary summer structure commissioned every year gets dismantled in October. Photographer: Walter Herfst/Serpentine Gallery via Bloomberg

July 4 (Bloomberg) -- A monastic cloister with a garden at its core has sprouted in London’s Hyde Park.

It’s designed by Peter Zumthor, winner of the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize. He has been chosen to design the Serpentine Gallery pavilion: a temporary summer structure commissioned every year that gets dismantled in October.

The Swiss architect, who lives and works in Haldenstein in the Alps, hopes his rectangular enclosure will send visitors into a state of quiet contemplation. During the media preview, he tries to hush up the scrum of photographers, and smilingly points to a tree where a bird is tweeting loudly.

I ask the blue-eyed, white-bearded Zumthor, 68, how he feels about the pavilion’s original purpose: as the venue for a chic fundraiser full of glitzy celebrities.

Zumthor: I do what I think would be beautiful.

A building where the center is not given to the people, but to the plants, and you gather around it.

Everything in the world at the moment has to do with economy, money, how do we perform, how do we put up a front and so on. This is meant to be the opposite: an island where we can be ourselves. Let’s see whether this works, huh?

Nayeri: Why does everything you do have to convey a sense of peace?

Zumthor: My buildings should have an emotional core -- a space which, in itself, has an emotional nice feeling.

I think space, architectural space, is my thing. It’s not about facade, elevation, making image, making money. My passion is creating space. This is, of course, a beautiful space, where you come in and see the space opens again, up to the sky. What more do you want?

Star Outsider

Nayeri: You’re one of the “starchitects” of today, and you’re in a city, London, where towers are going up with names like the Shard and the Cheese Grater. How do you feel being a part of that global community of architects?

Zumthor: I’m not. I’m not part of it.

I work in a completely different way. I’m not part of this economic system. My children would like it if I were much more part of this economic system, so we would have more money. No, I’m joking. It’s not about money at all.

Nayeri: What moved you to make a memorial in Vardo, Norway, for the victims of 17th-century witch trials?

Zumthor: The place, the task. If you go there, you find out that 91 people have been murdered for nothing, and this has been done by men and their attitude of trial and justice. You get so angry.

Nayeri: Are you a feminist?

Zumthor: No.

If I look at history, it seems that most wars and most cruel things have been done by men and not by women.

Los Angeles Project

Nayeri: Can you speak about your project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art redevelopment? It seems unusual for you to do a high-profile site in the middle of that city.

Zumthor: I’ve done a high-profile site in Cologne, Germany. What makes you say that?

Nayeri: It’s on a scale we’re not used to with you.

Zumthor: Ah, yeah. You’ll get used to it! (He laughs.)

The director Michael Govan is a great guy. Together with him, we can do something fantastic. He knows that I taught in Los Angeles, I know Los Angeles, I like the city. And we are up to something fantastic. We have a great concept already.

Nayeri: What has the Pritzker Prize changed for you?

Zumthor: It makes me more quiet.

Nayeri: More quiet? That’s unusual.

Zumthor: I don’t know. It gives you more of a base to stand there. You can be even less questioned in what you’re doing.

Zumthor’s pavilion can be viewed through Oct. 16.

Information: http://www.serpentinegallery.org or +44-20-7402-6075.

To contact the writer on this story: Farah Nayeri in London Farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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