Secret Garden


Having made the move from the confines of my London garden to the wide, windswept views here at the farm, the idea of enclosure has been at the forefront of my mind. How to create a still place, as contrast, is my current conundrum, so the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion piqued my attention when it opened at the beginning of July.

Peter Zumthor's hortus conclusus – enclosed garden – is the 11th in the series and marks his first completed building in the UK. Known best for the austere sensuality of the thermal baths at Vals in Switzerland, Zumthor is a purist at heart. Light is key in his work as is the uncompromising use of the raw materials from which it is made. I was interested to come upon the building in the park – dark and recessive, it is made from a lightweight timber frame wrapped with scrim and coated with polymer emulsion black Idenden. Its darkness almost forms a void among the trees. Where several of the pavilions have embraced the park, the hortus conclusus turns itself inward to create, in Zumthor's words, "a contemplative room. A garden within a garden".

The press opening was held on a bright London morning and your eyes had to adjust to the dark of an inner corridor that forms a skin between the two worlds of the park and the inner sanctum. The corridors are lit by the doorways to and from them and they are tall and narrow so that you become acutely aware of the light source. These passages represent an antechamber in preparation for the garden inside which, despite the throng of cameras and journalists, was still. Inside, a long, rectangular room is overhung by shade-giving eaves and a deep blue bench runs round the perimeter. The darkness of the cloister frames the sky like a James Turrell sculpture, and the sun dives in to split the space between shadow and light.

Just before the speeches, Zumthor decided to turn off the exterior generator that powered the microphones. He wanted to draw our attention to the way in which the building refocused our senses and emotions. As we craned to hear over the sound of the cameras, the blackbirds in the park at once became evident, as did the motion of the wind in the trees beyond the dark walls and roofline.

The horti conclusi were developed in the core of medieval monasteries as self-contained gardens that would act as safe places for both plants and thought. These gardens inspired silence and observation and it was interesting to see how the pavilion provided a haven from the noise, traffic and smells of London.

Zumthor went on to describe "the presence of plants as quietening" and in a garden "as the most intimate landscape I know of. In it we cultivate the plants we need. A garden requires care and protection. And so we encircle it, we defend it and fend for it. We give it shelter and the garden turns into a place."

The sliver of life, running directly under the window to the sky, is designed by Piet Oudolf, the Dutch horticulturalist responsible for the planting on the High Line in Manhattan and the new perennial borders at Wisley. Zumthor was keen that "something small found sanctuary within something big" and the garden within the garden does indeed become something magical. A place intensified by its enclosure.

As I sat looking at the informal repeat of umbelliers and tapers of flaming bergamot, I couldn't help but think of the garden enclosures I have visited in Japan, where the composition is given new intensity. These were plants I had seen before – Angelica archangelica, Astrantia "Claret" and Eupatorium "Riesenschirm" – but you looked at them again within the enclosure. This is one of the great strengths of a small garden that may appear to be restricted but, in reality, is all the more intense and intimate for the boundaries. Zumthor's building was a frame for the work and for the changes and shifts that are included through introducing a living thing at the core.

Living as I have for the last eight months with a long view, I have come to realise that we also need our boundaries and our sense of enclosure to feel comfortable. I am not sure how I will achieve it yet on my windy hillside, but when I do I know it will provide me with the stillness to appreciate the detail and the blackbirds and the life racing past beyond the boundaries.

Read the article on The Observer website

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