Every year, London's Serpentine Gallery hand-picks an internationally renowned architect to design its Summer Pavilion; a temporary monument to stand by the gallery's side in Hyde Park. While partaking architects are selected from all over the world, there is one condition that their selection depends on: this design must be their first ever building to be completed in the UK.
Over the past decade, each architect - from Zaha Hadid to Olafur Eliasson, Frank Gehry to Oscar Niemeyer - has responded with a unique interpretation of this ambitious annual project. But this year, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has presented its audience with something entirely different - rather than focusing on the architecture of the building itself, Zumthor invites us into a secluded garden, walled within a modest timber frame.
An austere, black, rectangular box from the outside, this secretive building is entered through a number of dark passageways, all leading to a central space, a hallowed enclosure bathed in sunlight and filled with a wild sprawling of plants - a hortus conclusus. With this concept of a garden within a garden, the design aims to create a quiet haven for its visitors, removed from the noise and chaos of the outside world, in which one can sit, observe and experience the subtle architecture of the plants themselves.
Zumthor's design was conceived in collaboration with Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, and as a result of this creative meeting of minds the finished work is something that eludes categorisation - it is neither architecture, exactly, nor horticulture - but something more closely approaching a kind of poetry; the beauty, and the intention, is in the human response to it.
"Plants have long been part of the earth's history. They come from afar. Their beauty is deep and beyond question" (Peter Zumthor).
The viewer is rewarded the more she or he understands the conceptual complexities of this design. The hortus conclusus is imbued with medieval associations of European monasteries, and of the Virgin Mary, resonating with notions of the pure and untainted. Yet plants are also evocative of timelessness; at once ancient and modern, Zumthor's work seeks to retain these connotations of past phases of existence in contemporary architecture, and indeed in contemporary society: "For a little while, I am here. I did not exist before my time and I will no longer exist after my time. But in my time, I belong to the process of life on this planet; for a little while I am part of the organism of human beings, animals and plants that exists on this planet and that passes life on."
The eleventh commission in the series, this design is quite different from its predecessors. It isn't jaw-droppingly stunning, nor does it boast a bold, self-conscious signature style - but it still makes a powerful statement. Zumthor has unearthed the art of architecture and is nurturing it back to life, rediscovering what it means to be an architect - by erecting walls, you are essentially creating a space. And it is this space, the absence between walls, in which one truly experiences the architecture.
Devoid of staircases, columns and beams, this building invites its visitors to look up at the sky through a simple open roof. It is not objects, but senses that fill the space. How this subtle revolution will be received by the viewing public remains to be seen.
Arts & Media Correspondent