Sitting here on a wild October day, watching 40 mph gusts of wind blow through the birches round my garden, it is lovely to remember the shelter and intimacy of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavillion – a Hortus conclusus of washed black walls enclosing a ’tableau vivant‘ of planting designed by Piet Oudolf, open to the sky with tall grasses reaching out to the park around the pavillion.
Strictly speaking the Hortus conclusus traces its roots back to the Middle Ages, and a specifically Christian symbolism rising out of reverence for Mary – but its origins could be traced back to classical and pre-classical Europe, and even earlier to the wellspring of Persia and the paradise gardens of Mesopotamia.
This modern interpretation draws on the essence of the idea, and expresses the spiritual purpose, without being explicitly religious:
“I see a great cycle and I am part of it. 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……A garden is the most intimate landscape ensemble I know of. It is close to us. In it we cultivate 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. The garden turns into a place. ” Peter Zumthor, from his introduction for Hortus Conclusus.
From the outside the Hortus conclusus of Peter Zumthor is a stark building, an uncompromising near-black modernist structure, with no decoration – the only interruption to its mesh-textured walls the retangular open entrances and exits.
Once inside the visitor is immediately reminded of the monastic origins of the Hortus conclusus – a cloister-like passage completely encloses the garden within, offering glimpses of both the world outside, and the garden at the centre.
There is nothing particularly surprising about the plants chosen by Piet Oudolf for this garden – those familiar with his style will know that he favours naturalistic drifts of perennials, with tall and small plants woven amongst the whole planting. An important feature of Oudolf’s planting, well displayed here, is using plants that will outlast their flowering season, adding structure and interest with seed heads, stems and foliage for many months.
When I visited in late September (just as the Indian summer heatwave began to strengthen) the dominant plants were the tall grasses (Molina caerula subsp arundinacea ‘Transparent’ and Deschampsia ‘Goldschleier’) the bugbane Actea ramosa, and the large solid but fluffy heads of Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium maculatum ‘Risenschirm’ and Rodgersia pinnata ‘Superba’.
But amongst these structural drifts, there are also smaller flowers, gem-like spots of bright colours – the intense blue of Monkshood Aconitum carmichaelii Wilsonii group’Barkers’ , the violet starts of Michaelmas Daisy Aster macrophyllus ‘Twighlight’ and the snaky delicate shapes of Toad Lily, Trycirtis formosana .
The Serpentine gallery have helpfully provided a planting plan with plant names – a real bonus for the horticulturalist or deisgner who wants to get to grips with the scheme.
The Hortus conclusus closes on 16 October – do try to visit it in these its last senescent days. It has spiritual quality that genuinely reflects its origins, but is also modern, the energy and vitality of the planting contrasting with calmness and stillness of the building.