Jay Merrick: Serpentine commission is a real coup for gallery

Monday 04 April 2011 00:00 BST

A handful of living architects – notably Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvaro Siza – can be described as unique. The word seems crude when applied to Peter Zumthor. With him we are, to borrow a Van Morrison album title, into the mystic.

Zumthor is Mr Atmosphere, the unchallenged master in creating spaces of sensual, pregnant stillness: the vibe is utterly anti-free market, anti-bling. He is a modernist, but his obsessions with memory, shifts of ambience, and meticulously crafted surfaces and details are timeless. Zumthor's Kolumba Museum in Cologne, for example, lacks only the overlapping chants of plainsong to make it a monastery of art.

He chooses his projects carefully and pursues them on the understanding that what he designs is carried out to the letter and built to the finest tolerances. He is designing one of Alain de Botton's Living Architecture holiday homes in Britain and it will become a must-rent shrine for hundreds of British architects.

Great architects often pursue big or deliberately objectionable design ideas. It's very different with Zumthor. Recalling a door handle, he once wrote: "I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt's garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of waxed oak staircase. I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen."

It is this heightened sense of the presence of space and materials that he is after. Don't expect wow factor with his Serpentine Pavilion. Get ready to meditate.

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