The Donum Estate, a 200-acre winery nestled between California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, ranks among the world’s top destinations for outdoor sculpture. His enviable possession includes a dozen bronzes Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, an apparently abandoned lead fighter plane by Anselm Kiefer, a giant pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, and a stainless steel banyan tree with dishes and pots by Subodh Gupta. But when Olafur Eliasson accepted an invitation from owners Mei and Allan Warburg to visit Donum three years ago, he wanted to contribute a piece of architecture rather than a sculpture.
‘It’s not about making a monument. The most important thing about a winery is the moment the wine enters your mouth, so that’s what we wanted to focus on: a wine-tasting pavilion,” explains the artist during our meeting in Berlin in April. Also in attendance is Sebastian Behmann, his architectural collaborator since 2001 and co-founder of Studio Other Spaces. The studio is known for experimenting at the intersection of architecture and art, with projects such as Fjordenhus, the headquarters of an investment company in Vejle, Denmark; The Seeing City, a permanent installation for the top two floors of a skyscraper in Paris; and the forthcoming Common Sky, a canopy of glass and mirrors for the courtyard of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
For Eliasson, wine is “a testimony of the earth.” Taste can be determined by the winemaker, but ultimately it is determined by the landscape, biodiversity and of course the weather – a perpetual occupation dating back to The weather project (2003), his groundbreaking installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. His Vertical Panorama Pavilion on Donum Estate, opening today (1 August 2022), is an ode to the natural conditions that make wine possible. A particularly fitting approach as ‘Donum’ in Latin means ‘gift of the land’. The defining feature of the pavilion is a conical canopy, 14.5m in diameter and composed of 832 colorful glass tiles that tell the story of the local weather. ‘It’s about celebrating the ephemeral, drawing attention to everything that is often not measurable and therefore often forgotten.’
But first the website. Studio Other Spaces was looking for a quiet place, not too close to Donum’s sculptures, but not too far either. ‘At the time, we wanted a great view over the estate to the north, but also towards the bay to the south. A place where you have everything in mind, where you can look around and see the whole environment that makes up the wine,” says Behmann. Another requirement was that Donum’s other architecture would be largely out of sight (there is a wine production facility, a hospitality center, and a white-cube conservation facility featuring artwork by Louise Bourgeois and El Anatsui), giving visitors to the pavilion an uninterrupted horizon, ‘where heaven meets earth’.
Eliasson and Behmann identified a small mound that suited their needs, and the Warburgs agreed to move a Corten steel sculpture by Keith Haring to make way for the new pavilion. Then came the job of landscaping: The southeastern part of the site was raised to break the prevailing winds, and a winding gravel path was cut through the land to take visitors below ground level. As you wander, you see the terrain rising around you – a reminder that soil is not only the ground you walk on, but also a home for roots and microorganisms. “By the time you arrive, you’ll be in the ground below. You will be detoxified from the world outside Donum and sensitized yourself to experience the wine,” says Eliasson.
The bottom is the first of three layers in Studio Other Spaces’ vertical panorama concept, which takes you on a journey through different layers of Donum. ‘It brings together the horizontal idea of the panorama in an idea that is organized vertically’, describes Behmann. The second layer is the flora and fauna, which appears at eye level as you enter the circular arrival area in the center of the pavilion. This unusual perspective encourages you to inhale the scent of the grass, listen as it rustles in the wind, tune in to the chirping of insects and admire the fluttering of butterflies. Your perception of the turf is enhanced by the light streaming through the intentionally low glass canopy, which sprinkles the space with kaleidoscopic hues. The effect is dazzling, dreamy and quintessentially Eliasson.
The arrivals area opens into two other circular areas: a smaller service area, lined with cupboards; and a larger tasting room, with elliptical brass tables and seating for twelve along the perimeter. As you enter the tasting room, you sit on thickly padded couches and lean against egg-shaped cushions that, according to Behmann, were inspired by “how squirrels put their stuff in the ground.” After taking in the view of the bay to the south, your eyes are now on the canopy, which Studio Other Spaces designed as a calendar wheel. The 832 glass tiles consist of 24 colors in variations of translucent and transparent shades, visually shaping the annual averages of four meteorological parameters: wind, humidity, temperature and solar radiation. As Eliasson puts it, ‘you look at everything that has determined what you are going to taste’, the weather behind Donum’s famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. An oculus in the center of the canopy means your gaze will eventually fall on the azure sky.
Each of the four parameters is represented by individual rings in the calendar wheel, and the colors have a precise logic: for example, red stands for high temperatures and blue for low temperatures. But Eliasson and Behmann say the canopy isn’t meant to be read as an infographic. Instead, the idea is to make you aware of the elements. “It also credits our subconscious with playing an important role in perceiving taste, light and color,” says Eliasson. “Offering people a legend to decipher the calendar would divert attention from the wine.”
The artist points out that at wine tastings, and even art exhibitions, there is a danger of people being inundated with information and prescribing specific takeaways, “so that they feel really stupid leaving.” It is important not to speak condescendingly to people, but to allow them to grow and prosper’. While the Vertical Panorama Pavilion is immediately recognizable as an Eliasson project, it is also deliberately non-prescriptive. Rather than imposing an artificial intervention (eg opting for an unconventional roof shape), the pavilion simply opens your senses to the natural environment and affirms your appreciation for Donum’s wine.
He adds that “having different experiences with a wine is not necessarily a conflict. It’s just an acknowledgment of the potential of being together without having to be the same. There is an element of generosity in this, and of belief in a diverse future.’
Just as the intent of the Vertical Panorama Pavilion reflects Eliasson’s social beliefs, the material palette and construction also align with his environmental consciousness: the low walls along the path and the pavilion interior are made of an earthen brick from nearby Sacramento (“the idea is to use as much local knowledge and material intelligence as possible’, says Behmann). The twelve columns that support the glass canopy, and the structure of the canopy itself, are all stainless steel, eliminating the need for coatings and lend themselves to eventual recycling. The 832 panels are made from recycled glass. The concentric grid of the canopy is supported by a spiral shell, which Behmann says is a material-saving construction: ‘As always, we work with the same mentality as architects such as Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, minimizing material efforts through natural constructions and natural forms of to grow.’
This passion for sustainability has certainly resonated with the Warburgs, who advocate biodynamic processes in Donum, in addition to regenerative farming practices such as composting, biochar and livestock integration. “This pavilion is a perfect fit for what we strive for: a holistic sensory experience that stems from our passions for wine, nature and art, design and architecture,” they say. “The design principles, placed in the California light, will create a sensory experience based on Donum’s participation in the natural world, to enhance the experience of all our visitors.” I