Donum Estate, a 200-acre vineyard nestled between California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, ranks among the world’s premier outdoor sculpture destinations. Among his enviable holdings is a dozen bronze Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, a seemingly abandoned leaden fighter plane by Anselm Kiefer, a giant gourd by Yayoi Kusama and a stainless steel banyan tree sprouting 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 sculpture.
“It’s not about erecting a monument. The most important thing about a winery is the moment when the wine hits the mouth, so that’s what we focused on: a wine tasting pavilion,” explains the artist when we meet in Berlin this April. Also present is Sebastian Behmann, his architectural collaborator since 2001 and co-founder of Studio Other Spaces. The studio is known for its experiments at the intersection of architecture and art, with projects such as Fjordenhus, the headquarters of an investment firm in Vejle, Denmark; The Seeing City, a permanent installation for the top two floors of a Parisian skyscraper; and the forthcoming Common Sky, a glass and mirrored canopy for the courtyard at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
For Eliasson, wine is “a testimony of the earth”. Its taste can be shaped by the winemaker, but ultimately it is determined by the landscape, its biodiversity and of course the weather – a perennial activity that dates back to The weather project (2003), his seminal installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. His Vertical Panorama Pavilion at the Donum Estate, which opens today (1 August 2022), is an ode to the natural conditions that make wine possible – a particularly fitting approach given that ‘donum’ means ‘gift of the land’ in Latin. The defining feature of the pavilion is a 14.5 m diameter conical canopy made up of 832 colorful glass tiles that tell the story of the local weather. “It’s about celebrating the ephemeral, drawing your attention to what is often unquantifiable and therefore often forgotten.”
But first the page. Studio Other Spaces was looking for a quiet place, not too close to Donum’s sculptures, but not too far either. “We then wanted a good view of the property to the north, but also of the bay to the south. A place where you have everything in view, where you can look around and see the whole environment that makes wine,” says Behmann. Another requirement was that the rest of Donum’s architecture should be largely invisible (there is a wine production facility, a hospitality center and a white cube preservation facility housing artworks by Louise Bourgeois and El Anatsui) for visitors to the pavilion to admire uninterrupted horizon, “where the sky meets the earth”.
Eliasson and Behmann found 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 task of landscaping: the southeast portion of the site was elevated to break the prevailing winds, and a winding gravel path was cut through the land to bring visitors underground. As you meander along, you’ll see the terrain rise around you – a reminder that soil isn’t just the ground you walk on, it’s also a home for roots and microorganisms. “When you arrive, you’re down in the ground. They have detoxified themselves from the world outside of Donum and become more sensitive to experiencing the wine,” says Eliasson.
The floor is the first of three layers in Studio Other Spaces’ vertical panorama concept, which takes you on a journey through multiple layers of Donum. “It brings the horizontal idea of the panorama into a vertically organized one,” describes Behmann. The second level is the flora and fauna, which appears at eye level upon entering the circular arrival area in the center of the pavilion. This unusual perspective invites you to breathe in the scent of the grass, listen to the rustling of the wind, listen to the chirping of insects and admire the fluttering of butterflies. Your perception of the lawn is enhanced by the light streaming through the deliberately low glass roof, which sprinkles the space with kaleidoscopic hues. The effect is stunning, dreamlike and typically Eliasson.
The arrivals area opens into two more circular areas: a smaller service area lined with cupboards; and a larger tasting room with elliptical brass tables and seating for twelve along its perimeter. Entering the tasting room, one sits on thickly padded benches and leans against egg-shaped cushions, which Behmann says are inspired by “the way squirrels stick their things into the ground.” After looking at the bay to the south, the gaze now turns to the canopy, which Studio Other Spaces designed as a calendar wheel. Composed of 24 colors in variations of translucent and transparent hues, the 832 glass tiles give a visual form to the annual averages of four meteorological parameters: wind, humidity, temperature and solar radiation. As Eliasson puts it, “You’re looking at everything that informed you about what you’re going to taste,” the weather behind Donum’s famous pinot noir and chardonnay. An oculus in the center of the canopy means your gaze finally turns to the azure sky.
Each of the four parameters is represented by individual rings within the calendar wheel, and the colors have a precise logic: for example, red represents high temperatures and blue represents low temperatures. But Eliasson and Behmann say the canopy shouldn’t be read as an infographic. Instead, it is designed to alert you to the elements. “It’s also credited to our subconscious for playing a significant role in the perception of taste, light and color,” suggests Eliasson. “Offering a legend to people to decipher the calendar would draw attention away from the wine.”
The artist points out that wine tastings, like art exhibitions, risk inundating people with information and prescribing certain snack foods, “so they feel really stupid when they leave. It’s important not to badmouth people, but to give them the opportunity to grow and thrive.” While the Vertical Panorama Pavilion is immediately recognizable as an Eliasson project, it’s also deliberately non-prescriptive. Rather than imposing an artificial intrusion (such as an unconventional roof shape), the pavilion simply opens your senses to the natural surroundings and reaffirms your appreciation for Donum’s wine.
He adds that “different experiences with a wine are not necessarily a conflict. It’s just a recognition of the potential of being together without having to be the same. There is an element of generosity in that and a belief in a diverse tomorrow.”
Just as the intent of the Vertical Panorama Pavilion reflects Eliasson’s social beliefs, so too does its material palette and construction align with his environmental awareness: the low walls that line the walkway and interior of the pavilion are made of an earth brick from nearby Sacramento (” The idea is to use as much local knowledge and material intelligence as possible,” Behmann says). The twelve pillars that support the glass roof and the structure of the roof itself are all made of stainless steel, eliminating the need for coatings and making them suitable for eventual recycling The 832 panels are made from recycled glass, and the canopy’s concentric grid is supported by a spiral envelope, which Behmann says is a material-saving design: “As always, we work with the same mindset as architects like Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller and minimize the cost of materials by using natural constructions and n mimic natural forms growing.’
This passion for sustainability has certainly resonated with the Warburgs, who have embraced biodynamic processes at Donum alongside regenerative farming methods such as composting, biochar and livestock integration. “This pavilion fits perfectly with what we aim to achieve – a holistic sensory experience drawing on our passions for wine, nature and art, design and architecture,” they say. “Design principles anchored in California light will create a sensory experience that draws on Donum’s participation in the natural world to enhance the experience of all of our visitors.”