Arup's Stuart Smith explains the engineering behind the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion
Each year, the architects of the Serpentine Pavilion are praised for their ambitious concepts with reams of media publications commending their design prowess. Often overlooked however are the experienced engineers that year after year make these dreams a reality so this year, World Architecture News spoke to Stuart Smith, Director at Arup, about the firm’s continued involvement with the Serpentine Pavilion scheme.
For Smith, this grand design was ‘the product of a much longer period of work’ as the team at Arup collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei on their concept for the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Smith explains that there are similarities between the interior spaces in the Bird’s Nest and 2012 Serpentine Pavilion despite the vast differences in dimension, as the integrated engineering solutions and intrinsic pattern define the internal volume.
Alongside the holistic engineering of the Pavilion - including the placement of fire escapes, appropriate lighting and disabled access - Arup are also responsible for the structural engineering of the project. This isn’t the first time that a Serpentine Pavilion has incorporated an excavated space. Oscar Niemeyer’s 2003 Pavilion sported a basement insert which, on reflection, Smith considers to be rather shallow despite previous assumptions about its depth. Arup’s solution to Niemeyer’s concept was to use precast concrete pieces but for this year’s deeper design, screw piles were employed with foundations bolted on. No concrete was used in the foundations whatsoever.
Each year, Arup is faced with the challenge of enabling the latest pavilion to be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere after its three month stint in the public arena, although Smith confesses despite all of the pavilions now having private owners, not all of them have been reassembled. The screw pile system of this year’s structure will allow easy reassembly after the necessary excavation work.
One of the most interesting features of the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion - and arguably the most taxing - is the floating roof pool. Smith explains that the idea for a drainable the roof came from Julia Peyton-Jones, Director of the Serpentine Gallery, who suggested that it would be a wonderful platform on which to host events. Arup responded by concealing a drainage tube inside one of the symbolic columns that support the roof (there are twelve pillars representing the twelve Serpentine Pavilions) which feeds through to a pump below the structure. This pump redistributes the water which can be used for irrigation as a sustainable alternative for the Royal Parks.
It goes without saying that the British weather is highly unpredictable and the flittering between extended periods of heavy rainfall and blasts of crackling heat were a cause for concern over the six-week construction period. With a hosepipe ban in place, Arup had to get creative with the sourcing of water for the rooftop pool and found an answer in the neighbouring Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. The Memorial Fountain was designed by Arup in collaboration with Kathryn Gustafson and opened in 2004 in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. The water for the fountain is pumped up through a 120m-deep borehole through layers of clay and earth, and provided the perfect solution to the hosepipe ban.
One of the most visible elements of Arup’s involvement was the inclusion of cork in the interior spaces. Smith and his team met with Amorim, a Portuguese supplier, in January 2012, and began a detailed analysis of the various kinds of cork materials on offer. The cork we are so used to seeing is light in colour but the material that lines the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion is a rich, earthy brown which fits perfectly with the excavated nature of the design. Smith explains that this tone is the result of the cork being steamed and pressed, with the cork used as flooring treated with resin ensure it can withstand the heavy footfall predicted this summer.
For Stuart Smith, the realisation of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion is the latest step in a seven-year relationship with Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, and one that Arup is exceptionally proud of.
The Serpentine Pavilion is open until the beginning of October in London’s Kensington Gardens and will host a series of events over the coming months. Click here for more details. To read a full review of the Serpentine Pavilion, click here.