Ghosts of buildings past

Wednesday 06 Jun 2012

2012 Serpentine Pavilion opens in London

Last weekend the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion opened in Kensington Gardens to flocks of animated Londoners and culture-hungry tourists. Each year, the Serpentine Gallery selects one architect or practice that has never completed a building in the UK to create a temporary pavilion in Kensington Gardens. Much ado has been made this year over the selection of Herzog & de Meuron as lead architects on the project as their expansive portfolio already lists the conversion of the Bankside Power Plant in London into the treasured Tate Modern, a contemporary art museum on the banks of the Thames.

The Serpentine Gallery sidestepped this issue by pairing the Swiss duo with controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is currently unable to leave China. The two creative forces first collaborated on the celebrated Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although Ai Weiwei later stated that he regretted his involvement in the scheme, telling the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I became disenchanted because I realised I was used by the government to spread their patriotic education. Since the Olympics, I haven’t looked at [the stadium].” Due to his political troubles, the artist is yet to visit the Serpentine Pavilion site, guiding Herzog & de Meuron through his ideas for the design over Skype.

Now complete, the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion is a serene composition which has been favourably received by Londoners and the architectural media. The Telegraph’s Jonathan Glancey gave the design four out of five stars and artlyst blog labelled the structure ‘A Sublime Masterpiece’. The Londonist was quick to draw attention to the variation between the architects’ statement and final result, after the design team promised an ‘architectural dig’ which was never fulfilled; instead past foundations have been manufactured out of cork. The publication soon backtracked however, stating: “Does the sleight-of-hand matter? Not really. Visiting on a warm Saturday afternoon the pavilion looked to be a hit, with children and dogs alike taking pleasure from scrambling around the labyrinthine interior.”

World Architecture News visited the Pavilion on Monday 4 June, the same day as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert, during which thousands of giddy visitors assembled in Hyde Park to toast Her Majesty and enjoy a variety of musical performances aired on big screens. The vibe was electric and the park buzzing as throngs of excited people made their way through the acres of greenery, many stopping off at the Pavilion for a coffee in preparation for the hours of dancing ahead.

With its reflective pool roof and excavated underbelly, the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion is less conspicuous than many of its predecessors and in real life seems much smaller than these photographs (see left) suggest. Its modest 415 sq m frame is counteracted by a sheltered underground space which is cosy and warm despite the lack of external walls. This is not only a cultural attraction but an intimate space for catch ups between friends, informal interviews and quirky first dates. It appeals to the masses but manages to keep an architectural edge as the cork-lined interiors reference the foundations of the previous eleven Serpentine Pavilions concocted in the minds of equally gifted architects.

The choice of cork as an interior material is genius. Hardwearing and comfortable it prepares the temporary structure for months of wear by hundreds of thousands of visitors and is hardy enough to sustain the muddy footprints, spilled coffees (I spotted several already) and childish messes it is bound to be subjected to. Another useful element of cork is its acoustic properties - a very important factor in an open-air project such as this. On Monday, the Pavilion was humming with chatter and yet it was possible to have an easy conversation without having to shout or feel as though your neighbours were listening in. Jacques Herzog details: “So many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built [here] that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape.”

Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei have covered all the bases with their 2012 Serpentine Pavilion. By delving into the memory of past pavilions they have satisfied the critics, in providing a sheltered structure in a public park they have enamoured themselves to local residents and children have been kept occupied by the movable cork mushroom-style seats. The relationship between these two powerful design forces is organic, as Jacques Herzog explains: “Every year, architects impatiently and jealously wait for the announcement of the Pavilion. Working with Ai Weiwei again makes it even more intriguing.”

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 an article on the engineering behind the Serpentine Pavilion, click here.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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