Review: Serpentine Pavilion 2013

Tuesday 04 Jun 2013

Sublime cloud of steel by Sou Fujimoto opens in Kensington Gardens, London

It's a glorious June day in London's Kensington Gardens and the air is alight with anticipation for the unveiling this year’s Serpentine Pavilion. One of the highlights of the city's cultural calendar, the Serpentine Pavilion is the dream of many young international architects.

The brief is simple. An architect who has never completed a building in the United Kingdom is invited by the Serpentine Gallery to design and construct a temporary pavilion for the public to enjoy over the summer season. Until last year, Arup held the keys to the engineering of each pavilion, but with David Glover's recent move to AECOM, the pavilion has followed him there.

Sou Fujimoto is this year's chosen one: a mild mannered gentleman from Tokyo who, at 41, is the youngest architect ever to complete a pavilion for the Serpentine's annual celebration. Flanked by Julia Peyton-Jones, David Glover and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the humble Fujimoto addressed an excited cluster of journalists and photographers under the steel and polycarbonate eaves in Kensington Gardens this morning.

Composed of slim fronds of solid steel, the pavilion is a triumph of contemporary design. Fujimoto’s characteristic blend of modern architecture and organic aesthetic is consistent with the high level of the earlier schemes that won him this prestigious commission.

His design statement reads: “Within the pastoral context of Kensington Gardens, the vivid greenery surrounding the site merges with the constructed geometry of the Pavilion. A new form of environment has been created, where the natural and the man-made fuse. The inspiration for the design of the Pavilion was the concept that geometry and constructed forms could meld with the natural and the human.

“The fine, fragile grid creates a strong structural system that can expand to become a large cloud-like shape, combining strict order with softness. A simple cube, sized to the human body, is repeated to build a form that exists between the organic and the abstract, to create an ambiguous, soft-edged structure that will blur the boundaries between interior and exterior.”

This is a line often walked by architects of the Serpentine Pavilion series and expertly trodden by previous Japanese architects in their additions to Kensington Gardens, SANAA (2009) and Toyo Ito (2002). All of these architects have played with the notion of inside and outside space with Fujimoto noting his desire to ‘push this concept forward’.

I spoke briefly to Tom Webster, lead engineer on the project and one of the 'hidden heroes' of the AECOM team. It is rare for the engineers of the Serpentine Pavilion to get the recognition they so often deserve, however this year it is impossible to ignore their role in making this cloud of steel a reality.

This is the first year that AECOM has secured the contract for the Serpentine Pavilion and Fujimoto’s proposal presented the team with the perfect opportunity to showcase their skills within the tight time frame of January - June.

Composed of 56 modules of 800mm and 400mm grids constructed offsite and assembled at the project site under the shadow of the celebrated Serpentine Gallery, the Pavilion is crowned with a series of polycarbonate discs of 1.2m and 0.6m in diameter to shelter users from any summertime drizzle. Currently glittering in the hazy sunlight, these discs will enable the public to use the Pavilion come rain or shine as water will cascade from the roof onto the gravel and freshly-laid turf below.

Further information on the design development and engineering behind the Serpentine Pavilion will be provided in a video interview with David Glover, Chief Executive of AECOM, and Sou Fujimoto, architect of the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion, in the next issue of News Review. In the meantime, you can find this magnificent new structure in Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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