Review: Serpentine Pavilion

30 Jun 2014

Easy partnership of AECOM & Smiljan Radic generates impressive Serpentine Pavilion

“You couldn’t do it if you didn’t have a great team on your back,” explains Smiljan Radic, the Chilean architect behind this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, as we sit in the cosy café within his newly-opened structure. He’s referring to the intensive design process entered into each year by an architect who has never completed a building in the UK as part of a commission by the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens.

The sentiment is echoed by the pavilion’s lead engineer, Tom Webster from AECOM. “You have to make a bond with the people working on the project almost instantly,” Webster explains. “From day one you have got to make decisions and you’ve got to trust the people that have done this before and know how the process works. Decisions are made on an hour-by-hour basis and in retrospect there’s not a lot of time for reflection.”

This bond is clear to see as we sit chatting in the cool, shaded embrace of the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion, with the architect and engineer still working in partnership to explain the detailed design process from inspiration to final product.

“People always think you can do what you want but it’s not,” confesses Radic. “It’s more difficult because [the Gallery] asks you to do something that is absolutely yours. My first project was absolutely wrong for this - ‘I loved the first one’ Webster interjects - but it was wrong. I saw the issue later and I agree with that decision.”

The initial design Radic refers to is a ‘really cool, incredibly bling’ series of seven inflatable gold cylinders hung on a steel tension system with a lowered patio space below. Five days later and this design had been relegated for a take on the Rock on Top of Another Rock sculpture found nearby in Kensington Gardens, then again for a reworking of Radic’s earlier work, Selfish Giant’s Castle.

Webster furthers: “Essentially Smiljan wanted a structure that had similar properties to his model; that had this kind of masking tape feel to the externals, to have this dark and light layering that you get with papier mache. It was all about getting the texture right and getting the brittle fragility of the structure so it looks really, really thin; just like papier mache.”

Getting this ‘handmade’ quality at such a large scale was a complex process, not helped by the international divide between Radic’s base in Chile and AECOM’s local office in London. Fortunately, after the engineering firm suggested using unpolished Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) for the form, ‘experts in everything’ Stage One created mock ups to demonstrate the texture so that Radic could properly assess the material prior to his final decision.

The team created a 1:1 polystyrene negative form, covered it in polythene, layered over the glass fibre then used rollers to apply resin; essentially a more resilient papier mache technique. This form was then cut into 57 separate pieces and assembled on site without any metal framework aside from a couple of columns to control deflection and deformation in the structure.

Webster confesses to a handful of sleepless nights before the final unveiling but Radic is clearly delighted with the result. “When you are inside you feel like you are in a model at 1:1; it’s not a building,” he says. “In the end it is just a construction of a big model. You feel that it’s a handmade volume, you know? You don’t feel too much technique; you feel that it is handmade but it is not!”

Equally important to the textured finish was the translucency of the completed pavilion. In order to achieve this, the team used 15-16 layers of clear resin and 3-4 layers of colour to enhance the texture. As a result, the form glows brightly from within (thanks to the LED strip lighting) as the sun goes down, brought to life by silhouettes of those inside as they move throughout the space.  

“My biggest fear for this pavilion is that most people judge it on a photograph,” concludes Webster, “and maybe this is an issue with architecture generally, that everyone is so intent with aesthetics. But aesthetics are just one part of architecture and architecture should evoke an emotional response in you and it should make you feel something, whatever that may be.”

The Serpentine Pavilion will be open until 19 October 2014. Viewing highly recommended.  

Sian Disson
News Editor

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