This summer’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
has been conceived by the celebrated Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei Hon RA, the design team responsible for the iconic ‘Birds Nest’ Beijing National Stadium at the 2008 Olympic Games.
In the annual architecture commission’s eleven previous incarnations, feted architects from Oscar Niemeyer to Frank Gehry Hon RA have set their minds to the task of creating a highly original form for the Kensington Garden gallery’s front lawn, each trying to do something aesthetically ingenious to blast away memories of what pavilions had come before. This year’s designers distinguish themselves by doing the opposite: their pavilion is predicated on the schemes of all the structures that predate it.
Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron have dug down into the lawn to create a large circular recession over a metre deep. They overlaid the footprints of all the previous pavilions (from the Niemeyer’s oblong form to SANAA’s expressive curving structure), as well as their foundation positions, and have used the resultant ‘jumble of convoluted lines, like a sewing pattern’, in the designers’ words, as the basis for the interior of their subterranean space. Their work therefore becomes a piece of both physical and cognitive archaeology. A floating platform roof shelters the space, collecting rainwater that reflects the bucolic environment of the park.
The ‘sewing pattern’ has given rise to benches and seats at odd angles and intervals. Serendipitously or awkwardly, depending on your perspective, there are few areas where an individual or group might cut themselves off from fellow visitors; people will come together in unusual congregations, perhaps making unexpected friends, as there is a constant sense of sharing the space with others. The interior is clad in cork, which allows for an interesting sense experience that adds to the conceptualism of the design conceit. The free-standing seats are even shaped like champagne-bottles corks, a nice touch of humour, as well as celebration, with the pavilion part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine