The walk up to the pavilion area behind the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is always playfully suspenseful, as one has to turn a corner before beholding whatever world famous architect’s creation lies before them. Last year it was Swiss architect and 2009 Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor’s who provided the stoic surprise to Serpentine visitors. His creation was dark and labyrinthine, which led its users creepingly and with a sense of delightful disorientation to a gaping, rectangular open garden nebula. The effect of stepping into the light and seeing the sky framed against the blackness of the surrounding walls provided a feeling of organic contrast that was thrilling to the senses. Its successor, namely the twelfth pavilion that has just been newly unveiled, offers a decidedly different user experience.
The new pavilion is the result of a collaborative venture involving architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and artist Ai Weiwei. It is the trio’s first joint built structure for the UK. The intention of the pavilion’s design is to take visitors beneath the Serpentine’s lawn, to explore the hidden history of its previous pavilions. Eleven columns symbolize the structures created hitherto, and each act as support for a water filled disc, which rests atop the sunken space and as Pierre de Meuron described “mirrors the surroundings, the light, the sky”.
Beneath the water disc is a half-buried leisure area modulating its massing out of cork (seemingly the trend material du jour, I dare anyone to attend a design event without some form of cork-inclusion). The roofed area is inviting in its cavernous, dark and warm nature, and the play of sunken, angular pockets against the nebulous seating units gives the space a sense of the organic and in turn inspires a atmosphere of calm.
“We knew great things had been done in the past,” Jacques Herzog said while sitting on a large cork bench under the shade of the discus roof, “we wanted to do something quite invisible”. Indeed, this ambition is felt quite immediately on approaching the pavilion. When you walk up to the fluid disc, you are unsure of what is on show. Is it unfinished? Is it a mistake? These are the knee-jerk questions which jolt to mind on turning that curious corner.
In fact, there is a lot more to it. The plan of the pavilion draws upon the shapes generated by previous pavilion footprints. The programme is a historical one. Its ethos is research. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily come through to the naked eye. And while Zumthor’s pavilion really engaged with the elements, and provided a sense-provoking experience for its user, this year’s edition is perhaps too invisible in its intentions.
It would be a mistake to reduce the scheme to not much more than an elevated pond with stools and benches underneath, but it wouldn't be surprising if a few of its visitors saw it as not much more than that. In reality, the feeling it generates is quite pleasant, warm, and peaceful. What it lacks is the element of surprise that Zumthor so magically captured - the good type of surprise.
The 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei will be the twelfth commission in the Gallery’s annual series, the world’s first and most ambitious architectural programme of its kind.
The design team responsible for the celebrated Beijing National Stadium, which was built for the 2008 Olympic Games, comes together again in London in 2012 for the Serpentine’s acclaimed annual commission, being presented as part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. The Pavilion is Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s first collaborative built structure in the UK.
This year’s Pavilion will take visitors beneath the Serpentine’s lawn to explore the hidden history of its previous Pavilions. Eleven columns characterising each past Pavilion and a twelfth column representing the current structure will support a floating platform roof 1.4 metres above ground. The Pavilion’s interior will be clad in cork, a sustainable building material chosen for its unique qualities and to echo the excavated earth. Taking an archaeological approach, the architects have created a design that will inspire visitors to look beneath the surface of the park as well as back in time across the ghosts of the earlier structures.
Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei said:
“Every year since 2000, a different architect has been responsible for creating the Serpentine Gallery’s summer Pavilion for Kensington Gardens. That makes eleven Pavilions so far, our contribution will be the twelfth. So many Pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape.
“Our path to an alternative solution involves digging down some five feet into the soil of the park until we reach the groundwater. There we dig a waterhole, a kind of well, to collect all of the London rain that falls in the area of the Pavilion. In that way we incorporate an otherwise invisible aspect of reality in the park – the water under the ground – into our Pavilion. As we dig down into the earth we encounter a diversity of constructed realities such as telephone cables and former foundations. Like a team of archaeologists, we identify these physical fragments as remains of the eleven Pavilions built between 2000 and 2011. Their shape varies: circular, long and narrow, dots and also large, constructed hollows that have been filled in... These remains testify to the existence of the former Pavilions and their greater or lesser intervention in the natural environment of the park.
“All of these foundations will now be uncovered and reconstructed. The old foundations form a jumble of convoluted lines, like a sewing pattern. A distinctive landscape emerges out of the reconstructed foundations which is unlike anything we could have invented; its form and shape is actually a serendipitous gift. The three-dimensional reality of this landscape is astonishing and it is also the perfect place to sit, stand, lie down or just look and be amazed. In other words, the ideal environment for continuing to do what visitors have been doing in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilions over the past eleven years – and a discovery for the many new visitors anticipated for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“On the foundations of each single Pavilion, we extrude a new structure (supports, walls) as load-bearing elements for the roof of our Pavilion – eleven supports all told, plus our own column that we can place at will, like a wild card. The roof resembles that of an archaeological site. It floats a few feet above the grass of the park, so that everyone visiting can see the water on it, its surface reflecting the infinitely varied, atmospheric skies of London. For special events, the water can be drained off the roof as from a bathtub, from whence it flows back into the waterhole, the deepest point in the Pavilion landscape. The dry roof can then be used as a dance floor or simply as a platform suspended above the park.”
Referring to the extensive use of cork in the design, Herzog & de Meuron said:"Cork is a natural material with wonderful haptic and olfactory qualities with the versatility to be carved, cut, shaped and formed, as demonstrated in many historical examples of cork architectural models."
Serpentine GalleryKensington Gardens
London Greater London United Kingdom W2 3XA
Open daily, 10am - 6pm