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.