…shallow water @ the Serpentine pavilion by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei

Throughout the years I have questioned the very existence of the Serpentine summer pavilion for various reasons. Most architects might consider me insolent for saying so but to some extent I believe that it is a waste of money and resources and it further glorifies the already established star-architects. Having said that I also have to admit that the whole concept of a folly is to stretch the limits of architecture which often are narrowed by budgets, client needs and the particularities of each site. An architectural folly is what the name implies, a bit of madness. It is the utter conceptualisation of architecture, hence there is a reason for its existence. It exists attempting to elevate mundane construction materials to devices that urge us to consciously feel and think about the way we inhabit places. 

An invitation to design a Serpentine pavilion is a sort of validation within the architectural world, like an award. Definitely it is additional advertising for its already famous designers but is it also a trend-setting device? A contemporary architectural manifesto? I guess it is all of the above and that explains the large number of people visiting it every year. Architects in particular love examining it from every possible point of view in order to come up with a verdict on its success or failure and this is a typical architectural chit-chat for the summer.

This year the pavilion was designed by Herzog & de Meuron the famous Swiss architect-duo, in collaboration with Ai Weiwei equally accomplished Chinese artist.(The three of them have collaborated in the past producing the Beijing national stadium also referred to as the bird’s nest) Their concept was to create a non-building turning the pavilion into an excavation covered by a canopy that is basically a shallow pool of water. Pretty much everything under the canopy, steps, stools, benches and columns are either lined with or made by cork. The water canopy stands 1.5 meters over ground level so that the visitor approaching can catch glimpses of both under and over it. The designers’ explanation on  how they came up with this idea is that they wanted to pay tribute to the preceding pavilions hence they excavated until they reached the previous foundations in a quasi-archaeological quest. Additionally every column that supports its roof is supposed to refer to each of the 11 pavilions that were built there and physically represent them within the current one.

Visiting the pavilion my first impression was that it created an inviting and comfortable environment. I bounced down the cork steps (a very interesting experience I admit) discovering a cavernous and rather mysterious interior. The visitors looked happily settled sitting or even laying down. Children were playing and exploring and there was a general feeling of curiosity and enjoyment in the air. All and all a specimen of successful architecture that people seem to enjoy. The edifice barely protrudes from the ground which has a very interesting effect on its environment as well. The water surface reflects the sky and the trees around it and frames the gallery which was hardly seen during summer months the past years, as the pavilion usually stood right in front of it. Anyhow this water disc that hovers over the grass is more than a mundane architectural element, it promises something, a hidden space underneath it.

Good architecture grasps the visitor just by its spatial power. It is supposed to be a tactile three-dimensional poetic act with a certain immediacy to it. Reading all the elaborate explanations of the designers on how they dug into the ground until they reached the park’s water bed looking for traces of the previous pavilions seem a little superfluous to me. I only recognise it as the usual over-conceptualisation-illness that contemporary art suffers from. Space is experienced and lived in, not explained. Explanations are only shallow waters while what is of interest is what they reflect or what hides underneath them.

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