Once again the summer pavilion is built in front of the Serpentine gallery in Hyde park and it is time for the world’s architectural critics to start raving. Regardless of the fact that there are more important things in the world to passionately love or hate I still went to see the pavilion and of course I am writing about it.
There is no escaping this global architectural event which is always a potent advertisement for the person who designs it. Of course the truth is that most of the architects who have been responsible for the pavilion the previous years did not exactly need the exposure as they were already hugely famous. However this project is a platform for an even wider audience to get to know their brand and no one would ever deny the opportunity.
This year’s architect was not an obvious choice and he also is the youngest one so far. His name is Sou Fujimoto and according to him, his architecture questions boundaries and converses with its surroundings and with nature in particular. This is naturally not a new concept. Many post-World-War II architects and collectives were interested in buildings and cities that would change, evolve or even move. The Situationists developed a very distinct political agenda around the concept and Archigram experimented with more stylised versions of moving and expanding edifices. Fujimoto on the other hand, explores a static version of seemingly fluid boundaries. A few of his buildings flirt with this aesthetic and Serpentine pavilion in particular looks as if an expanding 3-dimensional grid suddenly froze and assumed this cloud-like shape. What is interesting in Fujimoto’s rational is that he wants his buildings to interact with nature regardless of his choice to build them in hard materials. In other words there are no curves in his forms and the structures do not really weather nor visibly age. Hence nature is paralleled in a rather graphic and intellectualised way.
Visiting the pavilion my first impression was rather good. It is quite distinct from the previous ones and it surely makes a statement. Thinking about it though I was not sure what exactly the statement was. Fujimoto believes that his design bridges nature and the built environment. I am not convinced that he manages to do that using a grid which has been the archetype of rational thought and of geometrical man-made environment since the beginning of history of architecture. The finished product seems as far away from nature as it could ever be. Not to mention that the grid having been a design tool for millennia renders the pavilion a wink to architects and designers worldwide. Them more than anyone else will ‘get’ and enjoy it. One could say that this edifice is not meant to be understood by the general public but it is a product of internal consumption for the architectural community.
As far as the pavilion’s intention to look like a cloud, it seems that ambitious architecture nowadays aims to negate itself by attempting to dissolve into thin air. For example that was also Renzo Piano’s goal as when he designed the Shard and of course the outcome is far from successful in doing so.
However the pavilion apparently also looks like something else. A friend of mine -also an architect- with the same age as Fujimoto pointed out that back in the day when he was still in university, there was a comic book that was very popular among architectural students. La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. According to my friend, Fujimoto was clearly inspired by it as his pavilion looks exactly like Urbicande.
Of course one cannot be sure of that without asking Fujimoto himself if he ever heard of it or if the resemblance is a coincidence. After researching the subject I found this very interesting blog entry. According to the blogger the main character of the comic book is an architect who aspires to bridge the two separated halves of a city. The south part is the privileged one and the north the chaotic and dark one. Things sadly do not go as planned for him because of a strange cubic object that is excavated in the dessert and is kept in his office. The cube eventually starts to multiply uncontrollably and takes over the whole city of Urbicande with its ability to penetrate all matter. The two halves of the city apparently symbolise body and mind, the rational and the irrational and other conflicting dipoles. In the same article MC Escher’s famous Cubic Space Division (1952) is mentioned as a possible influence for the comic book.
Apart from the similarity of the pavilion’s form with Urbicande, there is an analogy in Fujimoto’s concept of bridging nature and the built environment, with the architect from the comic book’s aspiration to unite the two halves of his city. As far as Fujimoto’s ambition to challenge boundaries and property with his architecture. I applaud the intention but I have no doubt that the attempt can only be stylistic and rather superficial. Besides, it is rather fashionable for architecture nowadays to imply political intentions of pseudo-extremist direction. However I find rather naive Fujimoto’s heavy-weight statement according to which he aims to question the whole idea of property with his work. Especially when he is supposed to be doing so with his designs of houses for wealthy Tokyo residents. I seriously doubt that any of them would ever want to share their precious tight space with their neighbours or random passer-bys.
This year’s Serpentine pavilion is a tasteful construction and a visit there is highly recommender if you happen to be in London until October 20th 2013. As far as the statements about how politically charged Fujimoto’s architecture can be, they just remind me of other architects’ similar declarations who delude themselves in believing that their architecture will somehow bring about the next social revolution
Serpentine pavilion website here
Sou Fujimoto’s website here
Feuilleton blog post about Urbicande here