The second London Architecture Festival installation that I visited was the Rainforest Pavilion which was commissioned by the Architectural Association and designed by Gun Architects, a Chilean based practice. It is placed on Bedford Square right opposite the school’s entrance and it looks interesting but also quite contradictory from afar. Heavy metallic columns/tree trunks, support white dripping cones that resemble lightweight origami folds. The columns are rooted in axially spread metallic bases with their triangular gaps filled with white rocks, ferns in pots and a little pond.
Approaching the structure I immediately thought I wanted to stand underneath it. The sun lit the pavilion from behind and I could clearly see the water dripping from the cones on top of it. Unfortunately it seemed rather difficult to enter because of the instability of the rocks at its base. I was disappointed to thing that this might be an object to be looked at from the outside, like an art exhibit. After all the rainforest effect could only be felt if one stood inside it. So I cautiously tried to walk on the rocks but soon enough I exited the structure because I really could not wander about freely. All of us visitors in the pavilion were looking as if we were going to lose our balance and bump into each other clumsily. I was puzzled with the architects’ choice to put those rocks in it, because the actual concept seemed brilliant.
At the exhibition in the AA’s members’ room I found out that this project was a smaller version of another much bigger installation; the Water Cathedral, which was the winning entry for MoMa’s Young Architects Program in 2011 and was built at Santiago de Chile in 2012. The original structure had leaner columns but the stalactites were very similar to the Rainforest pavilion ones. However its floor was flat with the exception of some clusters of truncated cones that were used as seats but also visually unified the project because they reflected the geometry of the structure above them.
I only understood the reasons behind the alterations to the initial concept when I read Jorge Godoy’s (he and Lene Nettelbeck are Gun Architects) interview in AA Conversations. Apparently the changes were made by the engineers involved in re-designing the pavilion due to council and insurance constraints. In the same interview Godoy admits he is not too happy about people being reluctant to enter the pavilion and he also believes that it has to do with the rocks at its base.
Gun’s architecture is largely experimental and aspires to incorporate the natural elements, which I find admirable. Apparently the Water Cathedral created a wonderfully cool micro-climate which was a refreshing surprise for the visitors, considering Santiago de Chile’s dry heat. The Rainforest Pavilion on the other hand is placed in London, a very humid city and people cannot really enter it easily. Since it does not create a dramatic climatic effect, maybe the experimentation should have extended to the collection of rainwater in the stalactites instead of connecting the structure to Thames Water mains.
The Rainforest Pavilion is an interesting structure created by very talented young architects. Still I believe it is not as successful as the original, Water Cathedral. It is more of an advertisement, showcasing their creators’ potential as designers but does not manage to truly “stand” on its own. Projects that aspire to work with the natural elements, wind, water etc. are by definition site specific and this one was designed on a different scale and most importantly for a different climate altogether.