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This year’s Serpentine pavilion was designed by Big, an architectural practice whose main force is the 41 year old Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The practice’s signature is using simple lines in a bold way to support a conceptual story. Usually there is also a playful element in Big’s projects and the user of the building is urged towards a rather adventurous, at times even childlike behaviour. For example they have designed a waste-to-energy-power plant in Copenhagen with a roof that is in fact a ski slope and the Serpentine pavilion (if it weren’t for health and safety measures in the UK) was originally meant to be climbed to the top.

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Left photo:Copenhagen Power plant CGI by Big

The pavilion, as has been observed by many writers already, is quite beautiful. It encloses the space but but it also “leaks” views to the park from certain angles. The structure does not however manage to protect from nature’s elements very well, but really how many of the pavilions ever did? Similarly as far as its spatial qualities are concerned, like many of its predecessors, it photographs better than it feels when visited.

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This year though I would like to focus on an event that I attended when I went there for the first time, on June 24th one day after UK’s famous referendum that decided the future of the country within the European Union. That strange day, Implicated theatre a group of theatre practitioners, funded by Serpentine Galleries and directed by Frances Rifkin took over the space. Implicated theatre’s performances are based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed which is an experimental workshop-based practice that aims to “explore the relationships between political speech and action”1. Usually a scene is presented to the audience who later on is urged to participate in transforming it by taking the place of one of the original actors. The focus usually is underprivileged people and their stories. Their struggles and their interpretation of their experiences within the frame of society and its political structures.

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This particular performance called Towards a Radio Ballad: Songs of the Journey emerged from a year-long collaboration with unionised migrant hotel workers from Unite’s Hotel Workers Branch. As described in Serpentine Gallery’s website: “The sound piece that accompanied the performance, is a sketch working towards a possible Radio Ballad, taking its cue from Charles Parker’s original BBC Radio Ballads, a series that aired from 1958-1964.

The audience was divided in two groups depending on whether they had ever worked in the Services industry or not. Walking freely within the pavilion we were given trays and by holding them the feeling of being a waiter was simulated. The stories of actual migrants who have come to London and worked as waiters were heard in the background. In the actual scene presented by the actors and later on moulded by the audience’s participation, a waiter was cheated out of his tips by the head waiter, a common story of professional abuse of power. I will not go into details on what happened as the experience of it is what really matters.

 

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Photographs by Lewis Ronald

The intellectualisation of a workshop-based performance where everyone’s conclusions are purely personal would diminish the importance of the experience with weak generalisations. In the end though we were all given seats and a microphone went around. People spoke of how they felt and shared thoughts on their being in that particular space as part of the group. Very personal stories were heard that attested oppression and injustice. Migrants’ search for a better life by leaving their country of origin were juxtaposed with the dramatic political events in the country, as the decision of the previous day’s referendum. Ultimately the migrants’ journey instead of easier is going to become much more difficult. Surrounded by the loose boundary of the pavilion, we were confronted with the sad reality of a world that chooses to become more closed-minded and closed-bordered. And the feelings were real, people spoke of their lives and their families passionately and even cried.

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Left photo by Lewis Ronald. Middle and right by the writer

Never did I expect to experience the sharing of real emotions and harsh truths about major political events, especially in a group, within the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. A space which is a product created and consumed by an international cultural and economic elite. Most nights at the pavilion not that many working class people are present, other than the waiters of course. And there is not that much truth spoken by the well-groomed guests that sip cocktails while exchanging empty pleasantries.

June 24th ‘s performance placed a small bomb of controversy within the fabric of the pavilion focusing on the lives of those who stay in the background unseen and uncelebrated. The space of the pavilion did not matter to me that night, not because its architecture was unworthy but because no architecture should be more important than the people who inhabit it.

 

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1. From Implicated Theatre’s website

Serpentine Pavilion’s website here

Big’s website here

Read about Theatre of the Oppressed here

Implicated theatre’s website here

Park nights Towards radio website here

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I know this is beyond old news. In fact the pavilion has only one day to go until it is taken down. My article was so extremely delayed partly because of personal reasons and partly because I was so underwhelmed by this structure. Still I thought it made sense to write something about it, even if it is only for the records.

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Same as every year I try to turn a blind eye to the waste of money that the Serpentine is (this year Goldman-Sach’s money to be exact) and focus more on its artistic value. It is built as an architectural experiment in order to remind to the public that architecture is an art and it may carry strong representational and symbolic values. As Brian Eno pointed out in his John Peel lecture on BBC radio 6 recently, art is basically not necessary. Eno said that art in most areas of culture is exactly what one does not need in order to survive but ultimately is exactly what brings to us the greatest pleasure.

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Things get complicated with architecture because undoubtedly it is an art but a structure cannot really claim the title of “architecture” if people cannot enter it or use it. According to most historians this is the very reason why the Parthenon in Athens is not really considered a building. More often it is seen as sculptural work of art because it was never entered by the cult’s believers. Naturally I would not even try to associate this shiny-plastic worm of a “building” with the Parthenon. The only thing that they have in common is the fact that they both were not used as a shelter of any sort. Obviously I am exaggerating because the entrance to this year’s pavilion was not forbidden. However on the beautiful summer day that I visited it I witnessed people rushing out of it more than they were willing to stay in it. The reason was that it had a micro-climate. It was extremely warm and humid the fans which were installed inside had to work full time in order to make any short stay there bearable.

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Selgascano, the Spanish architectural office that won the commission was not aiming for that effect I am sure. They did not do much to anticipate it or prevent it either. No aesthetic goal is important enough (according to my standards) to counterbalance the lack of viability of a building.

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And this particular one did not even manage to reach a very high standard of aesthetics either. It looks cheap, the plastic looks and feels and like plastic and the ribbons give a juvenile and crafty air to it. Not to mention the metal structure which supports it that according to the contractors had to be extremely precise for the structure to hold nonetheless, managed to look totally random.

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The one real success of this year’s Serpentine pavilion is that it is very photogenic, hence it scored high Instagram-points. Appearances are most important nowadays, people are more keen to photograph their food than eat it. Therefore this hot-air balloon is both literally and metaphorically exactly that: bright colourful and totally devoid of substance and meaning.

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The Serpentine pavilion website here

Selgascano website here

Brian Eno’s John Peel Lecture here

 

In the past I have loved to complain about the Serpentine Pavilion not so much about particular design reasons but rather because of what it generally represents: the architectural elite. Without researching much this year’s design (I had basically only heard that it was one of critics’ favourites) I went to Kensington Gardens.

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Initially this folly seems almost basic in shape. There is something ancient about it which I guess has to do with the organic-ness of its form and with the fact that its columns are sunk into really large stones placed on the lawn. Hence an illusion is created and the structure seems to be hovering over the ground. The most important reason for me liking this doughnut of a hut is that it is an introvert structure compared to most of its show-off-predecessors. And like most introverts, especially the shy and artistic types, it is full of surprises. Another reason is that it was clear to me that it was not designed for people only to come and look at it in awe. On the contrary it was made for people’s comfort, cosiness and intellectual stimulation. I run into all sorts of visitors, those who just came there to have a coffee and a chat, the ones that took hundreds of photos, studied and drew it like myself and those who just came in to take shelter from the rain.

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Whatever the reason everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy and study it. I have the impression that this is one of those truly inspirational buildings that make people who are not already involved in architecture, want to take an interest in it. And I believe that this is achieved through innovation. Like it or not this sort of building is not something that people bring to mind when they think of architecture.

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Of course as the saying has it, everything in the arts has been done before and as architects and critics of architecture would attest, many references to other designers can be spotted in this pavilion like for example Archigram or Future Systems. Regardless of how intriguing and stimulating this style of architecture is, it is at times too progressive for its own good because it makes it hard for people to identify with it. Not to mention that architecture that has little to no references to classical forms unfortunately often ends up looking rather tacky. I believe it is extremely difficult for architects to come up with forms that are truly innovative and still manage to attract the mainstream. Probably this is because most people crave for the new but are afraid of it as well hence they gravitate towards the old and familiar.

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Smiljan Radić seems very nice in the interviews I watched. He sounds very calm and collected and really involved in his art, in a non self absorbed way. Looking into his body of work I was happy to read that he hates signature buildings and that other than very few elements he has used before in other buildings most of his projects do not seem at all aesthetically related. That is of course because they have different programs and are made for various users and climates.

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His Serpentine pavilion’s recipe of success is that it looks like something that has landed here from outer space but also somehow looks like an ancient relic, a massive rock of Cyclopean mythic architecture. It is both old and new and it brought to my mind a sort of aesthetic that I find truly appealing: retrofuturism. Above all though it is an inviting shelter for the visitor and regardless of its weirdness it manages to keep a certain degree of humility. Its interior spaces on both ground and café level were packed with people who were not admiring it, they were just living! This is what I liked about it. My stay there was a half hour exposure to utopian futurism, but hey, forgive me for being a huge science fiction fan.

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Find the Serpentine Pavilion website here

Find more Smiljan Radic projects in Archdaily here

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

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.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Bottom right picture:MC Escher’s famous Cubic Space Division (1952)

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

 

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.

Many articles have been written about Zumpthor’s Serpentine pavilion and most of them involve analyses of the ‘black box’ or of the ‘secret garden’. Strangely, it has hardly been mentioned, what a powerful spatial experience is a visit to this folly. Especially if one has not read anything about it. You can see it on people’s faces when they enter: the initial disappointment over their first impression followed by the intrigued, almost playful discomfort when they go through the dark corridor that surrounds the inner box. And finally, the wide smile when they emerge into the light of the central garden.

There is something visceral and ancient about the initial descent into darkness and the eventual emergence into light. It is vaguely reminiscent of religious initiations where one needed to undergo
some sort of ordeal, in order to gain the reward in the end. The quality of the structure and the poor finishing are irrelevant to why people appreciate this pavilion. After all, this is an ephemeral structure and the choice of materials speak of its short-living status. Even the string of light-bulbs outside of it
attests that.

This little box appeals to the public because it addresses something fundamental in them. The spatial manipulation is powerful because it goes beyond most architects’ witty references or metaphors. This pavilion might be a simple shed but walking through it is an experience that evokes deep feelings which cannot be easily put into words. And this, by all means, is a characteristic of successful architecture.

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