Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion – the 12th to date – is complete and drawing the crowds into its subterranean womb in London’s Hyde Park. The view of the bijoux Thirties tea pavilion – a gallery since 1970 – has never been so unobstructed. The Swiss architecture practice and Chinese artist’s subtle insertion is very different from Peter Zumthor’s dense, monolithic structure that went before, or Jean Nouvel’s eye-bruising, fire-engine red structure before that.
Using the sloping topology of the site, the roof – which in effect is a disc filled with water meant to act like a mirror to the elements – is at waist height near the gallery, but low enough to allow access beneath at the sides furthest away from the gallery. The roof is like a temporary cover over an archeological dig while the contents beneath feel as though they’ve been with us a long time, like a Roman amphitheatre rediscovered. This is all very fitting for a project that is all about what has gone before.
It feels very much of its place, the topography guides you in and there are no barriers to the space, other than the subtleties of suggested ingress such as paths bordered by the kind of grass that parks usually dot with ‘Keep off…’ signs.
The basic premise is very simple. H&dM has chosen to dig down to the watertable and, in so doing, reveal the foundations of the 11 pavilions that have gone before. A circle offset from the roof acts as the frame for the geometry that is revealed below. There are, however, no big concrete foundations left over; the basis is more notional – though there are apparently subtle changes in the earth where it has been replaced and refilled.
‘We know exactly what has happened, because we have images and drawings. Everything is recorded. If you lay them on top of each other they create this kind of amazing, almost seemingly cult-like, structure which is also very beautiful,’ explains Jacques Herzog. ‘So we are given a form… given a kind of landscape.
Architecturally we have a form without having to invent it ourselves, which is very typical of what we have done in the past and something that Weiwei also loves very much – discovering things that are there and have their own beauty. We wanted to use that, to reconstruct it in new materials and bring it all up to the same level so that together it would make a landscape that people could use to sit on and hang out in.
‘What I like about it is that it is found and that we can also behave as if it was found – so you never know what is fiction and what is reality. It is very serious because every single trace is fact, but of course it doesn’t exist anymore really… There’s been an editing process.’
Eleven columns, one for each of the previous pavilions, hold up the roof with their cross-sections extrapolated from the geometry of the way the previous structures’ footprints overlap. A 12th column has been added by Herzog & de Meuron, using a much simpler form that also reveals its steel structure (the others are fully clad in cork – more of that later) and sited for structural rather than aesthetic reasons. It’s rather like making sure the public knows what’s original and what’s new in an archeological restoration.
‘We were not interested in symbolism or irony,’ says Herzog. ‘It is just the pleasure of revealing these traces – all the people that have done something are here again in a common party or celebration. It’s not about this one versus that one – there is nothing of that. This design doesn’t say anything about the previous ones.’
Early schemes for this latest pavilion involved platonic objects, but these were quickly dismissed in favour of revealing what had gone before. The simple geometry of two circles (the roof one cut off in a line to address the gallery) is all that is left from this. The archeological aspect of the project has also developed from initial ideas about an underground pavilion, which couldn’t be developed as the practice discovered the water table lies just 1.5m under the surface.
This particular build has been challenging. With just six months from invitation to completion, the building work naturally carried on right up until the last moment. The weather is an important part of the scheme, but it also played a role in the construction of this outdoor project during the wettest weather ever recorded during that period. With a week to go I looked in on the site, and the underneath had a long way to go – it was still just a hole in the ground. But on the day of opening the building was finished, bar a couple of very minor snags, and that’s all that counts.
The archeological aspect of the project mirrors what the practice has recently been doing for the Park Avenue Armory in New York. This recent project has seen it restoring and, importantly, revealing what has happened since the building opened in the 1860s. ‘That’s a richly layered building. We treated it as a monument, revealing the physical traces produced over time, preserving it for the future and in so doing reinventing it,’ says Herzog.
Back in London, adding the circular frame to the pavilion excavations/restorations has had the effect of making it feel like an amphitheatre, which Herzog sees as ‘a fascinating synergy’. From ground level you descend into this dark space –everything has been covered with a deep brown cork. The material has an interesting duality in that it delineates the geometry of the inner sanctum very crisply, exentuating the found lines. At the same time it is very much of the earth, from the colour to the natural feel and smell that emanates from it.
This is very much part of the sensorial experience of this particular pavilion; the smell and touch of the cork and the way it works with light. From outside the space beneath the canopy looks dark, but intriguing rather than forbidding. From within, the eye accustomises and the rest of the park appears searingly bright. And light, with the help of the weather, is also the key factor for the roof, which is meant to act as a mirror for the sky and prevailing conditions. (To be honest, it’s not as mirror-like as I’d been expecting from our discussions in Basel.) When it’s bright and you look at a reflection of the sky it works well, but the surrounding trees mean much of it is darker and then your eye is drawn to the grey metal beneath the water’s surface.
But what is key is that you want to do this, you want to experience this space and all the aspects of the really rather beautiful way it has entered the landscape. It is without doubt one of the best the Serpentine Gallery has engendered and it’s going to be a hard act to follow, period, since it is in many ways, particularly visually and metaphorically, like a full stop.