Serpentine Gallery pavilion

Every Summer the ground near the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park London is host to a temporary pavilion designed by a different architect each year. This is an opportunity for architects to design unique experiences and I have been a regular visitor for the last few years since I accidentally came across Jean Nouvel’s 2010 pavilion while crossing Hyde Park one evening, as it happened, the day before it was due to close to the public. The pavilion was aptly called ‘The red sun pavilion’. The building metaphorically and literally reflected on its surroundings in a chromatic explosion of reds amongst the green landscape. The intensity was at its most striking on approach when the pavilion suddenly appeared in full view and translucent panels positioned to capture the evening sunlight created an artificially induced sunset, painting the surroundings with splashes of red, transforming the site into a three-dimensional canvas. The result was dynamic and evocative, yet unlike anything usually experienced in the vast expanse of Hyde Park. It’s the memory of the drama of this sudden and unexpected explosion of reds in the glowing light of the sunset set within the intense green surroundings that brings me back each year in anticipation for another unique experience. The element of surprise is actually very important or the emotional impact of the design would be ruined so I try to avoid photographs or articles about the pavilion before going there, which can be quite difficult with so much information reaching us all the time. Even then, the impact is perhaps never quite as intense. Just knowing that there will be a pavilion takes away some of the surprise.

Peter Zumthor’s 2011 pavilion was completely different, one that celebrated our senses in a more contemplative way. On approach, a simple black volumes giving nothing away but with contrasting curved paths inviting a gentle meandering towards its interior. The sudden change in atmospheric conditions once going through the threshold was however remarkable. The contrast between the brightness of the light in the park, the cool tones of its environment and that of the soft light and warm tones of the interior created an instant shift in perceptions. The mind felt immediately more calm, rested. The sounds from the park became distant and I became wrapped in the silence of the corridor like space. The rough concrete of the path was replaced by dark wood and a subtle sweet and pleasant smell emanated from the surfaces around me. I expect that the corridor like space that surrounded the main interior acted as a transition, a threshold, that prepared people for the main interior. Inside was a rectangular space with a sitting area around central a garden so people were invited to enjoy the spectacle of nature within architecture, mentally far removed from external concerns. The area above the garden was opened to the sky and although when I went it was a bright sunny day, I decided to go back next time it rained to experience the effect of the summer rain within the interior. I wasn’t disappointed. Like the contrast created on entry with the enigmatic low light and subtle scent, the effect of the rain falling through the centre of the space was extraordinary in the strength of its simplicity. These two moments are what I took away with me from this experience and although this is the only building by Peter Zumthor I have had the opportunity to visit, I was totally won over by his amazing ability to create atmospheres, his thoughtful choreography of perceptual and sensorial relationships. I since discovered that in 2003 he gave a lecture on atmospheres, published in a book of the same name. In it he says that ‘quality architecture to me is when a building manages to move me’ and this is exactly what happened to me when I experienced his pavilion.

The 2012 pavilion was designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron in collaboration with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Conceptually it was brilliant. The architects excavated about 5 feet into the soil of the park until they reached groundwater. There they dug a hole to act as a well to collect the rain that falls into the area, thus incorporating the water underneath the soil into the pavilion. They also uncovered the remains of former foundations from previous pavilions and instead of obliterating them, they carefully identified and recorded these physical remains to incorporate them into the footprint of the design, reconstructing their forms to various heights, forming convoluted horizontal lines and creating what they called ‘the serendipitous gift of a distinctive landscape’. This landscape could only be appreciated from inside the pavilion although its programmatic drawings were on display in the Serpentine gallery nearby. The entire space was covered with a metal flat roof with a thin layer of water reflecting the sky and trees of the surrounding park. The water could apparently be drained from the roof to become a platform or stage for events. Inside the 3D landscape was entirely covered in cork (including mushroom/champagne cork shaped seats), which to me, from a distance, looked like concrete. Unlike concrete however, this material was warm to the touch and I expect it was chosen for its haptic qualities. As I said, conceptually brilliant and from the photographs I saw, unfortunately I wasn’t able to see it when it was dark, it looked striking at night (although carefully framed and edited photographs cannot replace real experiences). So why didn’t I enjoy being there? The day time atmosphere of the interior didn’t work for me. I perceived a coldness and dampness that didn’t exist because being inside the space gave me a similar feeling as that of being in a basement, like the cellars I remember from the old French houses of my childhood. Although it clearly wasn’t and I was warm, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. The roof was fairly low and the light didn’t penetrate the core of the interior space, which was quite dark and made the cork look slightly grey. The feeling was intensified by the lonely utilitarian lights fixed to the ceiling. The contrast between the bright exterior and dark centre was theoretically interesting but like most people who were there that day I chose to stay on the edges of the space. I expect that in a very hot country it would be a completely different experience, whereby this cool environment covered in refreshing water would then be a welcome haven from the heat. I don’t have any photographs but bustler has excellent ones.

The Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the 2013 pavilion. A clever work of strength and lightness, simplicity in complexity. The structure appears to follow the basic architectural principles of point, line, plane and volume. Simple metal bars are connected together to create cartesian cubic forms however, their irregular growth and lack of symmetry lend the space its organic character. So the architects invited us to explore and meander through the pavilion, creating different levels where people could climb to. The core of the interior remained free of obstructions to accommodate a cafe with a much more traditional table and chairs sitting area, which I thought was a shame and took away some of the immersive proposition of the design but then also brought with it an atmosphere of conviviality. The design of the steps was very clever. It was obvious that the architect wanted them to blend as much as possible with the rest of the structure so their construction used the exact same metal bars. However, instead of the cubes being hollow, these were covered with glass and a very subtle pattern in the same white as the bars. To make it even more interesting, most of the stepped areas were actually platforms of varying sizes so nothing in this space was predictable, each part offered a coherent yet different experience so it was not really possible to define its layout with a clear mental map as we often expect in contemporary buildings and I think that was perhaps the point Sou Fujimoto was trying to get to. Despite is chaotic appearance the atmosphere is tranquil as people are forced to let go of their preconceptions and expectations. It’s a completely new experience and one that people seemed to embrace with the curiosity and enthusiasm often seen in children but less so in adults.

I visited the site during the day but I came across a video, which shows a completely different kind of experience. The space is transformed by the sharp contrast between light and dark, creating a powerful atmosphere that electrifies the senses.

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