The Serpentine Gallery's annual pavilion is usually a chance for one of the world's leading architects who has yet to complete a building in the UK to present an example of their oeuvre in a condensed form to an international audience.
But this year was slightly different, as Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the architects responsible for London's Tate Modern gallery, were permitted the opportunity to renew their collaboration with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with whom they famously designed the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Their pavilion design blurs the boundaries between building and artwork and has become the first completed project by this team in the country.
Herzog and de Meuron are renowned for their concept-led approach to architecture, which regularly involves reviving existing buildings, as they did by transforming a redundant power station into the Tate Modern gallery 12 years ago and are currently doing in Hamburg, Germany, where they have perched an undulating glass structure on top of a former warehouse to create a new concert hall and cultural venue.
The Swiss duo’s cerebral style has formed the backbone of a close and empathic working relationship with acclaimed artist, architect, photographer and human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, whose artworks and installations have been exhibited internationally, including at Tate Modern in 2010, when he filled the gallery’s enormous Turbine Hall with 100 million hand-sculpted sunflower seeds.
The Serpentine Pavilion project offered a chance for this successful team to reunite, four years on from the opening of the Beijing stadium, as London prepares to host the Olympics this summer. The pavilion is open to the public until 14 October and coincides with the London 2012 Festival, a programme of events that marks the culmination of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which has seen music, dance, theatre and art celebrated all around Britain over the past four years in the lead up to the Games.
This year’s pavilion is the twelfth in a series that has seen a different temporary structure appear on the lawn next to the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park each summer since 2000. The first pavilion, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, took the form of an angular steel-framed tent and has been succeeded by buildings of all shapes and sizes from star names such as Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito. Most of these architects chose to build monumental, attention-grabbing structures that dominated their surroundings, such as Frank Gehry’s complex steel and timber covered ‘street’ (2008) and Jean Nouvel’s bright red cantilevered canopies (2010), however, last year’s simple black box enclosing a tranquil garden by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor demonstrated that a subtle space could hold as much appeal as its shouty predecessors.
The 2012 pavilion is a similarly understated space to Zumthor’s, hunkering down low to the ground and not announcing its presence until you get close to it. By mapping and overlaying the foundations of the pavilions that had previously occupied the site, the architects generated a hidden matrix of infrastructure and cabling to use as a guide upon which to build a fragmented landscape that resembles the ruins of an amphitheatre or an archaeological excavation site.
The stepped sides of the round pit offer places where the public can perch in isolation or congregation, while a shallow surface filled with water floats above the hole providing shelter. This pool is intended to reflect London’s constantly shifting skies and is supported by 11 pillars representing the previous pavilions and one for the current installation. During the day, the canopy creates a dark and subdued atmosphere inside the space that is compounded by the sound-dampening properties of the cork used to cover the majority of the surfaces. This material evokes the tactile properties of raw earth and was also used to make heavy stools that sit squatly around the site; their toadstool-like forms evoking the aesthetic of a forest glade.
The subversive, subterranean installation is a quirky and unusual response to the brief that has resulted in a peaceful and evocative hideaway in the heart of the city. As an architectural statement, it could hardly be more different to Beijing’s bird’s nest but its intimate scale offers an engaging experience and an insight into the analytical approach to architecture favoured by its auteurs. Proof that bigger isn’t always better.