Reflections on the weather

Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012

Not that you’d know it to look out of the window, but it’s summer. And, amongst other things, summer means a new Serpentine Pavilion. In a fit of optimism, this year’s pavilion is open sided so it’s likely that for much of the summer those venturing to see it will find themselves staying close to the middle to avoid the driving rain and quite possibly huddling together for warmth. Ah well…

So, disregarding the disparity between building and climate, is it good architecture? Does it work as a social space? Is that even what it’s for?

The pavilion interior has a compressed cork floor and furniture and sits below a roof that carries a very shallow pool of water. The water, probably no more than an inch or so deep, reflects the sky and surrounding and, because the interiors space is sunken, can be easily viewed by approaching visitors. This sense of transformation of the space works well, though it’s something previous pavilions have done better in my view. But if the space within offers a place of quiet – as last year’s did – or a space for debate – as previous examples have – then the pavilion becomes a welcome addition to Kensington Gardens.

The space is stepped and has both long benches and small toadstool shaped seats (using these allows the benches to act as tables, though they are also the right height to be used as seating). In good weather, half the toadstools will be used outside the space, though never, I suspect, far from the shelter of the roof.

On my visit a few days after the pavilion opened, the surrounding grass – newly turfed – was off limits. I’d hope that once the turf has settled, this ceases to be the case. The constant “please keep off the grass” is somewhat wearing and this is, in any case, a pavilion in a park; keeping off the grass seems very wrong in the context.

The Serpentine Gallery have been commissioning pavilions on an annual basis for the last decade or so. Each year a new structure is designed by architects who haven’t completed a building in the UK at the time of the commission. The project is quick, with the pavilion being designed and built within six months. This year is unusual, but not unique, in being a collaboration between an architecture practice and an artist; though of course Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei have collaborated before, on the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics four years ago.

The pavilion is an interesting space. The flexibility provided by the toadstool seats offsets the rigidity of the rest of the interior arrangement, though the stepped floor means care needs to be taken (on my visit someone stepped back without realising they were o a raised bit of floor and fell against the corner of a bench). It’s a space that seems intended for small groups to gather rather than a forum for larger debate or a space for quiet contemplation. As such it works well, but the brown of the cork coupled with the relatively low roof means that this may not be the most inspiring space to sit this summer given that we appear to be facing months of dull grey raininess and low light in what is surely turning out to be the wettest drought on record.

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