Shadow, cork and water; The 2012 Serpentine Pavilion

I’ll be extremely surprised if you’ve managed to get to this point in the year and not be aware of the Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & de Meuron 2012 Serpentine Pavilion offering. Aside from the fact that Ai Wei Wei is currently UK flavour of the month, following his turbine hall sunflower installation at Tate Modern and his infamous battles with the Chinese government, the pavilion is rapidly becoming a regular must-see of the summer. Introduced only 12 years ago, it already seems like a historical tradition.

For those of you who don’t know, each year an architect (or, as in the case of this year, an architect / artist collaboration) is chosen to design a summer pavilion in the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery at Hyde Park. This is no mean feat. One quick Google search will impress upon you the scale and quality of these structures. We’re not talking a brightly coloured gazebo here, but a fully independent temporary building.

This year’s design broke the recent mould and decided to go down instead of up. Rather than create a shelter by building up and over the human body, the team decided to lower the floor, making the roof raised only around 2 feet from ground level and forcing the visitor to descend into and under it. Exploring the subject of memory, the structure is suspended by 12 pillars, 11 of which represent past pavilions and one embodying the current manifestation.

Once underneath, the space is lit by miner-style lighting with waterproof cork underfoot, reinforcing the underground sensation. That said, the cork is not raw but beautifully refined and shaped, creating a variety of planes and levels to negotiate getting from one side to the other. The design of the floor is again another hark back to late pavilion ghosts, with each floor plan stacked upon one another in chronological order, to create a landscape of jutting corners and sweeping contours.  The gradations retreat then ascend in a manner which reminded me of the final scene in Labryinth, where Jennifer Connelly chases David Bowie in vain as the floor shifts this way and that in a dreamlike scenario, leading to dead ends which suddenly rise up or converge in a cut away space. Placed seemingly randomly amongst these walls and steps are stools. Both made of cork and also shaped like corks, (as from a bottle) they provide a sweet little jolt of humour which snaps you back to the picnics and sunshine above.

The ceiling of this underground retreat doubles as a water feature on the topside. Seen from a higher sloped part of the grounds the flat circular pool creates a stunning reflection of the surrounding trees and life of the park. Linking again back to the organic concern intrinsic in the design, the visitor feels as if buried in the ground: embraced by nature, enshrined in cork , beneath a film of water.

Although delicious on a hot summers day, I can imagine the effect on a damp autumn afternoon; as attested by a friend, cork in damp weather does not equal a comfortable cranny. But this is not intended to be a winter pavilion, nor an all-year-round pavilion. The designers could not have foreseen the deluge of rain of which our summer frustratingly consisted. I, in fact, believe it to have held up rather well; the cork is shiningly intact and although the water has gained a new, rather aromatic element as the algae continuously divides, the current mass of orange complements the increasingly colourful leaves of the trees so delicately, you could almost believe it was deliberate.


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