More than meets the eye

22 January 2020

The pavilion has traditionally been a medium for architects to push boundaries and pose questions. However, as international architectural festivals proliferate, has the form begun to err towards superficiality? Greg Noone talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, and architects Hester van Dijk and Soomeen Hahm, about what the true purpose of architectural pavilions should be.

In 2012, the Serpentine Pavilion’s theme was ruination. Visitors to Kensington Gardens beheld a vast plate of concrete, suspended a metre and a half above the ground, sheltering the facsimile of an archaeological dig exposing the remnants of previous entries. A collaboration between the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, the installation – its lower part built of cork, the better to evoke a subterranean feel – traced the floor plans of long-past pavilions like so many lines on a Spirograph.

Not all critics were impressed. In the first line of his assessment of the structure for Architectural Review, Owen Hatherley cited Albert Speer’s notorious ‘Theory of Ruin Value’ as a possible inspiration for the work, before settling on a light dismissal of the structure as being ‘as inconsequential as it is enjoyable’. Four years later, this dim view of the exercise had calcified into a broader condemnation of the Serpentine Pavilion’s contribution to modern architecture: “An over-engineered yet disposable form, containing nothing, committed to ignoring its location, with heavy corporate sponsorship… everything that is wrong with ‘high’ architecture today in one throwaway architectural blipvert.”

This, of course, strikes at the dilemma at the heart of every pavilion – what is the point of building one in the first place? The answer, of course, is that one can, although for centuries ‘one’ usually meant someone rich or powerful. Early pavilions, as Joel Robinson explains in his brief history of the form, would often serve simply as “lodges, boathouses, gazebos, seats, pergolas, stages, bandstands, conservatories, aviaries and cabinets,” small and empty spaces ready-made for idling. It was only by the 1930s, with the emergence of World Expositions and the enthusiasm of nations to publicly define themselves through representative structures, that the form became inextricably tied to architectural experimentation.

By dint of its innate transience, the architect is liberated to attempt any number of things in designing a pavilion that would be impossible in a normal commission. That could range from pushing the boundaries of traditional building methods to making abstract (or concrete) political or cultural statements. This, of course, gives rise to the question of whether the pavilion as a form belongs to the realm of architecture, or if it is just another type of sculpture that happens to be designed and built by architects.

A source of inspiration

Nobody comes closer to embodying this tension than the Serpentine Gallery’s own artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Once described as the most powerful man in art, Obrist is also a commanding gatekeeper in global architecture, the public face of an institution with the power to grant practices an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate their designing mettle on an international platform. His interest in the medium itself is also profound. When I ask him when it started, Obrist’s gives a 15-minute summation (“I am sorry it is so long”) of his devouring of Vasari’s The Lives as a teenager and his first meetings with Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, switching the setting every few minutes from Switzerland and the Netherlands to Japan by way of Hong Kong.

When we finally get to the purpose of the Serpentine Pavilion, the curator is unabashedly enthusiastic about its role in giving architects from around the world an opportunity to not only build in the UK for the first time, but to experiment with the limits of architectural form. Obrist is particularly proud of how each practice has coped with the constraints of the brief, which, by demanding a roof and plenty of seating, succeed in making it a public space. “Also, it needs to be able to be dismantled,” he adds. “We always instigate a second life for this pavilion.”

It is this aspect of the exercise that, arguably, has led to some questioning whether these structures are really pushing the boundaries of architectural form. While a few Serpentine Pavilions have suffered a grubby afterlife – the first, an origami marquee by Zaha Hadid, was reported by The Guardian to stand, “between a fibreglass model of Humpty Dumpty and the Shiver Me Timbers adventure playground” in a Cornwall theme park – a not inconsiderable number have ended up in the hands of private collectors.

On this point, Obrist is defensive. “First of all, it has got nothing to do with collecting,” he says, before listing off the locations where other pavilions are still available for the public to visit, including Sou Fujimoto’s Cloud, which sits in front of the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, and the afterlife of Frank Gehry’s contribution in Château La Coste, Provence. The appearance of the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park each year is also a source of inspiration for not only up-and-coming architects – the ranks of which Obrist is keen to recruit in the coming years – but also in more unexpected quarters.

“It was a taxi driver who told me last year that he came with his daughter,” he explains. “She suddenly ran into the pavilion and – really, right now – she wants to study architecture.

“The pavilion literally goes to the people. So, in a way, we believe it is a very democratic, very accessible tool or instrument which is there for everyone.”

The green question

There is, of course, an argument to be made that the pavilion is not only an opportunity for architectural discourse to be widened, but also one that should be narrowed for the public good. Hester van Dijk, for one, is an architect possessed of a profound belief in the potential of the circular economy. Using the pavilion to demonstrate this, however, is a subtly hypocritical act.

“When we make temporary pavilions, sometimes it just lasts for one week,” explains the founder of Amsterdam-based practice Overtreders W. “If you don’t need it anymore after a week, then what are you going to do with all the materials you’ve used?”

This paradox is neatly sidestepped by Overtreders W and bureau SLA’s People’s Pavilion. Designed as the main installation for the World Design Event in Eindhoven, it is built entirely out of recycled materials. These included 12 concrete foundation piles, 19 wooden frames and coloured tiles made out of collected household plastic waste.

Overtreders W is certainly in the minority when it comes to how it pursues its pavilion designs. Nevertheless, van Dijk is confident that more architects are embracing the argument for the circular economy embodied in the People’s Pavilion, citing the unveiling of The Growing Pavilion at Dutch Design Week in October 2019.

Comprised of a timber frame and exterior panels grown from mycelium, the structure was built entirely out of biodegradable materials, meaning of course that “if you discard it,” says Van Dijk, “it will turn into compost”.

Eye of the beholder

The People’s Pavilion is not effective in conveying its message because of the fact it is made out of recycled materials – rather, it succeeds because, thanks to its spacious interiors and rainbow facade, it possesses an unassuming beauty. “If you make something that is super-sustainable and looks ugly, or is an awful place to be in, then you’re wasting your time I think,” Van Dijk says, laughing.

In this, Soomeen Hahm is in agreement. Formerly of Zaha Hadid Architects, Hahm founded her own practice in 2016 to develop her research agenda in computational design. “Zaha, or Gehry – they are like great sculptors,” she explains over coffee. “They have great minds, but normally the way of practicing is that there is a design and concept that is [conceived of] in the human mind, and you use computer software to realise that. So, it is still human-designed.”

Hahm wants to subvert this formula, using computer intelligence as her source of inspiration. The resulting designs often embrace ethereal, sometimes alien forms, the starkest of which was unveiled at the Tallinn Architecture Biennial in October. Designed in collaboration with architects Igor Pantic, Gwyllim Jahn and Cam Newnham, the Steampunk Pavilion is a swirling knot of wooden panels that seems to take a breath of air before diving down again into its gravel foundation. Its construction was testament to Hahm’s desire to subordinate the complex geometries generated during the computer-aided design process to more traditional methods of fabrication.

“There is really little way of executing complex ways of processing materials, unless you are using robots – but robots are also limited,” she explains. Humans, by contrast, don’t require as much time to prepare for the task at hand, and “can deal with a lot of delicate materials and processes”.

The Steampunk Pavilion is an attempt to bridge those two worlds. It is the kind of visual manifesto that Hahm believes a pavilion should be, a platform for architectural experimentation. And if that experiment is a failure, then that is fine as well: at least the visitor has learned something, anything, in having seen it. It is for this reason that Hahm believes celebrations of the pavilion form, like the Serpentine Galleries, serve a vital purpose in revitalising architectural discourse. “This entire annual rotation of energy is already something really inspiring,” she says.

What is more, none of these architects should be afraid of being criticised for superficiality, argues Hahm. Any architect worth their salt balances aesthetic decisions against the constraints demanded by function, which she has found – at least in Europe – often leads them to explain the former as a guilty annexe to the latter rather than a worthwhile expression of their talent. The pavilion form allows for a liberation of the architect from this straightjacket.

For her part, Hahm wishes architects would be more honest in talking about their design choices, and have the conversations about form in public that they so frequently have in private, not only about pavilions, but for all of their commissions. After all, she says, “architecture is technical, but it is also art”. 

Steampunk, a proposal for a pavilion made of steam-bent timber elements.
The People’s Pavilion from Bureau SLA and Overtreders W.
Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron’s 2012 Serpentine Pavilion.
Junya Ishigami's Serpentine Pavilion from 2019.
Front of Eindhoven's Bureau SLA and Overtreders W pavilion.

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