Stonehenge was an unexpected reference made by the French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh in her speech at the unveiling — or “unfurling”— of her pavilion dubbed “Á Table” (a French call to sit down together at a table to eat). The design appears far removed from the bulky historical monument. Its thin plywood roof, delicately crumpled like a piece of paper, seems to flutter in the wind when seen through the leafy trees of London’s Hyde Park from a busy street.
Inside, the slender glulam rafters have been arranged radially to create a span of over 20 metres, each one grounded by a low-cement foundation pad, just big enough to hold it in place as they taper together towards the centre of the canopy. The ring beam in the middle is only “bracing” the end of the columns, so that even without it, the structure remains intact. This pavilion does not just look lightweight but is lightweight, with a rigorously pared-down carbon footprint.
“It’s about finding the DNA … you could say that Stonehenge is the ancestor of the Serpentine Pavilions with its open programming, its deep connection to nature and the sky,” the Paris-based architect and principal of Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture explains. “We are part of this cyclical time and architecture should make us aware of that.” The other reference Ghotmeh makes is to the Toguna huts of the Dogon people of Mali, West Africa, whose low-lying roof structure encourages people to remain seated peacefully throughout whatever discussions villagers may hold. Ghotmeh alludes to their intimacy by keeping the pavilion’s height relatively low.
Á Table’s interior space is surprisingly expansive. The ribs of the pleated ceiling recall the gills of a mushroom. The roof is supported by thin timber columns, and despite its size, the structure retains a plant-like delicacy.
The tables and stools, designed by Ghotmeh herself, are crafted from solid oak, painted in dark red, and will soon be available for purchase from The Conran Shop. On opening day, they were arranged in a circle, leaving the centre empty, as though a stage was set for a performance. The sun shone through the translucent fabric stretched over an oculus with steel cables.
As if to fill the void, Ghotmeh entered, wearing a brightly coloured baggy trouser suit, in sharp contrast to the muted natural hues of her pavilion. Á Table in this way blends into the park, confirming what Ghotmeh has previously said about wanting her architecture to disappear into context. Such thinking seems to sit at odds with an annual design spectacle, where commissioned architects compete to come up with the most futuristic and “pioneering” pavilions.
Seemingly detached from all of that, the 43-year-old architect says she has been working away on the details of her pavilion right from the beginning – and this focus is reflected in its immaculate finish. The 22nd Serpentine Pavilion, however, lacks the wow factor of the previous models. The closest kinship it has in its modesty and elegance is with Peter Zumthor’s 2011 installation. (Isn’t it utterly irresponsible of us, though, to expect, want and insist on a pavilion that is always daring and spectacular?)
In an industry that still abounds with the spectacle of starchitects — and starchitecture — Ghotmeh, who left then-war-torn Lebanon at a young age, is something of an outlier. There is a sense of command and reticence in her approach. She talks about the importance of our relationship with the earth, which ties us back to our self, back to our home, back to our roots. “Our need to feel close to the earth shows how much we are a climatic being.”
Working with the same resolve, engineering firm Aecom endeavoured to minimize the material use. Steel flitching was used only in very specific areas where it was required to restrain the slender glulam rafters. The columns work in tandem with the delicate fretwork wall panels to stabilize the structure without the need for any additional bracing. Everything was sourced as locally as possible and prefabricated in northeast England for easy assembling and dismantling. Any residual timber waste has been chipped and thrown into the biomass system that heats up the York facility of the manufacturing company Stage One.
The canopy’s centre is covered so that “no one gets wet,” while the fabric structure is raised to let air into the pavilion. With the perforated wall panels, the room inside feels breezy. The deck-like treatment of the floor, however, is slightly disappointing, as it tends to make the pavilion look like a circus tent. This seems like a missed opportunity. The architect could have left the earth exposed, a bit like the celebrated Tanikawa House designed by the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara in the ’70s, to bring us closer to the earth. Perhaps Serpentine Galleries’ Health and Safety team intervened.
The tables and chairs are modular, and can be arranged in any configurations. “It’s, ahm…” Ghotmeh searches for a word. “Non-hierarchical?” I offer. “Yes!” she responds, with a smile: “They echo the form of the pavilion.” Ghotmeh has furthermore concocted an organic food menu in collaboration with Benugo, which will be served at the pavilion. “Food is an expression of care,” she says. So is architecture and design.
The lack of spectacle should be admired. Gandhi (my own reference) fought colonialism with nothing but his own body. Ghotmeh beams at the suggestion that her pavilion looks a bit like a moving carousel – there is a sense of joy. No doubt it will soon be teaming with people.
Yuki Sumner is a London-based Japanese critic, writer, editor and curator. She is representing Japan at this year’s London Design Biennale and has curated a show called “Future is rural.” The Biennale opened to the public on 2 June and runs until 25 June.
In London, the French-Lebanese architect unveils a lightweight and contextually attuned design that embraces community.