For the hotly anticipated Serpentine Gallery Pavilion on the lawns of Kensington Gardens in London, the trio has erected a contemplative, underground space that pays homage to the history of the annual architecture series.
Installed every summer since 2000, the temporary pavilions exemplify the cutting edge of modern architecture. While these structures, nestled among the trees of the gardens, remain in place for a single season, they leave a lasting impression. Pritzker Prize–winners, including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Gehry, have contributed visionary installations in the past 11 years.
The 10th Pritzker laureate to create a pavilion, Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with artist/activist Ai Weiwei. This partnership, which is also behind the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, reunited to produce a space that forgoes flash in favour of a setting rooted in the past.
The team began by excavating a circular cavity in the ground, roughly 1.5 metres deep. With an archaeologist’s precision, they traced the contours of the previous years’ foundations and dug them out in stepped, meandering levels upon which visitors can sit, lean or lie. At the site’s lowest point, a well reminds guests of the water table just below the surface and even accepts the rainwater that runs off the round roof.
This floating platform roof hovers 1.4 metres above the ground, and is supported by 12 pillars (one for each year of the series). Topped by a large, shallow basin of water, it’s deliberately set low enough to act as a reflecting pool for people standing on the lawn. Drained off into the waterhole, it can be used a stage.
Inside, the interior is dark with only a few scattered bulbs for light. Sheets of cork cover every surface, a material chosen for its “haptic and olfactory” qualities, and for the visual reference to the excavated earth. The low light, stalagmite-like cork stools, and the uneven subterranean ground together evoke the interior of a cave.
Much like 2011’s Peter Zumthor–designed secret garden, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s pavilion is intended for sitting, contemplating, and taking a break from the buzz of the city just steps away. The traces of previous pavilions echo the exposed ruins of an ancient Roman settlement, producing an overall effect that places the structure firmly in history. In a series of conceptual architecture that’s always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, imparting a sense of place and history may be the most revolutionary move yet.