Architecture

Serpentine Pavilion 2009

March 28, 2010

Playful and disarmingly simple, SANAA’s 2009 Serpentine Pavilion nevertheless explored some very weighty themes.

Space and Time, having established a comfortable rapport during your stroll through the tree lined paths of London’s Kensington Gardens, become strange bedfellows on arrival at the 2009 Serpentine Pavilion. Unable to determine exactly where the pavilion begins and ends, Space finds consolation by taking his photograph in the underside of the mirrored roof. Time attempts the same but keeps losing himself as his reflection snags on imperfections in the roof’s surface. Nearby an unperturbed young boy rakes white gravel with the toe of his shoe. You sit down in a bunny-eared chair and wait for Space and Time to collect themselves into some kind of continuum.

While it certainly exists in both space and time, architecture is friend to neither. In order to understand why, one must distinguish between architecture and building. Buildings are an organic construct at one with the fabric of reality. Architecture, by contrast, is an intellectual construct that attempts to open a seam in reality, disrupting the continuum of space and time, and thereby exposing our surroundings and our selves to examination. Liberated from the constraints of building – economics, functionality, durability – the pavilion is a potent architectural medium.

The Serpentine Pavilion program offers London’s summertime public a close look at designs by renowned architects yet to work in England. Commissioned annually by Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones for the gallery’s front lawn, nine temporary pavilions have been constructed to date. The 2009 pavilion has been designed by Japanese architects SANAA. Renowned for combining childlike forms with a razor-sharp perceptiveness, their work dissects constructed space into an ambiguous territory that provokes the curiosity of its occupants. The architects’ 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, for example, encloses a group of cubic galleries within a circular glass wall. This exposes the inner goings-on of the museum to the park, and vice versa, highlighting informal activity. The seamless glass wall also seems to arbitrarily divide the museum and the park, creating tension between interior and exterior, which enlivens a series of liminal spaces at the edge.

SANAA’s Serpentine Pavilion pushes the threshold a step further while almost doing away with walls altogether. At once elegant and naïve, the pavilion’s amoebic form is defined by an undulating, reflective sliver of roof which slices through the air and leaves concrete shadow on the ground. Like a mime artist’s cage, definition of inside and out is reduced to mere visual suggestion, which is heightened by the lack of physical enclosure or defined openings. The mirrored roof swoops low from tree to table height like flowing mercury or a melting clock. A needle thin array of steel columns seems as much to puncture as to support the pavilion’s reflective canopy. The apparently random column arrangement negates any attempt to determine structural forces or a spatial hierarchy. The only hierarchies in place are driven by human interaction: spiralling coffee queue, children playing in spaces too low to admit parents, the search for vacant chairs and tables.

Barely an inch thick and sandwiched in mirrored aluminium sheeting, the pavilion’s plywood roof merges with reflected parkland. An invisible and unstable boundary, the roofline loops around trees, some existing, others purpose planted, forming a panoramic landscape which welcomes peripheral vision but resists focus. Captured in its surface, occupants and surroundings are doubled or distorted. This graphic interference, which alternately frames and reflects, bodily engages visitors. As they move through the space they stop, inspect their inverted form, pull faces in the mirror or wave to themselves. Playful engagement is at the heart of this pavilion’s success. Composed from a simple collection of elements, the idea of the thing is instantly legible. And yet it invites lengthy interest and participation, generating a complexity and interest disproportionate to its parts. A dialogue between control and freedom, vagueness and deliberate action, the pavilion speaks volumes about what is compelling in SANAA’s larger works.

“Dissolving the edge of interior space is something we’re interested in, in our own work”, said SANAA co-director Kazuyo Sejima in an interview with Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “It’s easier to realise this in pavilion design than in most other building types, so we really enjoy it.”

The fascination with edge, which makes their buildings and particularly this pavilion a success, perhaps accounts for the underwhelming SANAA installation in Sydney’s Sherman Galleries [read our review of SANAA Redux]. Trapped within a white gallery space, SANAA’s acrylic-walled blob could not generate enough differential between inside and out to manufacture tension or intrigue.

In Salvador Dali’s 1950 painting entitled Dali at the Age of Six, when he Thought he was a Girl, Lifting the Skin of the Water to see a Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Sea, the vertical plane of the painting acts like aquarium glass, cutting a cross-section through a coastal landscape. We see the water’s skin as a thin layer, with a hollow space underneath in which a dog slumbers. A curious girl peels back the sea’s surface like a tablecloth, uncovering the dreamlike reality concealed beneath the dull veneer of the everyday. Like the surface of the sea in Dali’s painting, the roof of SANAA’s Serpentine Pavilion is an improbably thin membrane that opens a seam in the fabric of reality, distorting our spatial and temporal perceptions and affording us a glimpse behind the heavy drapes of waking life.

David Neustein is a regular contributor to a number of Australian design publications and has studied architecture and industrial design at the University of Sydney, RMIT and Fabrica, Italy.

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