BIG’s unzipped wall? Straight out of Minecraft? A cathedral made of boxes? Regardless of the epithets it has garnered, this year’s Serpentine Pavilion has successfully swung the attention back on this annual summer ritual in the heart of London.
Nearly a year ago, Bjarke Ingels declared that “architecture should be more like Minecraft” and with the Serpentine Pavilion this year, his eponymous studio BIG has finally been able to realize that quirky vision.
While Ingels himself is excellent at promoting his ideas, unlike his former mentor Rem Koolhaas (OMA) he is a man of the people whose plain-speak against ‘boring architecture’ has found mass appeal (and projects!) in recent years while he steadily ascends the echelons of a more skeptical architectural fraternity. It comes as no surprise then that his pavilion this summer pays tribute to its OMA roots in scale and expression.
The brief every year for the Serpentine Pavilion in London is to design a 300 sq.m. space that houses a café by day and serves as a forum for learning and entertainment by night. Architects have typically been announced 6 months before the pavilion is meant to open to public allowing them time to develop their design and erect it. The pavilion is open to all and is dismantled at the end of the English summer.
There has been an evident upswing in appreciation for the pavilion this year, which comes at a crucial juncture for the Serpentine Galleries especially after two successive years of lukewarm reception for those designed by Spaniards SelgasCano (2015) and the Chilean architect Smiljan Radic (2014).
2016 also marks a change of guard with Julia Peyton-Jones stepping down as Director of the Serpentine Galleries after having shouldered the responsibility for 25 years. The pavilions were her brainchild and have dotted the same site in Kensington Gardens for 16 years in a row now – with the exception of MVRDV’s proposal in 2004 which ‘failed heroically’ to see the light of day. Peyton-Jones put the Serpentine Pavilions on the global radar by enlisting renowned names such as Toyo Ito, Jean Nouvel, SANAA, Frank Gehry, Ai Weiwei and Peter Zumthor among others to propose and build their designs.
The Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’s choice as architect for this year’s pavilion was a rather safe bet for the hyped anticipation the Serpentine Pavilion was likely to generate thereafter. To his credit, Ingels is also among the youngest architects to have been commissioned for the job.
BIG’s design comes across as result of a child having been sensibly indulgent in a candy shop. But having fun with the project has not limited BIG from checking the right boxes: the pavilion frames the Serpentine Gallery’s spire perfectly, offers plenty of seating inside and outside, there is ample room for visitors to sit and walk without having to elbow their way around and it is welcomingly airy especially when compared to last year’s debacle by SelgasCano that required a massive exhaust fan to cool its greenhouse effect induced by the stretched ETFE wrappings.
For its choice of material, BIG used modular hollow fibreglass boxes and aluminium extrusions achieving a staggered stacking made possible through the intersection of computational form finding and parametric assembly.
An interactive version of the pavilion’s parametric script has also been released to the general public to play with if you are tech-savvy enough to have a pair of Google Cardboard or through a downloadable app for tablets.
While virtually the key tectonic element may be the script written for its assembly, in the physical domain, it is the light that shapes this particular pavilion. Even on a typically cloudy London afternoon, the pavilion was lit naturally with light bouncing off the fibreglass boxes providing a beautiful gradient tone to the interior.
The pavilion’s cellular structure and orthogonal grid also renders a unique spatial configuration from both the indoors and outdoors. Based on where you view the pavilion from, it transitions from being transparent to sculptural – both welcoming adjectives for an object that is inserted in landscape – elevating the pavilion at once for its breadth of experiential offerings.
While SANAA, Toyo Ito and Peter Zumthor’s pavilions remain most critically acclaimed, they are also the Serpentine’s most thorough achievements so far. This year’s pavilion succeeds because it takes the idea of play seriously and although it may be lacking in fine details, it stays true to the idea of what a summer pavilion ought to be.
Text By Aftab Jalia