Bird’s Nest Designers Take on the Serpentine Pavilion

The design team for the now iconic Bird’s Nest stadium created in Beijing for the Olympics — Artist Ai Wei Wei and starchitect duo Herzog & De Meuron — just took on the Serpentine Pavilion, perhaps the world’s most reviewed temporary summer space. Each year, the Serpentine Gallery in London commissions some of the best architects to design their seasonal pavilion. In the past, they’ve hired Pritzer Prize-winning architects like Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor (who partnered with famed Dutch New Perennial gardener Piet Oudolf), and Rem Koolhaus. While we’d love to see them put a top landscape architect in the lead on one of these years, the pavilions do reflect some of the latest bold ideas from contemporary architecture.

Given Ai Wei Wei has been engaged in ongoing combat with the Chinese government, he’s largely been under house arrest so he worked on the designs from home, corresponding with Herzog & De Meuron via Skype.  On this unique design process, Ai told The Independent: “Using Skype is lovely. I think all projects should be done with Skype. You only have to communicate the spiritual part.”



Azure magazine writes that the trans-national, online design team first excavated a “circular cavity” in the ground, about 1.5 meters deep. In an homage to the past 10+ years of pavilions, the team “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.”

A floating platform, which hovers 1.4 meters above ground, was then added. Supported by 12 pillars, the roof is topped by a “large, shallow basin of water.” The water is set low enough so that it can act as a reflecting pool for people standing on the lawn outside the pavilion. The pool can also be drained and serve as a stage for performances. 



The interior provides another, perhaps darker experience. It’s purposefully unlit, with just a few 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.”

The reviews from other architecture critics were largely positive, although some don’t start out that way. For example, Edwin Heathcote with The Financial Times called it a “real corker,” writing: “Covered in cork, the musty subterranean space does, in fact, smell a bit mouldy, a bit wrong. What it tells you is that the architectural formalism, the incessant shape-making and enforced sculptural originality of the pavilion programme has, perhaps, gone a bit off.” Heathcote then says the project may be another instance of architects being too self-referential: “Instead of creating a new sculptural object, this year’s designers have delved into the past, into the memory of the site, to exhume the remains of pavilions past and recreate their foundations and their traces as if this were an archaeological dig. This is architecture consuming itself.” 

However, he ends up arguing that the pavilion is “one of the most compelling, most eccentric, and most engaging pavilions so far.” The site takes on the shape of an archeological dig, resembling the “layers of a city exposed simultaneously, from ancient foundations to the invasive subterranean networks of more recent cabling and conduits.” Heathcote thinks this is “very London, a reflection on a city built on a hugely complex set of entrails comprising everything from Tube tunnels to air raid bunkers, a city in which liquid is never far from the surface (held in place symbolically, perhaps, by all that cork).” The experience: The dark interior is “spongy and musty. The scattered mushroom-shaped stools resemble huge champagne corks. It is oddly sinister, dark, playing with scales and layer.”


In The Telegraph (UK), architect Jacques Herzog finally explains himself: “So many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built [here], that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape.” Instead, the focus is on the memories dug up.

Interestingly, to offset the costs of hiring these big-name artists and architects, the Serpentine Gallery is now selling these pavilions after the summer is over. The New York Times reports that billionaire Indian steel magnate Lakshmi N. Mittal and his wife, Usha, will be buying this year’s piece.

See more photos and also check out last year’s pavilion by Peter Zumthor and Piet Oudolf.

Image credits: (1-3) Herzog & De Meuron and Ai Wei Wei. Copyright 2012, (4-7) Iwan Baan. Copyright 2012

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