Ai Weiwei’s archeological Serpentine Pavilion finds success among ruins

CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART ARCHITECTURE LONDON

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has again teamed up with the Swiss design team Herzog & de Meuron to create the twelfth edition of the Serpentine Pavilion in London. The pavilion is being hailed as a triumph for the trio, who previously collaborated on Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.

View of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012. Image © 2012 Iwan Baan

Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron’s collaboration resulted in the current structure, a subterranean nook that combines architectural features of all of the previous Serpentine Pavilions, most notably the columns. The entire interior is covered in cork and topped with a rainwater-filled reflecting pool 1.4 metres above the ground that can be drained and transformed into a dance floor.

Commenting on the unique design concept, Ai was quoted as saying, “For this Serpentine Pavilion, we tried to study what happened before and we also asked ourselves why we need to make a new design for this event.” Most of the commentators hailed what they saw as a brilliant way to incorporate the previous designs from the past eleven years, offering something simultaneously innovative and historic.

In its acknowledgement of previous pavilions, it is both modest and historically conscious. Given the quick succession of superb structures on this particular patch of grass in the Kensington Gardens, the combined architectural footprint of the site is unusually impressive in its formal variety. The architects have made the most of this. However, we are reminded, and do well to remember, that the entire built environment has its host of architectural ghosts. Only most of the time, they remain repressed and unseen.

Kristina Rapacki, Disegno Magazine

Plan of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012, showing all of the previous designs overlapped. Image © Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

Plan of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012, showing all of the previous designs overlapped. Image © Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

 

With eleven columns representing the previous pavilions supporting the roof and a twelfth signifying the newest pavilion, it’s a celebration of past designs and architects that have helped shape this space and proves how successful this project continues to be for the Serpentine.

 

Rebecca Fulleylove, It’s Nice That

It is as if the design team have chosen to remove themselves from this or transcend it, instead creating a palimpsest of history; a presence out of an absence – indeed, like the physical absence of Weiwei, whose artistic input was communicated with Herzog & de Meuron via Skype throughout the six months the project took to complete.

Kirstie Brewer, Culture 24

The site begins to resemble the layers of a city exposed simultaneously, from ancient foundations to the invasive subterranean networks of more recent cabling and conduits. It 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).

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

View of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012. Image © 2012 Iwan Baan.

Ai, Herzog and de Meuren’s idea was to re-conceptualise the pavilion as an archeological project, discovering the remnants of previous years. The original plan actually called for them to exhume pieces of past pavilions and incorporate them into their construction, but after some digging they learned that the Serpentine Gallery has a policy of leaving no trace. Some commentators noted how this in itself affected the meaning of the work, positively or negatively.

In fact, there are no substantial ruins beneath the emerald-green turf of Kensington Gardens, and so what you see as you descend under the water-filled and saucer-like steel canopy hovering over Ai Weiwei’s and Herzog & de Meuron’s would-be archaeological site is a game of make-believe and fleeting memory.

Jonathan Glancey, The Telegraph

It’s a bit of an emperor’s new clothes situation (the obvious question is why they didn’t stop the excavation when they realised nothing was there), but the significance of Ai’s involvement, to be generous, will probably save it. […]

The urge to excavate, to allow artefacts to speak and to work with the existing conditions is both a return to his minimalist roots and an appropriate reaction to the London context. Whether we can tolerate the fiction at the Serpentine Gallery’s version is questionable, but it will be an opportunity to see work by an individual of multifaceted importance.

Kieran Long, The London Evening Standard

View of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012. Image © 2012 Iwan Baan.

The design’s central conceit is that it is the product of an excavation that has revealed the remains of the former pavilions. Both as a meditation on the history of this now very loaded site, and as a canny means of sidestepping the demand to produce yet another glorified marquee one can see the idea’s allure but it has gained nothing in translation. The fact that the “archaeology” being revealed is, actually a highly creative reconstruction has already attracted controversy but visitors are hardly going to leave feeling hoodwinked.

 Ellis Woodman, BD Online

Indeed, Woodman was the toughest critic of the pavilion, saying that the “conceit that the form has emerged through archaeological investigation really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

However, other commentators lavished praise on many facets of the design. Of particular note was the choice of material. The entire installation was covered in cork. Apart from being a sustainable material and invoking the look of a real archaeological site, the cork also gave the whole pavilion a unique feel and, more surprisingly, smell.

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. […]

The scattered mushroom-shaped stools resemble huge champagne corks. It is oddly sinister, dark, playing with scales and layers.

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

View of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012. Image © 2012 Jim Stephenson.

However, the striking thing about it is that it really feels like a great place to hang out. It has the quality of those accidental landscapes that children love to spend time in: rock pools or a landscape of tree hollows. Cork covers every surface: you smell it from yards away, and the dust coats your clothes. It’s a beautiful material made into a monolithic surface that looks like solid stone. But of course it is soft and welcoming, making the pavilion an easy place to sit or lean.

Kieran Long, The London Evening Standard

With brown-corked surfaces and small mushroom-shaped stools to perch on, it feels like being in a sort of forest-based, fungus bunker sunk into the grass. Open and panoramic, people are intrigued as they amble like curious squirrels down the incline into the pavilion.

Rebecca Fulleylove, It’s Nice That

View of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012. Image © 2012 Iwan Baan.

Reaction to the reflecting pool was also strong. Rebecca Fulleylove called it the “highlight” of the pavilion, while Kieran Long of the London Evening Standard saw it as a clever way to integrate itself into the environment and avoid “the trap of creating just another fancy shape.” Other commentators pointed out that it was not the most innovative design concept.

Above we have a wide pool of shallow water that is every bit as appealing as your local municipal boating pond. The architects have claimed it as a mirror with which to view the “infinitely varied, atmospheric skies of London” and the temptation to decant a bag of goldfish into it presses hard.

Ellis Woodman, BD Online

Aerial view mockup of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012, showing all of the previous designs overlapped. Image © Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei with Herzog & de Meuron, a film still of "Bird's Nest - Herzog & de Meuron in China", 2008. Image © 2008 by T&C Film AG.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, located in London’s Kensington Gardens, is an annual project given to an architect who has not yet designed a major work in London. Though Herzog & de Meuron designed the Tate Modern, the inclusion of Ai Weiwei made them eligible for this year’s selection. The pavilion will be up from June until October 2012, during which time it will be used to host several lectures and cultural events.

PR/KN/HH

Related Topics: Ai Weiwei, art in London, open air art spaces, public art, round ups

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