So it was that the last of 12 elders were chosen to complete the zodiac. On a vast table they laid before them the plans of all that had gone before. The plans showed that each of their worthy predecessors had spoken with a different voice and each had considered they were speaking the truth.
The twelfth Serpentine Gallery Pavilion has been designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. Instead of a conventional pavilion, a large disc of water greets visitors. This is not so much a pavilion to look at, as a pavilion to listen in. Under the lifted water is a dark space that steps down into the earth. Expectations are inverted and a new space has been found that makes a new relationship to the gallery and sets up new relationships between the visitors. The ritual is one of circumnavigation and inspection. This year visitors may have heard the story of how the pavilion has been made from the exposed foundations of the past pavilions. But those imagining that this is part of the cult of the found object, with all the gravitas that brings with it, will be disappointed. The ruins are fake, but this is not to say that they are any less worthy. For the false archaeology of this subterranean world is here to speak about multiplicity and to give each voice a chance to speak. The consequence of the collage strategy is that the overlapping layers of fragmented plans create a labyrinthine topography. The hollowed-out landscape sets up unexpected social interactions by shifting sectional relationships at the scale of the land and at the scale of the body. The amalgamation of overlapping plan forms increases the chance of encounter, encouraging discourse amongst visitors in their complex route through the dark cork-lined receptacle.
Sound is made more important than vision by using an earth-coloured material that absorbs light and unwanted noise. Smell also enriches the visceral experience as dark cork is made from light cork that has been smoked. The skin-temperature material also asks to be touched. The sense is of a space that transports you back in time, to the timber-panelled hall, the incense-filled temple. The choice of the single material and the single colour concentrate the attention on how the space feels and what it does rather than what it looks like. Surrounded by a soft, sound-absorbent material leading up to a soft lawn surrounded by soft hedges, this space provides a very good acoustic for debate. There is no need to talk loudly to be heard because the large flat disc contains sound as well as light and smell. It is a good place to speak your mind and it will be a tactile and intimate space to host this autumn’s main programmed event, the Memory Marathon.
Many temples make a play of spatial opposites to amplify the role of the collective and the individual. In complete contrast to the rich and complex undercroft, the bold and simple disc of water is more suited to quiet individual contemplation. The rising plane of the lawn alters the relationship with the individual visitor as they follow the disc’s edge. The slippage in plan of the disc over the circular gathering space below brings part of that space out into the sunlight and at the same time emphasises the cantilever of the lake over the lawn where the circle is curiously trimmed to pay respect to the classical gallery. Catching the rain from the sky as it protects the undercoft, the water of the lifted lake becomes more about our relationship with nature as the wind catches the surface under the changing play of light. There will be delightful moments when visitors see old friends across the water, when a child casts the first paper boat adrift, and when a swan touches down to catch the floating crumbs of a Victoria sponge cake. Such incidental moments will be interspersed with fantastical events when the cork plug is pulled, the water drained and the disc becomes a giant stage and the lawn a new amphitheatre.
To understand why the building has shied away from rhetorical form and focused on the collective event, we need to understand the context in which this deliberately controversial work has been made. Four years ago, the authors delighted the world with a stadium for the Beijing Olympics. This year, China’s government imprisoned Ai Weiwei for the crime of speaking his mind. When the artist describes his collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron he suggests their relationship is like that of ‘three soldiers in a war’. In the pavilion’s first use as a public forum, Jacques Herzog used the opportunity of the press opening to make a carefully worded criticism of China’s human rights record. The choice of this year’s team was itself a political act and their combined work has become a cultural commentary on the social role of pavilions and freedom of speech. Society seeks the truth through a continual debate, each of us shaping our own truth during the discourse. The real beauty of this pavilion is that it appears very modest but upholds a fundamental principle of civilisation, that the truth is kept alive through free speech.
Mike Tonkin is a partner in Tonkin Liu, whose projects include the Rain Bow Gate at Burnley and the Fresh Flower pavilion for the 2008 London Festival of Architecture. He teaches at the University of Bath.
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei; design team: Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ai Weiwei, Ben Duckworth, Christoph Zeller, Liam Ashmore, Mai Komuro, Martin Nässen, John Francis O’Mara, Wim Walschap, E-Shyh Wong, Inserk Yang; structural engineer: Arup; project and construction management: RISE; planning consultant: DP9; client: The Serpentine Gallery.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Main structure; Stage One; cork: Amorim; landscaping: The Landscape Group; surveying and site set-out: SES; construction equipment: Laing O’Rourke.
First published in AT229, June 2012