Dig It!

Dig It!

Iwan Baan

Every summer since 2000, the Serpentine Gallery in London has commissioned a temporary pavilion from an architect who has not built in England before. This year, to celebrate the Olympics, it selected the team that designed the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. While Herzog & De Meuron have worked in London before, this is their first collaboration in the city with Ai Weiwei. The Chinese artist, who is still under house arrest and was unable to attend the opening, upstaged the architects in the local press coverage, and his poetic imagination infused the concept of a pavilion that is half sunken shelter, half archeological dig.

Herzog & De Meuron and Ai Weiwei took a different approach from the signature statements favored by earlier architects. “We asked ourselves why we needed to make a new design for this event,” explained the artist in a filmed statement. “We focused on memory and the past, and from that, a very interesting result came out.” To discover traces of the eleven structures that briefly occupied the gallery’s front lawn, the architects excavated a large circle down to the water table. They uncovered fragments of foundations and backfills, which they selectively referenced in low walls and 11 slender steel columns. They added a 12th column to represent their own intervention; the columns together support a circular steel roof that doubles as a reflecting pool, flattened on one side and elevated about 5 feet above the ground. The water mirrors the sky and the neo-Georgian gallery, and can be drained to create a dance floor.

John Offenbach (left) and Luke Hayes (right)

All the supports and surfaces below the canopy are clad in dark brown cork, a material that is also used for mushroom stools. Steps and ramps lead 4 feet down into a gathering pit that will host a variety of events before it closes on October 14. Thanks to the efforts of director Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine Gallery has become one of the most adventurous and best attended in the capital. It is open every day, admission is free, and plans are afoot to build a second facility, designed by Zaha Hadid.

The current project is less dramatic than many of its predecessors, but it offers a deeply satisfying, haptic experience, recalling childhood games beneath the dining table. Its apparent simplicity conceals the complexity of the preparatory plans, in which the footprints of earlier pavilions and their foundations were overlaid. The physical challenge was daunting for, as excavation began, April showers turned into torrents. More time was spent pumping than digging. And yet, as in every year but one (the over-ambitious 2004 design of MVRDV went unrealized), the pavilion was completed on time with Arup providing engineering services as in most previous years. The lead supporter—Indian steel magnate Lakshmi N. Mittal and his wife, Usha—will purchase the pavilion when it is dismantled and add it to their collection, ensuring that this Sino-Swiss collaboration will enjoy a long second life.