by STIRworldNov 24, 2022
The efficacy of a single, sit-down conversation, especially in a field as nebulous and intrinsically collaborative, stakeholder-oriented as architecture isn't seemingly lost amid a flurry of forums, biennales, international summits, and festivals today. In their displays of an interventive architecture as provocation, as a conversation starter essentially, the agency of architecture itself, perhaps even its lack of self-awareness on the professional side, is both paraded and brought into question simultaneously. However, in the making of that conversation, with the elemental table set as a stage of sorts, it remains of prime importance to both spotlight who has a seat at that table, and to always have room for more. With the same spirited consciousness, Lina Ghotmeh and her eponymous Paris based practice choreograph this year's Serpentine Pavilion at London's Kensington Gardens.
The tables—concentrically arranged and conjoined slightly obliquely—along with the conversations they intend to inspire, are housed underneath a lightweight timber pavilion that is at once ephemeral in its appearance, as well as bearing a visual character of reminiscence, of having always been a part of the grounds. Of the previous 21 iterations of the now globally renowned pavilion including temporary structures by both stalwarts and relatively young but prodigal architects, its commissioning becoming a near annual ritual of speculation, frenzy, and prestige, Ghotmeh's pavilion design is perhaps the most understated among its predecessors—inconspicuous even—speaking to her language of building unto togetherness, a certain belongingness to the ground or to the Earth itself, and her love for nature. Between her monument of resilience in Beirut's Stone Garden, now part of an urban myth, and a convivial exploration of diametric space in the pavilion, Ghotmeh's architectural language is imbued with a tenderness while admittedly effacing a global stage and an increasingly public front.
Conceived almost entirely in timber, the pavilion, upon first visual contact, is marked by a rather strong vertical presence in the peripheral slender columns, contiguously bound to the ribs holding the roof and shaping its circular sawtooth profile. Behind the columns, a series of CNC cut screens in abstract natural patterns form a rudimentary double skin façade system—without the actual sense of a facia, aiding in natural lighting and ventilation. The entire structure is designed to resemble tree canopies, with additional indigenous and social inspiration from togunas, unique communal hut-like structures found in Mali, West Africa. Ghotmeh imagines the resultant perambulatory walk between the two to be a space for spontaneity, with children running or people leisurely strolling to discover the pavilion. The peripheral columns and screens constitute the only gentle thresholds that need to be crossed to step into the pavilion, keeping access completely free and democratic for even casual visitors to Hyde Park, something the artistic director at Serpentine, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was particularly enthusiastic about. "The Serpentine is an environment that is not necessarily predictive—it's an environment wherein people can invent their own use", Obrist said in conversation with STIR on the multiplicity and spatial porosity of this year's Serpentine Pavilion.
Admittedly so, the pavilion's first impression apparently veers towards underwhelming, steering away from a sense of spectacle one has come to expect of the Serpentine Pavilions. The top of the pavilion's rather dramatic canopy doesn't even lock eyes with the Serpentine gallery's terrace, a little over a storey itself – something that Ghotmeh terms to be a well intentioned "horizontal harmony". Even the latticed patterns indicate a degree of kitsch that is atypical of commissioned works of this scale and scope, imparting it the dimensions of an every-place architecture that is almost disarming, speaking to similar social settings wherein the table is a protagonist and a purveyor of narratives. The disarmament is further aided by the idea of there being an urgent need for conversation—around similar tables—to address several global issues in which architecture subsumes (rather than commands) agency. Conversely, the interior setting is a bit more charged, with the folds of the roof and the timber ribs holding them dramatically converging at the central oculus, funnelling and amplifying light into the pavilion. Concentric to the circular footprint of the pavilion, the titular table is set.
With its name derived from the French call to sit down and share a meal while engaging in dialogue over current affairs, politics, and personal lives, the pavilion's interiors are curiously arranged despite following an obvious ceremonial logic, tipping its hat to the Serpentine's original conception as a teahouse. The arrangement comprises a series of 25 tables and 57 stools arranged concentrically, designed in dark-red oak by Ghotmeh herself in collaboration with The Conran Shop, and envisioned to be robustly put to use through the pavilion's lifetime. The central space is left unoccupied, earmarked with a different flooring from the rest of the pavilion's red-oaken slats, with the intention to form a space for performance or for addressing the people, strongly reminiscent of tavernas and other informal drinking establishments. The curation is complete with Ghotmeh also contributing to a menu based on fully organic ingredients in collaboration with Benugo that will be available at the pavilion all through the summer, along with an extensive lineup of public programmes including 'Park Nights,' a series of performances and engagements in art, music, literature, and dance.
"The emotion of this pavilion is to draw you into the structure and allow you to explore. It tries to talk about a certain approach to architecture that is more humbling, but at the same time, strong in its own centre and its own interiority. I really like how the structure is evolving each one's imaginary," states Ghotmeh in conversation with STIR, on the pavilion's near cloaked conception in the grounds beside the gallery. It is also particularly noteworthy and interesting that the outwardly collective and communal outlook of Ghotmeh's intervention is somewhat in contrast to Theaster Gates' Black Chapel from last year, which focused on a more solemn, meditative experience for the individual, and is fully covered and sheltered from London's unreliable weather, for one.
The realisation of the Serpentine Pavilion 2023 is made possible by the generous contributions—sponsorships and in-kind—of individuals and foundations pledging to the proliferation of art and architecture, including Goldman Sachs, the pavilion's headline partner; supporting partners HENI, Luma Foundation, and Nicoletta Fiorucci Foundation; technical advisors AECOM; and supporters at Stage One. "It's a great reflection of why we are so keen to be involved," stated Stefan Bollinger, Partner at Goldman Sachs, London, while pointing to the pavilion and the many parallels between architecture and finance, and how the latter could benefit from a creative expression despite regulations—just as architecture—in a candid conversation with STIR.
The Serpentine Pavilion opens to the public on June 9, and will stay open and fully accessible through the summer.