Serpentine Pavilion 2021 by Counterspace honours community spaces in London

Sumayya Vally-led South African studio Counterspace draws upon cross communal spaces to craft a pavilion at Kensington Gardens with chiselled, abstract forms in pink and grey.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jun 11, 2021

Exuding subtle references to treasured community spaces within the city of London, the Serpentine Pavilion 2021, designed by Sumayya Vally-led South African practice Counterspace, opened to the public on June 11 after delay due to the pandemic. On the lush lawns of Kensington Gardens, the temporary structure features hints of the neoclassical and modern in soft pink hues contrasted by dark accents. As the 20th such pavilion commissioned by the London-based Serpentine Gallery, it responds to the historical eradication and subsequent deficiency of cross-communal spaces within London, paying tribute to eminent places of gathering - both existing and erased. 

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View. Located on the lawns of Kensington Gardens, near the Serpentine Gallery, the structure pays tribute to significant gathering spaces throughout the city of London | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View. Located on the lawns of Kensington Gardens, near the Serpentine Gallery, the structure pays tribute to significant gathering spaces throughout the city of London Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

Counterspace is a Johannesburg-based collaborative architecture studio situated at the confluence between interdisciplinary arts, research, and architecture. The practice also conceptualises and implements installations, exhibitions, community engagement, and urban design interventions, bound by concerns over inclusivity, otherness, and the future. Vally is the youngest architect invited to design the Pavilion to date - as part of a two-decade-long tradition that commenced with the first Serpentine Pavilion designed by the late Iraqi-British architect, Zaha Hadid.

Sumayya Vally of Counterspace: The youngest architect invited to design the Serpentine Pavilion so far | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Sumayya Vally of Counterspace: The youngest architect invited to design the Serpentine Pavilion so far Image: Justice Mukheli in Johannesburg, 2020. © Counterspace

Explaining the principles that drove her design for the pavilion, as well as its current relevance, Vally states in a press release: “My practice, and this pavilion, are centered around amplifying and collaborating with multiple and diverse voices from many different histories; with an interest in themes of identity, community, belonging and gathering”. She continues, "The past year has drawn these themes sharply into focus and has allowed me the space to reflect on the incredible generosity of communities that have been integral to this pavilion. This has given rise to several initiatives that extend the duration, scale, and reach of the pavilion beyond its physical lifespan. In a time of isolation, they have deepened its intents toward sustained collaboration”.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Sculptural abstracted forms were created by splicing together and superimposing elements from London’s architecture | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Sculptural abstracted forms were created by splicing together and superimposing elements from London’s architecture Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

The structure features sculptural, abstracted forms, generated by splicing, adding, and superimposing elements from the architectural landscape of London, including the neighbourhoods of Brixton, Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Barking and Dagenham, Edgware Road, and Peckham. Numerous settings within these locales, such as restaurants, bookstores, places of worship, and cultural institutions have nurtured the establishment of global diasporic identities within the city, heavily contributing to its current cosmopolitan ambience.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Spaces that influenced the design have  been reinterpreted in cork and micro-cement | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Spaces that influenced the design have been reinterpreted in cork and micro-cement Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

Some such sites with evident influences on the pavilion include the Four Aces Club on Dalston Lane - one of the first venues to play black music in the UK - the Fazl Mosque and East London Mosque, the Mangrove restaurant,  co-operative bookshops like Centerprise, Hackney, and even annual attractions such as the Notting Hill Carnival. Reinterpreted and moulded in cork and micro-cement, the imprints left behind by these places of significance have been articulately blended within the melting pot of identities and cultures that constitute the pavilion's design.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. The pavilion’s quasi-circular roof is supported by a steel grillage, on a reclaimed steel framework | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. The pavilion’s quasi-circular roof is supported by a steel grillage, on a reclaimed steel framework Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

At a height of more than six metres, this year's pavilion is among the tallest in recent memory, and its 350 square metre footprint is also one of the largest. Owing to its considerable size, it required a shallow concrete base, poured in-situ to bear the loads of its superstructure. The concrete was then floated to provide the final finish. Above, the quasi-circular roof, supported by a grillage of steel, spans between a series of 13 pin-ended and lattice columns directly linked to the substructure below - concealed within 15 vertical profiles featuring chiselled, geometric forms. Projections from these vertical members protrude and extend to fashion seating spaces throughout the pavilion’s space.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Protrusions from the chiselled vertical elements provide seating within the pavilion | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View. Protrusions from the chiselled vertical elements provide seating within the pavilion Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

Nearly all of the structure's supportive framework has been built in reclaimed steel, salvaged from the yard of the project contractors, Stage One Creative Services, based in the UK. Its secondary framing utilises timber pallets and carcassing enveloped by plywood sheeting. Three exits towards the south, south-east, and west of the structure have been provided, with level access points for the mobility impaired.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View: The pavilion is among the largest in recent years, with three exits and level access for the mobility impaired | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View. The pavilion is among the largest in recent years, with three exits and level access for the mobility impaired Image: © Counterspace | Photo: Iwan Baan

AECOM, the pavilion's Technical Advisors, state, “Typically, the success of the Pavilion is reliant on two or three key details or material, but the intricacies of Counterspace’s Pavilion include hundreds of different design features, which required the team to create many bespoke details”. Hence, the American multinational engineering firm worked closely with Counterspace to ensure no amount of detail was lost. The entire structure, including the concrete base, has been designed to enable easy dismantling and recycling. As per the organisers, the embodied carbon throughout the construction and design processes, was monitored with great intricacy to ensure a carbon-negative pavilion with a net positive outcome.

Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Albany, Deptford | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Albany, Deptford Image: © Counterspace | Photo: George Darrell

Additionally, for the first time in its history, fragments of the pavilion will be put on display at four selected sites of cultural significance across London, to extend the commission into the city and facilitate gatherings and public events. The Serpentine Gallery has also announced fellowship programs, along with an extended schedule of exhibitions and functions to accompany the pavilion’s installation.

Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Tabernacle, Notting Hill | The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion by Counterspace | STIRworld
Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Tabernacle, Notting Hill Image: © Counterspace | Photo: George Darrell

The Serpentine Gallery's Artistic Director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and its Chief Executive, Bettina Korek, issued a joint statement, saying, "We look forward with great excitement to welcoming London to this remarkable space this June. The spirit of community that has carried us as an institution through such a challenging year is the same that we hope will enliven this project”. The Serpentine Pavilion 2021 will remain open to the public till October 17, 2021, playing host to an array of related programming set to be held throughout the summer.

Project Details

Name: Serpentine Pavilion 2021
Location: London, UK
Architects: Counterspace
Year of Completion: 2021
Built up Area: 329 sq m
Site Area: 541 sq m
Technical Consultant: David Glover
Technical Advisors: AECOM
Construction: Stage One Creative Services Ltd.
Town Planning Consultant: DP9, Barnaby Collins, Zoe Smythe

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