Serpentine Gallery Pavilion – the 12th to date – is complete and drawing the crowds into its subterranean womb in London’s Hyde Park. The view of the bijoux Thirties tea pavilion – a gallery since 1970 – has never been so unobstructed. The Swiss architecture practice and Chinese artist’s subtle insertion is very different from Peter Zumthor’s dense, monolithic structure that went before, or Jean Nouvel’s eye-bruising, fire-engine red structure before that.
Using the sloping topology of the site, the roof – which in effect is a disc filled with water meant to act like a mirror to the elements – is at waist height near the gallery, but low enough to allow access beneath at the sides furthest away from the gallery. The roof is like a temporary cover over an archeological dig while the contents beneath feel as though they’ve been with us a long time, like a Roman amphitheatre rediscovered. This is all very ftting for a project that is all about what has gone before.
It feels very much of its place, the topography guides you in and there are no barriers to the space, other than the subtleties of suggested ingress such as paths bordered by the kind of grass that parks usually dot with ‘Keep off…’ signs.
The basic premise is very simple. H&dM has chosen to dig down to the watertable and, in so doing, reveal the foundations of the 11 pavilions that have gone before. A circle offset from the roof acts as the frame for the geometry that is revealed below. There are, however, no big concrete foundations left over; the basis is more notional – though there are apparently subtle changes in the earth where it has been replaced and refilled.
‘We know exactly what has happened, because we have images and drawings. Everything is recorded. If you lay them on top of each other they create this kind of amazing, almost seemingly cult-like, structure which is also very beautiful,’ explains Jacques Herzog. ‘So we are given a form… given a kind of landscape. Architecturally we have a form without having to invent it ourselves, which is very typical of what we have done in the past and something that Weiwei also loves very much – discovering things that are there and have their own beauty. We wanted to use that, to reconstruct it in new materials and bring it all up to the same level so that together it would make a landscape that people could use to sit on and hang out in.
‘What I like about it is that it is found and that we can also behave as if it was found – so you never know what is fiction and what is reality. It is very serious because every single trace is fact, but of course it doesn’t exist anymore really… There’s been an editing process.’