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All that is solid melts into air at Sou Fujimoto’s Serpentine Pavilion 2013

Fujimoto’s pavilion is a lovely thing; like a physical expression of how molecules combine to make air, writes Christine Murray

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The concept was described as a cloud and, seen from a distance, visitors who have climbed to find their seat on its raised glass platforms do appear suspended in air, floating among the cubic clusters which dissolve, at their edges, into the sky.

This is Sou Fujimoto’s Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens - the 13th in the series commissioned by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The concept was pure - a single unit, a 400x400mm cube, stacked up in an irregular, cloud-like form that creates both a sheltered undercroft and raised platforms, including raked seating above an auditorium and café space.

At the opening, Fujimoto described the pavilion as two clouds, one formed by the stacked cubes, the other formed by a canopy of polycarbonate discs included to provide some shelter from the rain. The cloud is not so ethereal once inside, where the glass steps and polycarbonate discs are more visible and increase the feeling of enclosure. Once seated, it’s like being in a conservatory that surrounds, rather than contains, the trees of the gardens.

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Is this what it would feel like to find your footing on a cloud?

 

Fujimoto has played with the density of the structure, adding a double 800x800mm unit to the original design (he feared the single unit would prove ‘boring’), so at times the structure feels heavy, almost clunky, while extensions added to the periphery of the structure dissolve its mass.

Climbing the structure, especially in stark sunlight, is a tricky business, with all those white lines, solids and voids. Is this what it would feel like to find your footing on a cloud? But risk is the essential ingredient of play and climbing the pavilion is fun, to find your seat in the branches of this ‘white forest’, as Fujimoto describes it.

Unfortunately, health and safety considerations forced the inclusion of some not very elegant balustrades, pushed through by the planning authorities. The fat tubing sticks out against the delicacy of the 8km of 20mm steel lengths employed throughout. Fujimoto insists that, although they were introduced late, they were not a compromise. They do feel so.

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But Peyton-Jones and Obrist should be commended for their midwifery of another successful commission. Their ambition, so Peyton-Jones told me at the press launch, is to enable the architect in the creation of a masterwork. And Fujimoto’s is that - a lovely thing, light and transcendent, solid but melting. There is a wonderful tension between its organic form and its rigid functional structure - like a physical expression of the seemingly counterintuitive fact that molecules combine to make air.

The Serpentine Pavilions have become a new typology. Like the Case Study Houses, they teach us about the mutable character of architecture, and remind us of the opportunity for play in the making of space. It is, as Obrist said to me on the morning of the press opening, a growing ‘imaginary collection’ of buildings, now scattered and lost, but in memory, a body of work that viewed together expresses what shelter can be, and how it is experienced. Another successful year.

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