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Serpentine Pavilion 2016 by BIG

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BIG has marked its move into the UK with one of the Serpentine’s most successful pavilions yet, says Laura Mark


This year’s Serpentine Gallery summer pavilion - more correctly series of pavilions - heralds both the end of an era and the start of something new. 

The 14m centrepiece by BIG – the sixteenth to be built on the Serpentine Gallery’s lawn – is Julia Peyton Jones’ last and her legacy will undoubtedly be marked by this finale. 

Continuing its mantra of bringing in architects who have yet to work in the UK, Peyton Jones’ organisation chose Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG to build this year’s showstopper on the Kensington Garden lawns.

It comes at a fitting time, as the launch of the installation – the practice’s first completed project in Britain – coincides with the opening of its new UK outpost with 16 people in King’s Cross. A signal the megastar has well and truly landed here. 

By landing the commission BIG has already joined a roster of starchitects to have designed structures at the Serpentine, ranging from Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry. Ingel’s pixelated tower is certainly one of the more ambitious of the pavilions built to date - in fact it couldn’t be completed quite on time.

With its tight timescale of six months from start to finish, its massive size and a series of spin-off mini-pavilions perhaps the Serpentine bit off more than it could chew?

Ingels didn’t seem worried. The six-month deadline, actually gave the Danish architect, until midnight tonight (7 June) to finish the project. It’s a good job – as the crowds of press headed off to write their stories this lunchtime, the cranes moved back in to add the final boxes to the top of the pavilion structure. 

The Serpentine was certainly ambitious. This particular method of construction, which references one of architecture’s most common elements – the brick wall - had rarely been used before. Stacked on top of each other, the 1,800 hollow glass fibre reinforced polymer (GFRP) boxes create a modular curved wall which snakes towards the main gallery. 

The wall and its materiality have evolved from Ingels’ designs for a shelf which he was working on with Fiberline - the manufacturer of the pavilion’s extruded boxes. 

‘Essentially it is a very large shelf’, says Ingels. ‘The wall is a giant shelf which we have pulled apart to create a space inside.’ 

The space within that has been created by the apparent unzipping of the walls is beautiful and cathedral-like and contains a timber bar which will act as a café by day and a space for events and discussion by night. 

The detailing of these curvilinear walls was a work of collaboration between BIG and engineers AKTII. They worked hard to reflect the structural stresses of the pavilion minimising structure where it was needed less and maximising it in areas where there was greater tension. Each of the ’bricks’ is connected to the next with a discreet aluminium extrusion – effectively the whole pavilion is built from just three materials – GFRP, aluminium, and glue.

This method of construction, with its bespoke connectors and bolts, will also allow the pavilion to be taken apart into pieces and shipped at the end of its time in London. It has already been sold and plans are afoot to see it travel to Asia and America.

Reaching a height of 14m at its maximum point, Ingels says you could climb to the top. But clambering up this man-made mountain, which would give a fantastic view and allow the pavilion to be experienced externally, has been banned under the Royal Park rules. A handrail marks a barrier preventing anyone attempting to climb the steep stepped exterior.

Ingels’ pavilion is pure BIG. The sinusoidal shape of stacked boxes reminds me of his early work as PLOT when the practice which later split into BIG and JDS built the mountain dwellings in Copenhagen. It has the same geometric feel. For a firm which builds its models out of Lego the pavilion’s boxy form looks familiar – call it legotecture. 

Ingels calls it ‘bigamy’ – the attempt to design a structure which embodies multiple aspects that would often be perceived as opposites.

‘When you look in one direction it is opaque and orthogonal, while from another view it is translucent and curved’, says Ingels. 

We may scoff and say we are bored of pop-up architecture and pavilions but this will undoubtedly be one of the most visited pieces of architecture in the UK during its short life time. It is one of the Serpentine’s more successful of recent years too. It’s a welcome return after last year’s lumpy rainbow-coloured mess by Selgas Cano. After 26 years at the helm of the Serpentine Gallery, Peyton Jones leaves on a high with this fitting swansong to the end of her time.

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Source: Jim Stephenson

Architect’s view

For the Serpentine Pavilion, we have attempted to design a structure that embodies multiple aspects that are often perceived as opposites: a structure that is free-form yet rigorous; modular yet sculptural; both transparent and opaque; both solid box and blob.

We decided to work with one of the most basic elements of architecture: the brick wall. Rather than clay bricks or stone blocks, however, the wall is erected from pultruded fibreglass frames stacked on top of each other. The wall is then pulled apart to form a cavity within it, to house the elements of the pavilion’s programme. This unzipping of the wall turns the line into a surface, transforming the wall into a space. A complex three-dimensional environment is created that can be explored and experienced in a variety of ways, inside and outside. At the top, the wall appears like a straight line, while the bottom of it forms a sheltered valley at the entrance of the pavilion and an undulating hillside towards the park.

The unzipped wall creates a cave-like canyon lit through the fibreglass frames and the gaps between the shifted boxes as wall as through the translucent resin of the fibreglass. As a result, the shifting overlaps as well as the movement and presence of people outside create a lively play of light and shadow on the cave walls within.

The simple manipulation of the archetypal space-defining garden wall creates a presence in the park that changes as you move around it and as you move through it. The North-South elevation of the pavilion is a perfect rectangle. The East-West elevation is an undulation sculptural silhouette. Towards the East-West, the pavilion is completely opaque and material. Towards the North-South, it is entirely transparent and practically immaterial. As a result, presence becomes absence, orthogonal becomes curvilinear, structure becomes gesture, box becomes blob.

Bjarke Ingels, founder, BIG

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Source: Jim Stephenson

Engineer’s view

The building is essentially a brick wall that unzips and forms a double curved space. In terms of structure we went back to first principles.

Glass fibre reinforced polymer (GFRP) is not a material we use often so it added another layer of complexity. We started the process early on with BIG. A parametric model was set up early on. This led some elements of the geometry to be tweaked slightly to make it more structurally efficient. We had to control how much overlap was needed for each brick – each is bespoke.

The structure was optimised to suit the forces on it. It was quite complex. It was only possible to do it at such tight timescales because of computer modelling. We produced prototypes and these were loaded to failure and compared with analysis from the computer models. This led us to add patches of stiffness which act as a brace to the structure.

This pavilion ticked the boxes of the brief – new materials and new forms – but it got a step further with its detailing. When you have something which is as rushed as this, it is the detailing which can go awry but because we worked on it with the architect from the start it was well worked out.

Ricardo Baptista, director, AKTII

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Serpentine Pavilion by BIG

Source: Jim Stephenson

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