Cloud, cave, bird, wing, hill? This year’s pavilion is heavy both metaphorically and literally, with 61 tonnes of Cumbrian slate loaded on to its roof. Rob Wilson gives his verdict
From afar, the dominant slate-covered roof of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion designed by Junya Ishigami, looks like a soft grey cloud in the surrounding park.
It wasn’t the only metaphoric dark cloud hovering around the Serpentine Gallery at the pavilion’s subdued press opening this week, with the news that Yana Peel, the gallery’s CEO, had resigned following the controversy over her husband’s investment in a spyware firm.
The image of a cloud is just one of the referents that’s been used for the structure – not least by the architect himself. The pavilion comprises a thin mass of delicate steel columns holding up a much more massive-feeling lapped-slate roof, its sinuous, sloped form appearing like a thickly layered escarpment of rough-formed slates as you approach.
‘I wanted to create something like a stone hill,’ says Ishigami, speaking through a translator. ‘But I also wanted the hill-like shape to invoke people’s imagination. So it’s also something like a black bird, with the stones as feathers and the roof like wings.’
Serpentine pavilion 2019 ©francescorusso lowres 003
The 61 tonnes of slate do sit remarkably lightly on the small forest of pale, slender steel columns – to which Ishigami also extends his bird metaphor: ‘I imagined a bird flying in a rainy sky – so the columns are like the streaks of rain,’ he says.
And in a good test of a summer pavilion in the UK, when it actually begins to drizzle gently, this adds further poetry to the structure, increasing its sense of soft enclosure – in contrast to last year’s pavilion by Frida Escobedo, which felt a bit of a wash-out whenever it rained. Indeed this is undoubtedly one of the best pavilions of recent years: both delicate and raw, feeling rooted in its site while sitting strongly but sympathetically against the surrounding park, connecting out to the landscape.
Landscape and nature has often informed the work of this 45-year-old architect, who after working at SANAA came to international attention with his series of plant-filled glasshouses for the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008.
‘I wanted to create something between architecture and landscape. At the beginning I focused on traditional architectural methods because there often is something in common all over the world between these old methods,’ says Ishigami. ’For example you can find stone roofs in Japan, China, Asia and Europe, and they often use material from the local landscape and apply it in quite a simple manner. So in a sense, buildings made using old methods have something in common with the landscape.’
Serpentine pavilion 2019 ©francescorusso lowres 013
There are compromises and issues with the pavilion structure. Ugly perspex screens installed for health and safety reasons cut baldly across the space where the interior structure is too low in height. Outside too, the slate roof where it sweeps the ground will no doubt prove catnip for children trying to scramble up it. There were also issues during the genesis of the project, which was marked by a story broken by the AJ about unpaid interns working in his office – a fact that Ishigami insists was based on a misunderstanding about university work placement students at the practice.
Overall though, this feels like the most successful and grounded pavilions since that of Peter Zumthor’s dark shed in 2011, and one that also engages lightly out to the landscape in the manner of SANAA’s 2009 pavilion. Indeed in many ways it feels like a combination of the two: a darkside version of SANAA’s pavilion, channelling the contemplative air of Zumthor. But with the echoes and comparators of previous pavilions beginning to crowd in ever thicker each year, there is a sense that perhaps this annual commission, as it heads into its 20th anniversary, is reaching its sell-by date.
The pavilion is open from 21 June until 6 October.
Design render: exterior view
The design for the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion takes roofs, the most common architectural feature, as its point of departure and inspiration. It is reminiscent of roofing tiles seen around the world, bridging both architectural and cultural references through this single architectural feature. The roof of the pavilion is made by arranging slates to create a canopy that alludes to nature. It appears to emerge from the ground of the surrounding park.
My design for the pavilion plays with our perspectives of the built environment against the backdrop of a natural landscape, emphasising a natural and organic feel as though it had grown out of the lawn, resembling a hill made of rocks. This is an attempt to supplement traditional architecture with modern methodologies and concepts, to create in this place an expanse of scenery like never seen before. Possessing the weighty presence of slate roofs seen around the world, and simultaneously appearing so light it could blow away in the breeze, the cluster of scattered rock levitates, like a billowing piece of fabric.
The interior of the pavilion is an enclosed cave-like space, a refuge for contemplation. For me, the pavilion articulates a ‘free space’ philosophy that creates harmony between man-made structures and those that already exist in nature.
Junya Ishigami, Junya Ishigami + Associates
Serpentine pavilion 2019 ©francescorusso lowres 016
Completion June 2019
Architect Junya Ishigami + Associates
Client Serpentine Galleries
Technical consultant David Glover
Technical advisors AECOM
Construction Stage One Creative Services
Health and safety Gallowglass
Site engineering Site Engineering Surveys
Electrical consultant The Technical Department
Building control Westminster City Council