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Interview: Herzog & de Meuron on why the Serpentine Pavilion is going underground for 2012

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The Pritzker Prize-winning duo tell Rory Olcayto why they chose to uncover the foundations of former Serpentine pavilions for their own collaboration with Ai Weiwei this year

He may be one half of the team behind this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, but Pierre de Meuron looks very disappointed. ‘You have to respond, to adapt. You can’t just keep doing the same thing,’ he says, shaking his head.

You might think he’s talking about the more recent pavilions, those poshest of pop-ups that year on year embody the singular approach of the starchitects who design them. Think of the earthy, haptic quality of Zumthor’s design last year, or the freeze-frame explosion that Frank Gehry created in 2008. As his partner Jacques Herzog says, ‘Almost everything has been done. We can’t do another in the same tradition.’

But that’s not what’s troubling de Meuron. He’s talking about the Champions League semi-final at the Camp Nou, between host and loser Barcelona, and Chelsea, whose victory saw the ‘world’s greatest football team’™ finally toppled. ‘They should have changed their approach. They just continued to play the same way, even when they fell behind. It’s why they lost.’ Did you forget Herzog & de Meuron, designers of this year’s Champions League final venue the Allianz Arena, are football crazy?

But unlike Lionel Messi and co, their instinct has been to change formation

You get the sense they feared ‘losing’ too, if they chose to stick with convention by fashioning a walk-through object for Serpentine director Julia Peyton Jones and her architectural Champions League. But unlike Lionel Messi and co, their instinct has been to change formation, and try something different. Which is why in February this year (AJ 09.02.12) the Swiss Pritzker Prize-winning duo announced their big idea, conceived in collaboration with artist Ai Weiwei, was to dig a big hole in the ground. Not to bury the concept for good – ‘We have no intention to kill the format’ – but rather, to reanimate the recent past by excavating the remains of earlier schemes and using them to form their own folly. Just like a football team, there will be 11 ‘players’ on the park in the form of columns – extrusions – marking each past pavilion. A twelfth, what Herzog calls the ‘joker in the pack’, though referee or manager might be better, signals their own contribution. Above these, they proposed a flat, circular roof that ‘might be a dance floor, or a dining platform and sometimes
a pool of water reflecting London’s skies.’ It sits off-centre, partially eclipsing the pit below.

We were determined not to do an ‘object’

Alongside drawings and models of their design, now on site, Herzog reveals more details of their unusual, mischievous, archaeological scheme. ‘We were very pleased to be invited because we always found the pavilion project very interesting. It is to Peyton Jones’ merit that she has invented its format. But we were determined not to do an object.’

Herzog talks about the thrill of discovering the project’s architecture and form ‘without inventing it ourselves’, of laying the ghost patterns of previous pavilions on top of each other, and by extruding certain elements more than others, creating a ‘beautiful but seemingly chaotic structure: a found landscape.’ It’s typical of what they have done in the past, he says. ‘Ai also loves to discover what is already there, and that which already has its own beauty. That’s the main difference between our approach and that of our predecessors.’

Most obviously, going underground highlighted the different priorities of architect and engineer. ‘The engineer will be blamed if it falls down. The architect will be blamed if they don’t do something different. You can see that so clearly here. The foundations for those temporary, lightweight pavilions were surprisingly massive, intrusive and heavy, and in a variety of different shapes.’

The circular pit goes down 1,500mm, its form determined by elements of previous pavilions, whether foundations, or in the case of SANAA’s design, its rangy, amoeba-like roof. ‘We’ve tried to reuse what we’ve found and give it a new life. We’ve used SANAA’s roof because we liked the way it explored the full extent of the site – and that somehow had to find an imprint here. Also, we were very happy to find the circle of Olafur Eliasson’s pavilion because that is a symbol of coming together. We just took things as they were. Our challenge was to make the space pleasant, but not too important. That’s architecture in a very archaic way.’


Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Herzog&de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Kensington Gardens, London, UK


They first thought of wood – ‘certainly not concrete’ – as a cover for the reconstructed landscape, with extrusions forged in steel. ‘It’s a natural material that also has a manufactured side. And a smell. So, as you go down it is a different world you’ll discover, one that has a softness and warmth on which it is pleasant for people to sit.’ There are some traditional design drivers: the trees on site define the base circle of the pit and the roof is aligned with the gallery.

It’s really quite bold, this public airing of past starchitects’ laundry, and making it their own to boot. It’s a welcome shot in the arm for a fading summer thrill, the most provocative pavilion since OMA’s lop-sided balloon suggested the whole event was a lot of hot air. But, according to Herzog, there’s nothing psychological going on, no egos being toyed with. They were simply more interested in the potential of the found conditions. ‘There is no hidden content, we’re not interested in symbolic irony. It’s just the pleasure of having it there. All the pavilions were interesting in their own way, but we don’t comment on this. Taken all together they generate really beautiful objects and spaces. We didn’t have anything to begin with but now, it’s almost like a Cubist image.

But what of the collaboration with Ai, grounded by the state in China? Herzog shows documents that record his involvement, a few Skype screengrabs, one in particular of the Chinese artist holding a CD, possibly suggesting the inspiration for the ‘mirror-like’ roof, and definitively confirming the informality of their long relationship. ‘A good collaboration should be invisible,’ says Herzog. ‘The pavilion is what it is, and has been done by the three of us.
It would be ridiculous to say who did what.’ How true. Even previous pavilion architects will struggle to identify what’s theirs in Herzog & de Meuron’s big dig come July. But then architecture, like football, really is a team game.

Serpentine Pavilion history:

Interview: Herzog & de Meuron on why the Serpentine Pavilion is going underground for 2012

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