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Interview with Smiljan Radic : 'It is something strange and extravagant'

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The Chilean architect behind this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Smiljan Radic, talks about creating the pebble-like structure in Kensington Gardens

How do you feel about the completed structure? When I saw it for the first time, I felt like this big giant had made this model for the park with masking tape. I think that is so beautiful. It is a cave – but
not closed in. Really open, really rough. It is a handmade ephemeral building.

Did it turn out as you expected?
It is stronger. Yet, somehow it feels not finished. But you could go on and on. It was so quick – the producers were so fast and so intelligent. They made a lot of things on site. And made good decisions on site. It is not a very precise construction process, but you have to take care with how much [imprecision] you have. When you have something so precise you know where you have to go – but in this case you have to look and actually see whether it is OK [once built]. It is more difficult to work in this way.

Were there many design changes?
It is a little more opaque than I had thought it would be at the beginning – but not more than the mock-up. Perhaps the renders gave more of a feeling of transparency from the outside. I love this feeling of opacity from outside. But once inside you see it as translucent. Originally I didn’t have any preconceived about my designs. I had never visited a Serpentine Pavilion, so in that way I felt free. Though of course you are never free.

How do you think the pavilion will be received by the public?
I really don’t know. I don’t know what the materials will mean for the public. The space below is good for staying and for a picnic. There is a visual relationship between inside and outside. But they are [physically] unconnected. If both levels were connected, it would not feel like the volume was hanging or floating above the [ground], with the landscape moving free around it.  

What were the biggest challenges for the project?
The engineers said [the skin] needed to be thicker to stop the roof coming down. So my response was to put one or two columns in – that meant we could then have thinner walls and more translucency. The other challenge was to complete the scheme in such a short amount of time. It normally takes six to eight months to design something. The design process was really stressed. But it is the same for all Serpentine Pavilion architects.

Would you have done anything differently if you had more time?
Not really. It is right that this is made in two months. You have to analyse it as a folly. It is something ephemeral. It is like a structure at an international fair. It is something strange and extravagant. That is the feeling. 

How did you feel when you won the job?
It was an honour. When Julia Peyton-Jones came to my office and I presented some works, I never felt that I would be chosen. To be given this job was a gift. You must do something with a gift.

Will it lead to more UK work?
I hope so. I only work elsewhere if I can’t do something in my home country, or to learn something new. Richard Waite
Interview with the engineer, Aecom’s Tom Webster, overleaf

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