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Jacques Herzog on designing the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion

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The full transcript of the interview between the AJ’s Rory Olcayto and Jacques Herzog, the co-designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion

JH We were very pleased to be invited because we always found the pavilion project very interesting. It is to Julia Peyton Jones merit that she has invented its format. So many things have been done by the best people in the business - that’s how we started our thinking. Literally, almost everything has been done. So many objects have been built. 11 have been done and another, unrealised, was designed by MVRDV.

Our first instinct, our first idea was, “We cant do another pavilion in the same tradition.” Ideally we want to do something which is not an object. However it is quite difficult to do a pavilion, a design feature in the classical sense, that is not an object.

Our logical next step was to go underground, to make something invisible or just a landscape feature. There were two elements we found interesting. Because it is a park, the underground has not been explored. Especially the waterscape. Our feeling was that London is very flat and that the waterlevel is very high. A waterlevel very close to the surface could be an interesting part of the landscape to make visible. Early sketches show we wanted to do some kind of underground pavilion that would reveal the water that is somehow shaping the surface but also reflect the skies of London. We wanted to make the pavilion the focus of these invisible or forgotten landscapes of the park, which was something we would discussed with Ai Wei Wei.

Early on we were told by the Serpentine that it might be difficult to achieve this: because it’s a royal park, we cannot really dig into the ground and make a huge scar in the ground so there was a brief moment where we studied other other things: instead of an authored object, we were thinking of primary objects, or atomic objects, but then in discussion with AI Wei Wei we thought of going back to the idea of the underground, and absence of objects.

When we did our first sketches for the underground feature, Arup proposed their idea of foundations - which were shockingly heavy. So we thought, “well the other guys might have done very heavy stuff too”, and we thought this was opposed to what the Royal Park told us - they want the grounds as untouched as possible. But its a fact that you need something there, it’s architecture at the end of the day. It has to be built within five weeks. The thinking and doing is ideally one process. We’ve had very good talks with the park authorities. They understood it was respectful - and that was why they let us do what they do.

For earlier designs that were not focused on what we would discover on site, we thought of inventing our own landscape. We wanted some kind of roughness and texture, and a sense of discovery, otherwise why go down into the ground? The lowest point ideally would be where the water was, a fountain, or a waterhole, where in case of rain, all the water will drain to that point.

So we’ve dug down to 1.5m, which is the average level of the water table. And even if most of the foundations have been removed, the fill ins are there, they are there like ghosts. And we know what’s there and what’s has been there. It’s all been recorded. These are given facts.

We thought if you lay these ghost patterns on top of eachother, they create this amazing, seemingly chaotic structure - it is at the same time chaotic but also very beautiful. We were given a form, a kind of found landscape. And so we have architecture and form without inventing it ourselves. Its typical of what we have done in the past, and Ai Wei Wei also loves to discover what is already there, and that which already has its own beauty.We know exactly where things are. We’ve tried to use those things, not avoid it, make it part of the design. That’s the difference between our predecessors and what we have done. We like all what has been done in the past, all of these pavilions and would like to give them a new life so to speak.

We decided to reconstruct it in a new material and bring it up to one level - to be a landscape that people can sit on, hang out, do all kinds of things. We made some decisions on where to cut through the foundations, to allow people to pass through and go down into the main space.

There has been an editing process, of course. We’ve tried to reuse what we’ve found and give it a new life. We’ve used Sejima’s roof form (rather than the foundations) because we liked the way it explored the 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 Olafor’s pavilion because that is a symbol of coming together. We just took things as they were. People might ask, “Who did this, who was this again?, and that’s great, that’s perfect, but we haven’t set out to make that point. Our challenge was to make the space pleasant but not too important - that’s architecture in a very archaic way.

I think we give all the previous pavilions a good position, a good place in the new landscape; 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. The columns are like figures in a chess game. Taken all together they generate really beautiful objects. We didn’t have anything to begin with but now - in plan t least - its almost like a cubist image.

The roof would be more like a cover on an archaeological site. We preferred the circle because it is the same condition all around. We’d like to use it for parties, lie a dance floor, or for dinner, and when its not use, covered by a film of water that mirrors the sky. We would fill it up if there’s no rain and like a bathtub, the water can go down. The water depth will be 25mm, but the whole roof build up is 80mm. When you have an event on top, there will be a temporary balustrade. And there’s a plug hole with a pump in the centre, to drain it. We wanted to use three minimum, maybe four columns, but as the footprint is quite large, it could use more. So we thought every foundation of a previous design should have one column, one post, extruded out of that foundation. A twelve one is ours, like the joker in the pack, that we can put it wherever it fits best.

We first thought of wood - certainly not concrete - for the material covering the reconstructed the landscape, so we are going for cork. It’s Portuguese. It’s a natural material that also has a manufactured side. And a smell - so you go down and it is a different world you discover, and it has a softness and a warmth on which is pleasant for people to sit. The foundation extrusions are in cork-clad steel. The roof is steel. Only remaining design issue is the lighting. They will be glass lights attached to the ceiling like waterdrops. There is room for 200 people.

At certain points the roof is 1100mm off ground level, at others 1500mm. But as you approach the pavilion you will not see a facade, it’s not a building in that sense. And its not about creating a visual sense of floating, or the the sharpness of the roof edge. We were not so interested in that. It’s been done. It’s thin, but that’s because it’s all you need: we have to make sure its perfectly horizontal so we avoid having dry areas when it filled with water - that’s a challenge for the engineers. And it has to accommodate 100 people. The base circle of the pit is defined also by the trees on site, the top circle of the roof is aligned with the gallery.

All the pavilions reflect the formal vocabulary of their authors, that’s why I said what we wanted to not do, was to make an object - because almost everything has been done. And I say this without any negative thinking or criticism because some of the designs were really very interesting and spectacular. It was very enjoyable to collaborate with Ai Wei Wei on Skype, to create a bundle of topics that were rooted in our own history, which has created an explicit form, something has had a very strong expression but is not based on an individual gesture.

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