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Serpentine pavilion engineer: 'Dealing with the designer direct made it much easier'

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Lead engineer on this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Tom Webster of Aecom, on working with Smiljan Radic and the challenges of designing the pavilion

What has your role been on the Serpentine Pavilion?
All the technical advisory roles – except health and safety and CDM. This year we have taken on all the engineering and project management. 

How did working with an architect based in Chile work?
We used online tools to allow us to share screens and we spoke on Skype. We were always dealing directly with the architect Smiljan Radic, which is different to other jobs or pavilions, where the main architect is in the background and you deal with someone from the team who is not prepared to make a decision. That takes longer because decisions have to go through more people. All the decisions were made between myself, Radic and the gallery – this saved a lot of time. 

How was Radic to work with?
Radic is a lovely guy – a big family man with a religious background. He is very introverted and quiet. He is very good to work with – he is not fixated on a colour or a form. He is very creative and can see around a problem.

Did Radic have a particular vision for how the engineering of the pavilion would work?
In terms of the engineering, Radic left me to come up with the concepts. He had his vision of how he wanted it to work architecturally. The shell led to a certain solution because we wanted to keep a clean environment inside. He was more involved with the refinement of what he wanted to see. 

What were the timescales for the project?
We had about 12 weeks to do the overall build, but only six weeks on site. We finalised the geometry of the design in February and did the engineering design in the first two weeks of March. We went into manufacture at the start of April. Because the timescales were so tight, prefabrication was essential. You cannot have large site operations because by the time the foundations are in, it is down to four weeks. 

What is the pavilion made from?
The pavilion was conceived from ideas in another piece of Radic’s work – the Selfish Giant’s Castle – which is made from papier mâché. We tried to take the fragility, textures, light and dark. We tried to recreate the feel – the playful, youthfulness of the material.

The way it is put together is very similar to papier mâché

We used glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) for the shell. The way it is put together is very similar to papier mâché. We worked to get as little pigment in the GRP as possible to allow the light to transfer through. The steel structure is sat on five massive rocks – which is very much Radic’s trademark. When he originally suggested rocks people were worried that he would want basalt from Chile, but he actually wanted rock that was from the UK. It was about using materials that are native to here and how that impacts on the way people feel. 

Where was it manufactured?
It was put together in sections in a factory in Yorkshire by Stage One, who fabricated Heatherwick Studio’s Olympic Cauldron and did a lot of the other set design for the London 2012 opening ceremony. 

Were there any challenges?
The structure had to be quite thin. The structural zone is about 400mm and that depreciates as you get towards the edges. Instead of framing it out in a very standard way, we have a spine beam with everything cantilevered off it. 

Are there any special considerations given it is a temporary pavilion?
You have to think about the fact that at some point it will be sold. It is important to consider the durability and adaptability of the materials. We designed the pavilion for UK summer, but it may be bought by a Russian oligarch and end up in Siberia where there are high snow loads, or it could end up in Qatar. We have to think how we can adapt it to make it suitable for any environment.

Constructing Smiljan Radic's 2014 Serpentine Pavilion

Constructing Smiljan Radic’s 2014 Serpentine Pavilion

How does working on the pavilion differ from your day to day work?
The pavilion is quite a personal thing, mainly because it is a 24-7 project. You take phone calls on weekends, evenings, and early mornings. It’s partly because you are trying to fit it in around everything else but also because of the speed and the time difference. You end up having to be more accessible than you would normally be.
For the people involved that is not such a problem because they understand the importance of the project - it is probably harder on partners and families. It is intense. On other projects decisions will be made over weeks, but on the pavilion decisions have to be made within the hour.

What has been your favourite Serpentine Pavilion?
I’d have to say, so far, it would be Sou Fujimoto’s last year but when I see this one finished it could be this one. Last year’s was special because it was my first pavilion. This year’s pavilion has gone to a new scale. The size of the build and the magnitude of the space and the structure is really special. The best pavilions divide opinion – they are a strange space between art and architecture. If art and architecture are not dividing opinion then they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.


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