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The overpowering fragrance of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion was the talk of the town

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Christine Murray visits this year’s Serpentine Pavilion

This year’s Serpentine Pavilion is an underground amphitheatre designed by Herzog & de Meuron with dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Its composition is formed by the footprints of previous pavilions, an earth-like hole lined with cork, permeated by the material’s overpoweringly fragrant smell. Its sunken roof is a water-filled disc reminiscent of early geological descriptions of the earth – the firmament in Genesis which divides the waters above from the waters below, described in the Jewish Encyclopedia as ‘a plain… figured like a hemisphere, swimming on water.’

‘The generosity of architects almost brings me to tears,’ said Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, at the launch of the pavilion. ‘Without you, we would not have the past 11 years, and you would not have had the subject of this pavilion.’

The annual commission to build this temporary structure in Kensington Gardens is a notoriously cash-poor honour. Architects volunteer six months of their time to work at speed alongside volunteer engineers and other consultants, while product manufacturers donate materials. Their repayment is publicity, roughly 800,000 visitors over three months to the pavilion, and the commissions and specifications that invariably ensue.

Typically, invited architects have never completed a project in Britain before, although this year’s inclusion of Herzog & de Meuron, working with first-timer Ai, currently under city arrest in Beijing, admirably stretches the rule, forging a link to the city’s 2008 Olympic Stadium (which the trio also designed), while raising awareness of Ai’s precarious situation in China. Pierre de Meuron expressed their regret that Ai could not attend the launch, saying, ‘We are really sad that the third corner of this triangle is not here today.’

Described as an archaeological dig that would expose the foundations of previous pavilions, they knew there would be nothing to find. The ruse is typical of Ai’s artwork, which plays with ideas of authenticity, not to mention Herzog & de Meuron’s architectural pranks, such as the faux fireplace on the top floor of the Tate Modern, positioned directly under the former power station’s iconic chimney stack. The pavilion’s champagne cork-shaped stools also point to this jiggery-jokery.

But the experience of the pavilion is a moving one. Richard Rogers, speaking at the opening night’s afterparty described his first visit as ‘one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.

‘This amazing pavilion, a hole and a disc in dialogue with the park, and descending into this proverbial cave, a womb-like space; the smell of the cork, I’ll never forget.’

‘Smells like sustainability,’ Carlos de Jesus, director at cork manufacturer Amorim, said to me, explaining how their 2.2 million hectare cork forest in Portugal absorbs over 14 million tonnes of CO2 every year. De Jesus explained that while it takes the trees decades to reach maturity, once they are old enough you can safely harvest cork every nine years, carefully splitting off huge pieces with an axe to prevent damaging the trunk.

Elegantly detailed with a complexity de Jesus admits they had never attempted before, the cork was the talk of the evening. With so many architects visiting the pavilion, you can bet increased specification of the material to follow. Do go see.

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