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Weekend roundup: Nearly perfect storm clouds at Serpentine Pavilion

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Serpentine Pavilion opens amid dual controversies • Experts warned of fire risk at Barking Riverside • Grimshaw reveals Heathrow expansion masterplan

It would, on balance, be fair to say that the Serpentine Pavilion has had smoother launches in its 19-year history. 

Each year the Serpentine Gallery commissions a temporary structure from an architect who has yet to have had a significant built work in the UK. Its roll-call of previous creators includes Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry. 

This year’s architect, Junya Ishigami, had already been under scrutiny after it emerged he used unpaid interns on what appeared to be somewhat exploitative terms of engagement. 

But – almost in a gallant attempt to deflect attention away from this – Serpentine chief executive Yana Peel abruptly quit her job on the day the pavilion was set to be unveiled, amid allegations made about her financial interests in an Israeli cybersecurity company. 

Days earlier, the Guardian had reported that Peel owns a stake in NSO Group, which licensed spyware to authoritarian regimes. The technology has been criticised by human rights groups including Amnesty International. 

NSO was taken over earlier this year by Novalpina Capital, a private equity company co-founded by Peel’s husband Stephen. In her resignation statement, Peel described the allegations as ‘toxic personal attacks’. 

WIth Peel out of the way, the pavilion was unveiled – 48 hours later than originally planned – with Ishigami keen to set the record straight on the intern situation. 

Back in March, the AJ revealed that those seeking to gain work experience at Ishigami’s practice were expected to work without pay, six days a week, from 11am till midnight, providing their own computer and software. 

Ishigami described the controversy as a ‘misunderstanding’, stressing that the ‘interns’ were university students on placements, which would earn them credits towards their degrees. 

This is interesting because when this story first emerged, an AJ reporter emailed Ishigami’s practice, asking for a comment. At no point, did she suggest that she herself was a student, yet in response she received an offer of an unpaid internship at the studio. 

While this could have proved a fascinating opportunity to learn the truth about how the practice treats interns, sadly the AJ’s budget couldn’t quite stretch to covering Tokyo’s high living costs or the return airfare, neither of which, the practice made clear, it would have contributed to. 

All that we really needed for the perfect Serpentine storm was for the pavilion itself to be a critical flop. However, there has been broadly widespread appreciation for the structure, which is dominated by a roof made from 62 tonnes of Cumbrian slate. The main complaint seems to be the unsightly polycarbonate screens, installed for safety reasons. 

The AJ’s Rob Wilson described it as resembling a soft grey cloud in the surrounding park, and called it ‘the most successful and grounded pavilion’ since Peter Zumthor’s in 2011. 

He also praised its water resistance, something he was able to appreciate when it began to rain during his visit. This contrasts well with last year’s creation by Frida Escobedo – and, it would appear, with the recently opened Dulwich Pavilion. If nothing else, Ishigami seems to have a handle on British summer weather. 

Nevertheless, Wilson is not alone in wondering whether ‘with the echoes and comparators of previous pavilions beginning to crowd in ever thicker each year’, this annual commission might be reaching its sell-by date. 

Poll: Has the Serpentine pavilion programme run its course? 
• Yes 
• No 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked: What is the main lesson of last weekend’s fire at Barking Riverside, regarding the combustible cladding ban? 48% said banning particular materials was the wrong approach, while 41% believed the ban should be extended to low-rise buildings. Only 11% favoured banning timber balconies. Speaking of which … 

Barking Riverside – experts warned of wooden balcony fire risk 

Last week’s Weekend Roundup, led with the suggestion that – two years after Grenfell – the recent fire at Barking Riverside raised familiar questions over a lax attitude to building fire safety. 

This seems to have been backed up with the revelation that an independent fire risk assessment of the housing block only last January had warned that its wooden balconies presented a ‘significant hazard’. 

The assessment of the Sheppard Robson-designed building recommended that the cladding was checked to see whether it had been treated with ‘fire-resistant materials’ and for the building’s manager to warn people not to have barbeques on their balconies. 

A barbeque on a balcony is believed to have been the cause of the fire two weeks ago.

Grimshaw and the tricky world of environmental ethics

Heathrow 17581816690141

Heathrow 17581816690141

Congratulations to Grimshaw, which at this week’s AJ100 event picked up the awards for best building – for London Bridge station – and overall best practice

The event featured an inspiring keynote speech from architect and circular-economy champion Duncan Baker-Brown, where he said that in order to tackle the climate crisis, we needed to fall out of love with concrete – as well as meat and air travel. 

And it’s that third item that may be troubling Grimshaw right now in the week it revealed its masterplan for the expansion of Heathrow Airport – a project widely criticised by environmental campaigners, and which some feel sits uncomfortably with the practice’s recent signing of the Architects Declare statement recognising a climate emergency. 

Of course, whether the third runway project goes ahead will not depend on whether Grimshaw is willing to work on it. What could be significant though is the attitude of the next prime minister. 

Favourite for the job Boris Johnson famously vowed, in 2015, to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent the project. While foreign secretary, he reconciled his opposition to the expansion with his cabinet post by contriving to be out of the country when parliament voted to proceed. 

Such evasion will not be an option if he is in No 10, and the word is that he does not now plan to block the scheme. 

It should also be noted that his opposition relates specifically to Heathrow rather than to increasing air travel per se. As London’s mayor he championed the ‘Boris Island’ airport in the Thames Estuary, as drawn up by another Architects Declare signatory, Foster + Partners. 

Grimshaw was not responding to the AJ’s request for a comment on this apparent dilemma. But it might reasonably make the point that, if the expansion does go ahead, better that it be designed by an architect committed to sustainable design, and with the clout and prestige to hold Heathrow to its pledge to have ‘environmental considerations at the heart of expansion’. 

That said, the scheme could be the most sustainable in the world, with the runway entirely built from recycled bottle tops, and it wouldn’t alter the fact that its reason for being is to enable a significant increase in air travel – and that’s only going to exacerbate the climate emergency. 

Meanwhile, the RIBA was facing its own ethical contradictions following the revelation that it had hired its Portland Place HQ out to a conference about oil drilling opportunities in Africa, which took place last Monday. 

Also this week

  • Cambridge University has returned to the top of the Guardian’s annual league table of the UK’s best architecture schools, taking the place of the University of Sheffield, which topped the rankings last year but has slipped to third place behind UCL’s Bartlett School. Student satisfaction makes up key criteria in deciding the scores, and last year architecture students at Sheffield had their studies disrupted when the university’s arts tower was occupied in a protest over staff pensions. 
  • BuckleyGrayYeoman has become the 20th AJ100 practice to become employee-owned. The architect came 28th in this year’s ranking of the UK’s largest practices with a staff of 100 including 65 qualified architects. Founding director Matt Yeoman said the transition ‘reflects the shared appreciation and trust we have for our staff while ensuring the long-term development of the practice.’ It is the third AJ100 company this year to move to staff ownership, with Assael and Purcell already having made the switch. 
  • AJ100 companies are putting increasing emphasis on being a good place to work, according to analysis of data supplied by the practices. Client satisfaction and repeat business is still considered the most important factor contributing to a practice’s success, but staff happiness is now less than two points behind. This year’s best AJ100 Employer of the Year award went to JTP. Contributing to its win was a concerted and successful effort to reduce staff overtime, a minimum 28 days holiday a year, an enhanced maternity leave package and extensive investment in training.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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