The sun shone on us yesterday at the official opening of the new Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park as people climbed over, scrambled under and generally took possession of Sou Fujimoto’s amazing floating structural grid. There was a summer party atmosphere, especially among those lucky folk who had got tickets for Fujimoto’s sell-out talk. Naturally, I was one of them.
The Serpentine Gallery has been inviting artists to design a new summer pavilion for thirteen years now – previous pavilions have included designs by Ai Weiwei (2012), Frank Gehry (2008), and Zaha Hadid (2000). Sou Fujimoto is the third Japanese architect to design the pavilion, following Toyo Ito in 2002 and Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA in 2009.
Fujimoto’s Pavilion is magical – a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure dome, not of caves of ice but bars of steel, floating on gravel and grass.
It seems to be there solidly in front of you, but then the edges fade away into the blue sky, or turn into misty not-quite-there clouds.
You climb up it on glass steps so that you’re never quite sure whether the one you last stepped on is still there or not. When you get inside it’s surprisingly shady; circles of what looks like perspex above your head filter out the sun.
Fujimoto told us about his inspiration for designing this steel cloud, starting from an original concept of an amphitheatre, redefined into a tripod made of sugar cubes and finally into a multidirectional floating landscape inspired by the trees around it, designed to express the relationship between nature and architecture. It both vanishes and stands out, protects and exposes, is there and isn’t.
The development process was prosaically down to earth, beginning with a model made of balsa wood and glue. From that came a computer simulation developed in parallel with another physical model that Fujimoto said was crucial in enabling him to ‘see the space’. Not just see it, but interact with it; ‘I cut the frame like trimming a bonsai tree, to make it more mysterious’, he said.
Sou Fujimoto himself didn’t come across as mysterious at all but practical and cheerful. Here he is with Julia Peyton-Jones, Director of the Serpentine Gallery:
Signing an autograph for a fan:
The building has a disturbing ability to merge into the space around it.
The grid structure varies in size – what Fujimoto calls dense versus porous – to make it less formal, with ambiguous areas of space that can accommodate large numbers of people like a city or enclose a few individuals like a house.
The white gravel at the base of the steel struts gives the structure a feeling of lightness in the way it touches the ground, provides a intermediate zone between the concrete floor of the pavilion itself and the grass around it and, more practically, hides the fixings that will enable it to be dismantled again when its time is up. For this pleasure dome is strictly for the summer only – come October it will be gone.
But for now it’s here for us to enjoy – a proper pavilion where Fortnum and Mason will serve light lunches and afternoon teas daily 10 am to 6 pm throughout the summer.
The Pavilion is free and will stay in place until 20th October. They say it’s even more beautiful at night.