If last year’s Serpentine Pavilion - by Swiss Archi-god Peter Zumthor - could be summarised as a rarefied racetrack that provided a reverential, or introverted experience around an understated but delicately vegetated courtyard, then this year’s effort by national cohorts Herzog & de Meuron - in collaboration with Chinese rebel poet Ai Wei-Wei - is quite the opposite.
The original idea - as I understand it - was to dig a Time Team inspired hole, large enough so that any remains of the previous pavilions might be unearthed, revealing a deliberately fuzzy memory or entropic echo of what had been before. Unfortunately – as has been well documented - this didn’t quite work as our intrepid threesome had hoped. The temporary nature of the eleven superseded schemes meant that very little trace of their fleeting existence was found, forcing a last minute rethink, or re-mix of the team’s initial concept.
I definitely don’t want to waste too much time finger wagging or tutting in the direction of this particular aborted aspect of the proposal, but it is important to consider the subsequent negative impact on the eventual outcome - a central concept has been ripped away and as such it now seems to lack the kind of punch that made Peter ‘Pritzker Prize Winner’ Zumthor’s effort so much weightier.
As built, the current pavilion is comprised of three fairly primitive, but potentially poetic devices; an oversized circular metal dinner plate filled with water, supported on twelve cork-clad columns, protecting a ‘Banker’s Bollinger’ themed bunker beneath.
The canopy – almost as wide as the main gallery building – is held about one and a half metres above ground, more or less eye-level, so at certain points onlookers can see out across it to reflected panoramic views of the sky, and park beyond. It is made of a fairly prosaic flat-bottomed construction about half a foot deep, with a rather cumbersome edge detail that instils a fairly utilitarian aesthetic. I am convinced that proceedings in general would have benefited massively if more care had been taken to make the water bowl a more beautiful object. If it had been shaped more like an inverted ‘contact lens’, with a sharper more refined edge profile, and the water somehow affected the space beneath, it would have been more successful. I guess this may be a tad unfair due to the probable cost constraints and the nature of last minute design changes, but more effort here was needed.
The open-ended multi-directional views that can be glimpsed from under the floating pool are basically the same as those above, so despite being essentially underground, the experience isn’t really that much different and is therefore somewhat lacking. This space could have been a bit more introspective or mono-directional to possibly make it a bit more special to compensate for missing archaeology.
I guess the fact that so many children have taken this year’s scheme to their heart - using it while I was there as a trendy playground - may have falsely exaggerated my more grown-up memory of Zumthor’s country garden, but as I sit watching gangs of toddlers rushing between mushroom stools, the cork cladding and basic construction inadvertently reminds of those ‘family friendly’ feeding enclosures found in zoos or other busy commercial facilities.
While most of the under-tens playing noisily within the pavilion were happy with their lung-busting laps, I noticed one little darling who had taken on the task of tipping all of the moveable seats into the central part of the subterranean basin. This semi-vandalous act made it obvious that the flurry of activity I was witnessing had not been completely foreseen by the organisers; in part demonstrated perhaps by the lack of those quite necessary health and safety notices, ugly yellow and black step nosings or even a stressed out attendant reminding parents to keep their offspring under control.
I am glad however, that none of this prohibitive stuff was evident on my visit as the rampaging youngsters were in my opinion the only truly memorable part of the show.