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Cocoon by fashion patterns
By Antje Southern | 6/27/2014
Precariously balanced on monolithic boulders quarried from Yorkshire rests a translucent bulbous Pod: this year Chilean architect Smiljan Radić designed the pavilion in front of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Photo © Iwan Baan

This week’s opening of the 14th Serpentine Pavilion is as much part of a British summer as are Wimbledon, Ascot, Glyndebourne, Glastonbury, English summer rain, and Pimms. Keenly anticipated by London’s culture vultures, Chilean architect Smiljan Radić’s temporary structure has great personality and instantly grabs the eye. Precariously balanced on monolithic boulders quarried from Yorkshire rests a translucent bulbous Pod. It looks as if it has been inflated and may float off into space at any minute. This juxtaposition of materials, the rocks’ solidity and heaviness as against the airy lightness of the fiberglass shell air sparks complex emotional reactions immediately.

Indeed, obscuring the classical façade of the Serpentine gallery the pavilion is a startling sight on the manicured lawn. Compared to Sou Fujimoto’s abstract “cloud” last year or Zumtor’s tranquil “black box” (2011) this project is certainly the most astounding and unpredictable by probably the least known architect yet. Affectionate nicknames such as “giant doughnut” or “alien cocoon” already attest to its strange squashed form , but judging it on its futuristic shape would be wrong.

The beginning is always about the material

Radić says he is not a creator of form. He discerns possible shapes in the objet trouvés that fill his studio in Santiago that then “have to wait” until the right project comes along. A stone with a hole and a rubber ring moved him to build a papier-mâché model into a structure that finally became the Serpentine pavilion. It was the openness and break in the interior volume with the ring that appealed to him. This low-tech approach is vital to Radić’s architectural practice; he only works with one assistant with whom he shares a computer and a desk. He likes to build models by hand and prefers easily manipulated materials such as cardboard that don’t require great dexterity. Instead of software Radić relied on “Burda Moden” fashion patterns to craft the pavilion’s 3D shape: “Many pieces of clothing can be created from each Burda pattern; it’s a really smart way to concentrate information.”

The crude and unpolished finish is key to his idea of “Fragile Construction”. Working with materials around him, he values buildings’ fugitive and temporary qualities. In this instance the masking tape he used to cover the papier-mâché model created the feel of fabric, a sensation that he sought to reproduce with the open weave and makeshift seams of the pavilion’s fiberglass shell. The relationship of the rocks’ thickness to the thin shell, the opaque outside and luminous inside, the arranged and the accidental cause vibrancy. The openings that bring park views into the interior space are cut along the lines of the “Burda Moden” patterns. The 10mm-thin fiberglass walls is crucial to an architect who sleeps in a tent on the upper floor of his own house and who loves “feeling the weather”. This lack of insulation makes the inside of the pavilion an unusual spatial and sensory experience. Form and façade are less important than the atmosphere generated by the use of materials and techniques.

Limits aren’t interesting

Radić is neither interested in engaging with the language of grand architectural utopia nor pushing the limits, nor experimenting. In the spirit of Schwitter’s Merzbau, he re-purposes materials and makes his own rules in keeping with alternative traditions, self-builds and ad hoc architecture in his native Chile. Rather than composing a form, Radić responds to the possibilities offered by the specific site, the technical and engineering challenges. Apart from rocks, he considers air a basic building material. Air becomes the central column around which the molded fiberglass membrane melds. The central aperture of this hoop-shaped structure creates volume around a peaceful inner sanctuary. David Hockney’s etchings for Grimm’s fairy tales the “The Boy Hidden in an Egg” (1969) helped Radić find “images for the ideas in my head”.

He saw in the egg a translucence and stability that contributed to the genesis of the pavilion: “I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the illustration in a model of something physical that I could make, because being physical makes it real”. To translate a narrative into built form is a leitmotif. The Grimm fairy tale first became a reference when Smiljan Radic and his wife, the sculptor Marcela Correa, created “Meeting Point” for the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale. The couple shipped in an Andean granite boulder that was hollowed out in response to devastating 2010 Chilean earthquake and made it a refuge for one person to “create a serene future”. The scent of the perfumed cedar wood box lining the inside kindles a sensory connection and prioritizes atmosphere over form. To some extent “Meeting Point” prefigures the concerns of the Serpentine pavilion with its emphasis on the organic relationships between density and void, weight and opacity.

Radić ‘s pavilion is about making the inside visible, and thus creating a peaceful shelter with its own microclimate. Since like a good story he seeks multiple interpretations, the notion of a façade would be one-sided and therefore counterintuitive: “The problem with a façade is that you have to compose it…but in the end, the object, the space and the atmosphere are behind this façade. The façade isn’t important, as such. The real importance is the relation between the different elements, the weight, the density, translucency, opacity of the elements.” The access to the pod is therefore circular: Two ramps from different sides gently spiral into the curvaceous interior, slowing down entry, fostering multiple vistas and visual levels.

A romantic folly: past and future dissolve in time

Relationships and their fluctuations drive Radić’s buzzing imagination. The architectural follies of 18th century gardens are a kindred spirit: “If you see a folly, it often appears like a ruin: you see the past and you see the future, dissolving time, and then you project time onto it. The ruin gives you the sensation that nature could get inside and then the boundaries between nature and the interior become more flexible and more dissolved. That was important for my Pavilion.” The deliberate choice of outside timber for the inside floor provides a strong link with outdoor life, demonstrating Radić’s material-driven methodology. Like a folly, the pavilion is playful and intriguing, prompting you to ponder its many meanings. True to its intention, this is architecture for all. Admission is free and the pop-up café inside of course boasts Alvar Aalto’s No. 60 chair. Building a relationship with the public is key to the pavilion’s success. During its brief lifespan through to mid-October, the pavilion will provide cover during the rainy English summer, host the glamorous Serpentine summer party, and be the venue for “Park Nights”, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s series of interactive talks and lectures. This commission is so unique thank to its manifest grasp of architectural ideas. Choosing an architect whose practice is defined by a response to “possibilities” has resulted in one of the most convincing and strangest pavilions to date.

www.serpentinegalleries.org

MORE on Stylepark:

The Serpentine Cloud: Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto created Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2014 in London. We spoke to Sophie O’Brian, Senior Exhibition Curator.
(11 June 2013)

See you at the bus stop: The small village of Krumbach in Austria’s Vorarlberg provides the stage for seven of architecture’s biggest names, including Smiljan Radić, to put their ideas of a perfect bus shelter.
(03 November 2013)


Precariously balanced on monolithic boulders quarried from Yorkshire rests a translucent bulbous Pod: this year Chilean architect Smiljan Radić designed the pavilion in front of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Photo © Iwan Baan
The crude and unpolished finish is key to the “Fragile Construction”. Photo © John Offenbach
The crude and unpolished finish is key to the “Fragile Construction”. Photo © John Offenbach
Radić relied on “Burda Moden” fashion patterns to craft the pavilion’s 3D shape. Photo © Harriet Roth
Radić relied on “Burda Moden” fashion patterns to craft the pavilion’s 3D shape. Photo © Harriet Roth
David Hockney’s etchings for Grimm’s fairy tales the “The Boy Hidden in an Egg” (1969) gave inspiration. Photo © John Offenbach