Is Herzog & de Meuron’s Serpentine pavilion a con?
Yes, says Robert Adam, it shows conceptual architecture should not involve buildings; but John McAslan says it embodies the essence of good design
Director at Adam Architecture
Started in 2000, the annual Serpentine architecture pavilion is a mirror of the worst of architecture today. Like iconic buildings, the pavilions are not expected to do anything but be famous. As it’s all about arts-curating one-upmanship, what really matters is the star quality of the designer. And what could be more perfect than a redux of Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic association with the Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei — famous not just as an artist but for being persecuted by his government?
By taking away the need to do anything sensible, the one thing that has kept architecture away from the loonier side of conceptual art has finally gone. Much as conceptual art doesn’t need to be a painting or a sculpture, conceptual architecture doesn’t have to be a building. In fact, as the only thing it has to do is show that it’s clever and original, it’s probably best not to be a building. But the pressure to be ever more clever and original sets up a sort of reductio ad absurdum. And this latest pavilion seems to have reached the zenith of absurdity.
Not only is it the opposite of a building - with the rainwater inside — it’s pretending to be something the architects and artist haven’t designed at all. It’s supposed to be what’s left of what the last 11 architects designed — except that there’s nothing left. It may sound stupid but conceptually that makes it even more clever and original.
No doubt smart commentators will drool to show that they’re clever too, but if we needed something to show that the emperors of starchitecture have no clothes, this is it.
Chairman of John McAslan & Partners
Herzog & de Meuron’s and Ai Weiwei’s plan is definitely not a con. It’s a brilliant idea. Since the Serpentine Gallery’s (marvellous) pavilion programme has always been about what’s above ground, presumably that’s where the majority of funds have been spent.
The idea of uncovering archaeology is a lovely response. Only an artist would think like that — that a non-building would be the answer. The fact that there may or may not have been foundations to uncover in the first place is in itself very clever.
It’s a great idea to uncover something that didn’t exist and, if it had existed, might or might not have been like this. The new pavilion uncovers the ghosts of foundations, in many ways exploring similar themes that have pre-occupied Rachel Whiteread, whose work interrogates negative space, producing a solid cast of the spaces beneath furniture or indeed the spaces within an entire house, in the process creating forms that communicate the the residue of years and years of use.
Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei are similarly engaged in mapping layers of ghost patterns, one on top of the other. By doing this they will reveal an architecture and form, discovering the things that are already there.
The idea of honouring past pavilions — for example Kazuyo Sejima’s roof form and the circle of Olafur Eliasson’s structure — and giving them a new lease of life certainly strikes a chord with our own practice. This is the case because much of our work has involved engaging with and adapting a historical context.
I find the proposals for the 2012 Serpentine Gallery pavilion both revelatory and innovative, which is, after all, what good architecture is all about.