Pavilion Ponderings, Thanks to SANAA

On Sunday, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA revealed their Serpentine Pavilion. A three-month guest to the Kensington Gardens, this year's pavilion is the ninth commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery in London, which has presented the work of an international architect (who has not completed a building in England) every year since 2000. Minimalism was the reigning spirit.

SANAA Pavilion edge exterior

Made of aluminum sheets polished to a mirror finish, supported by stainless steel columns, the pavilion took only six months from contract to completion.  Like an ethereal parasol, or some sleek futuristic reincarnation of an Italian stoa, it hovers on its spindly legs while visitors tilt their heads up and gape at their distorted reflections.

Describing it as 'drifting freely between the trees like smoke," the architects intended the reflective canopy to "undulate across the site, expanding the park and sky. Its appearance changes according to the weather, allowing it to melt into the surroundings." 

All of the buildings in SANAA's back pocket are famous for their ability to dance and play with daylight, and in this respect, SANAA seems to be keeping with their signature of shimmering transparencies and tricks of perception. (See The New Museum in New York, Zollverein School in Essen, Christian Dior store in Tokyo, Institute of Modern Art Extension in Valencia). Yet this pavilion departs from their usual straight lines and boxiness -- and moves towards a fluid, amoebic rendition of the traditional covered walkway.

SANAA Pavilion above
Earlier this spring, when I was assigned to design a 'Pavilion of Light' in my interior architecture studio, we students spent the entire first week whining and balking at the lack of project constraints. Amidst a season full of high-profile pavilion unveilings (including MOS at P.S.1, Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel at Millennium Park), I can't help but wonder about the modern state of the pavilion's raison d'etre. The ambiguity of both enclosure and function has rendered the term into an architect's 'catch-all' of sorts, meant to label experimental showcases with insubstational purposes such as "a place to sit and ponder" or "to invite inspiration." No walls? No roof?  Is it a sculpture? No, it's a Pavilion! 

Stated more nicely, perhaps Pavilion Architecture allows architects to escape architecture for awhile, to have the freedom to explore a single concept as a function of space that is independent of, well, functionality.

Overall, it is difficult to design such a thing for an existing park that is not an arbitrary, isolated object (see Frank Gehry's 2008 Serpentine Pavilion), especially if it has an expiration date as well. But by blurring materiality and immateriality with their aluminum and plexi-glass surfaces, to the point where it is at times barely visible through the trees, SANAA has managed to connect structure to environment successfully, and brings London along on its conceptual journey.  Maybe that's the real purpose of pavilions.

SANAA Pavilion chair reflection

Photos by Iwan Baan, Bleuchoi

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