Junya Ishigami's Serpentine Pavilion Descends Upon London Like a Giant Black Bird
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Junya Ishigami's Serpentine Pavilion Descends Upon London Like a Giant Black Bird

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By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / Photos by Henry Woide
The first photos of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami's Serpentine Pavilion are revealed amidst controversy at the London gallery.

With its swooping, wing-like shape, Junya Ishigami’s Serpentine Pavilion has sprung to life in Kensington Gardens. Positioned over a forest of white columns—randomly plotted to provide a maze-like outdoor entertainment space—this architectural marvel is set to wow London society for the duration of the city's short summer. 

Slim white columns designed to resemble trees hold up the heavy slate roof.

Slim white columns designed to resemble trees hold up the heavy slate roof.

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Each year the gallery commissions an architect who has never completed a project in the UK to design a new temporary pavilion. Over the past two decades, the initiative has provided a global platform for experimental projects by some of the world's greatest architects in the heart of London’s Kensington Gardens.

Since acclaimed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid designed the inaugural pavilion in 2000, the likes of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and Oscar Niemeyer have all contributed, and this ambitious program has become an annual highlight for the design world.

The unveiling of the 2019 pavilion, which officially opens June 21, has been clouded by controversy—Serpentine Gallery CEO Yana Peel resigned today, following revelations by the Guardian newspaper that she is part owner (through a private equity firm) of an Israeli cyber weapons company criticized by human rights groups. This news followed reports by Architect's Journal that Ishigami's firm used unpaid interns in Japan—a practice which is illegal in the UK. Ishigami maintains they were college students on legitimate placements.

Ishigami was an architect at SANAA before founding Junya Ishigami + Associates in 2004. He won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010.

Ishigami was an architect at SANAA before founding Junya Ishigami + Associates in 2004. He won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010.

Ishigami, 45, is known for designing buildings that float or appear to disappear—including a giant metal balloon. His Serpentine Pavilion was made by arranging over 60 tons of Cumbrian slate into a single canopy roof that resembles a large bird about to take flight, unsteadily lurching up from the ground. 

The pavilion is traditionally used to host summer fundraising events for the publicly/privately-funded gallery.

The pavilion is traditionally used to host summer fundraising events for the publicly/privately-funded gallery.

The shell is held up by a forest of thin white columns. The Pavilion articulates Ishigami's "free space" philosophy, which involves the search for harmony between man-made structures and those that exist in nature. 

"My design for the Pavilion plays with our perspectives of the built environment against the backdrop of a natural landscape, emphasizing a natural and organic feel as though it had grown out of the lawn, resembling a hill made out of rocks," Ishigami says. "This is an attempt to supplement traditional architecture with modern methodologies and concepts, to create in this place an expanse of scenery like never seen before. Possessing the weighty presence of slate roofs seen around the world, and simultaneously appearing so light it could blow away in the breeze, the cluster of scattered rock levitates, like a billowing piece of fabric."

Ishigami envisioned the pavilion as a weightless, unstable structure. A light steel frame holds up the heavy slate roof.

Ishigami envisioned the pavilion as a weightless, unstable structure. A light steel frame holds up the heavy slate roof.

To create this apparent physical impossibility, Ishigami worked with engineering firm AECOM to develop a steel mesh that spans the ties to form a basket capable of supporting tons of stone.

"To achieve Ishigami's vision of an ‘unstable’ structure holding up the heavy layers of metamorphic rock as though it was weightless, the size and profile of the structural steel frame was rationalized to the extent that it is nearly six times lighter than the 60-tonne slate it supports," Michael Orr, AECOM's principle engineer told Dezeen

A series of unplanned polycarbonate walls had to be installed following concerns about the wind. These interventions alter Ishigami's original plan for a free-flowing space.

A series of unplanned polycarbonate walls had to be installed following concerns about the wind. These interventions alter Ishigami's original plan for a free-flowing space.

After spending a summer in the park, the pavilions are sold. Some end up in private hands, while others are destined for more unusual uses—Zaha Hadid's creation is now at a theme park in Cornwall.

The Pavilion opens June 21, and Ishigami will discuss the project in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist on Thursday, June 20—you can watch a livestream here. It will be closed June 24 and 25 to host the gallery's summer fundraising event, for which it was created, and it will reopen on Wednesday, June 26.

Photos by Henry Woide