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Dodgy Foundations of the Serpentine Pavilion

An attempt to dig up eleven years’ worth of architectural substance reveals a disappointing display

Fake archaeology is, if nothing else, an interesting upending of Albert Speer’s ‘Theory of Ruin Value’, and it’s the animating principle of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, the result of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron’s Skype collaboration. Their original idea, according to early reports, was for a pavilion that excavated the foundations of the previous 10 pavilions erected since the programme began in 2000. The temporary pavilions always had a certain melancholy quality, in that they so often involved commissioning real architecture from architects who either notoriously couldn’t get their works built in the UK despite landing commissions (Hadid, twice, and Gehry) or architects who despite their worldwide prestige never got invited to build here (Niemeyer, OMA, Siza, Zumthor). Then, after only a month or so, those unique, site-specific structures disappear, fit only for the margins of future retrospectives, and British architectural culture is left safely provincial. Herzog, de Meuron and Ai’s idea is amusing not least for purporting to carve permanence out of all this, and failing entirely.

There are of course no actual traces of any of the previous pavilions left. So what the architects did instead was draw a fanciful diagram of previous pavilions’ foundations, and they then dug it out, in a manner which immediately evokes TV archaeology, or a received idea of what archaeology entails − a dun-coloured playpit, strange shapes set into progressively lower levels, as the historical layers get deeper and more chthonic. A low roof is set over it all to protect the priceless things underneath. So it’s really a game, a masquerade, and one which has already elicited accusations of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ from architectural traditionalists, as if there really isn’t much under that roof apart from mud and nothingness. In fact, there’s a lot of tectonic intrigue to be found, albeit within a limited framework.

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The circular shape, dictated by the pre-existing, long-dismantled shape of Kjetil Thorsen and Olafur Eliasson’s 2007 Pavilion, contains within it a series of platforms and steps, but that’s really the only obvious revenant. From here you can ascend, descend, wander round, potter about, through a mini-expressionist landscape; or you can sit on handily-provided stools. Both are made from a light, bouncy cork, a clever and enjoyable approach to the need for temporary or at least perishable materials. The way in is highly directed, with only one entrance − try to lurk in over the Serpentine lawns and you’ll get a stern ticking off from the gallery staff, something which I saw happening several times. It’s all capped by a circular roof, with water on it to reflect the sky. It’s pretty, especially from the angle where it is almost level with the ground, making what is underneath appear all the more subterranean; but it seems a bit of an afterthought, without much connection to the main idea, except perhaps as a certain disingenuous stepping-back on the part of the architects − the sight of trees and blue skies, the imprints of other people’s buildings. This goes alongside the pavilion’s role in the story of Ai Weiwei, dissident savant − porcelain versions of the stools and the plans are available as limited edition artworks, ‘made using traditional methods in Jingdezhen, China’, with price on request.

Ai and Herzog & de Meuron’s building fulfils the function of a Serpentine Pavilion very well, such as it is. That is, it’s a place to loll around in the sun, or equally probably to shelter from the rain. On the day I visited, some parents and their kids were playing the cork stools as bongos, youths were lying on the longer platforms, and children jumping between them. Nobody really seemed to be taking the archaeological conceit very seriously, which is fair enough − all there is aside from the interestingly sculpted cork is a small patch of earth with a tiny little pipe sticking through, as if here they’d finally found a real fragment of some earlier pavilion. It’s a fun game that can be thought about or not thought about, without making a great deal of difference to the architectural experience either way, bar a few associations and minor amusements. A cork grotto that can be a wry joke about archaeology if you want it to be. It’s as inconsequential as it is enjoyable, and hence will disappear with the same swiftness as the other pavilions, leaving just as little trace.

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Serpentine Pavilion 2012

Venue: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens
City: London
Dates: until 14 October

Complete set of images and drawings

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