Digging the new Serpentine Pavilion

Unveiled: Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei’s latest collaboration

2012’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion – the twelfth in the annual series – opens to the public today (Friday June 1) and is perhaps the most hotly anticipated structure so far. Four years after Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron produced the awe-inspiring “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, they have joined forces again to create this architectural extravaganza as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Much has been written in advance of the launch: about the designers’ archaeological approach, literally delving – five feet into the ground – into the history of the previous structures and their layered footprints; about the waterhole, the deepest point of the excavation; about the cork cladding the interior (chosen because it’s sustainable, and to echo the excavated earth); about the 11 columns representing each previous incarnation of the structure, with a twelfth for the current one; and about the circular platform roof “floating” above ground, which functions as a pool, collecting rainwater, or as a dance floor when it’s drained.

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But what’s the finished work like? In short, stunning. Walking towards the pavilion, the roof of water brought to my mind Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror sculpture, though this reflective surface is, of course, fluid, rippling in a light breeze and catching the pollen. During the day, its light surface is in sharp contrast to the shadowy, stepped, cork interior, reminiscent of a crypt.

It is a wonderfully contemplative space, with snapshot glimpses of views, and the stubby, tactile cork stools (like massive bottle corks), steps and almost altar-like “shelves” provide plenty of places to sit and admire. It’s a tremendously thoughtful design – provocative, even, when you consider that Ai, the Chinese political activist, seems to be asking viewers to look beneath the surface. Yet here, at least, history supports us. I wasn’t expecting the wonderful, earthy aroma of the cork, as if it’s just rained on warm soil (admittedly, there were a couple of tiny leaks from the roof when I visited, but these somehow added to the experience). The scent somehow made me feel nostalgic – surely no coincidence.

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It’s another triumph for Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones, who originally conceived the idea of commissioning a pavilion back in 2000. This one comes with a great deal of help from the famously philanthropic Usha and Lakshmi N Mittal, who have elected to buy the structure for their own collection. Lucky them.

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