The partnership behind the design of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, the stunning centrepiece of the 2008 Olympics, will design the Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens in the year London itself hosts the games. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei have proposed excavating a hole in the park and letting it fill with London rain.
Four years ago the outspoken Chinese artist withdrew his name from the Olympic stadium design in protest at what he saw as its use in state propaganda and he was arrested and held last year by the Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion. The Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, meanwhile, will be busy on the other side of London with the conversion of the oil storage tanks at Tate Modern into arts spaces.
The Serpentine Pavilion has become one of the London art and architecture scene’s big ticket events, attracting some of the world’s most famous designers including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Oscar Niemeyer. Built each year as a temporary adjunct to the small Serpentine Gallery (a former tea house) the pavilions are subsequently sold off to the highest bidder, largely funding their construction.
The Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei collaboration – the 12th pavilion – breaks the mould of the sequence so far as the criterion for the commission had been for an architect not to have built in England. But Herzog & de Meuron are also deeply engaged in the art world, having built the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They are currently working on art museums in New York, Miami and Kolkata.
The description of the design enigmatically describes an excavation of the site to reveal the foundations of former pavilions, the dense network of cabling and pipes which run beneath the city surface and a revealing of the depth of the water table. The designers appropriately liken their role to that of archaeologists. The hole will be capped by a glass roof which echoes the outlines of former pavilions but can also be converted into a dance floor for the Serpentine’s famous fundraising summer party. The investigation of the museology of the site is a particularly post-modern approach to what has become an engrained institution now obviously worthy of a study in its own right.