When you sniff the cork of a newly opened bottle of wine, the cork is a measure of condition, a moment of truth. The annual Serpentine Pavilion commission in London’s Kensington Gardens is just such a moment – a measure of the condition of contemporary architecture. And this year, the pavilion created by architects Herzog & De Meuron and artist Ai Weiwei reminded me of a sommelier’s cork-sniffing ritual. Covered in cork, the musty subterranean space does, in fact, smell a bit mouldy, a bit wrong. What it tells you is that the architectural formalism, the incessant shape-making and enforced sculptural originality of the pavilion programme has, perhaps, gone a bit off.
Instead of creating a new sculptural object, this year’s designers have delved into the past, into the memory of the site, to exhume the remains of pavilions past and recreate their foundations and their traces as if this were an archaeological dig. This is architecture consuming itself.
Although they rarely admit it, architects are of course intensely competitive, always aware of their contemporaries’ work, and the Serpentine Pavilion has become arguably the most visible platform for that competition. Last year’s designer, Peter Zumthor, also rebelled against shape-making with a black box containing a garden, as did Sanaa in 2009 with its ethereal wavy roof – though, of course, the black box and the wavy roof are as much archetypes of contemporary architecture as the more assertive forms these structures were trying to kick against. But any designers here pit themselves against an extraordinary list of predecessors, including Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvaro Siza, Olafur Eliasson, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and others.
You could argue that Herzog & De Meuron and Ai have copped out, have declined to vie with their peers. But that isn’t their style. The Swiss architects’ buildings, from London’s monumental Tate Modern to Hamburg’s stunning and (stunningly controversial) Elbphilharmonie, never refuse to engage in a debate, while Ai’s willingness to confront controversy has meant he has been unable to visit London – his passport is still confiscated. The designers collaborated before on Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest – with Ai later refusing to be associated with a building that had been appropriated for propaganda purposes – which gives the pavilion an added piquancy in the light of London’s own corporate Olympics.
Communicating via Skype, they have created what, despite first impressions, turns out to be one of the most compelling, most eccentric and most engaging pavilions so far. The park has been excavated in a complex, constructivist network of terraces and steps, its form dictated by the overlaid diagrams of each of the 11 pavilions that have occupied the site each summer over the past dozen years. The site begins to resemble the layers of a city exposed simultaneously, from ancient foundations to the invasive subterranean networks of more recent cabling and conduits. It is very London, a reflection on a city built on a hugely complex set of entrails comprising everything from Tube tunnels to air raid bunkers, a city in which liquid is never far from the surface (held in place symbolically, perhaps, by all that cork).
The designers have dug down to a depth of 1.5m and above have topped it with a canopy like those you might find over an archaeological dig. The roof, which appears as an imperfect disc, is surrounded by a lip that allows it to gather water and become a reflecting pool; when you approach, the first thing you are aware of is the gently rippling surface of the water reflecting the sky, atop the chest-height canopy. Within, the steps and seats, the terraces and columns (11 of which represent previous pavilions, one of which belongs wholly to the new one) are clad in cork, making them spongy and musty. The scattered mushroom-shaped stools resemble huge champagne corks. It is oddly sinister, dark, playing with scales and layers.
It is also, of course, more conceit than archaeology, more reconstruction than excavation, but the wit is in the pop artifice, like Ai’s daubing of the Coca-Cola logo on to neolithic vessels. Its theatricality makes it a stunning set, as well as a clever meditation on memory, on the consumption of the architectural image, and on the brief life of a pavilion. So don’t worry about the cork; the wine is fine.