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This hobbit heaven in Hyde Park for the summer is the latest in the series of Serpentine Pavilion commissions. However, this one, by the Swiss architect duo Herzog and de Meuron (designers of the Beijing Olympic Stadium and Tate Modern) with Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist (working via Skype while under house arrest), has a difference in referencing all those that have gone before. There have been eleven previous pavilions on this site which have left traces in the ground.

As we dig down into the earth to reach the groundwater, we encounter a diversity of constructed realities such as telephone cables, remains of former foundations or backfills. Like a team of archaeologists we identify these physical fragments of the eleven pavilions built between 2000 and 2011…. all of these traces of former pavilions will now be revealed and reconstructed. The former foundations and footprints form a jumble of convoluted lines like a sewing pattern.

A distinctive landscape emerges that is unlike anything we could have invented; its form and shape is actually a serendipitous gift.” Herzog and de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012
(Limited edition silkscreen print available from Serpentine Gallery)

The interior of this cork lined pit carved into the ground incorporates these traces as well as the outlines and contours of their plans in the formation of the shapes of the seating areas and columns, but also in ideas of past and present, archaeology and memory.

As well as effectively being an archaeological excavation in its construction the end result reminds me strongly of prehistoric chamber or table tombs, or a portal dolmen such as Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire. I realised this after looking at a drawing I had done in Hyde Park the other day on my second visit to the pavilion.

On my first glimpse I was rather disappointed after last year’s beautifully planted pavilion (see my post). This one seemed drab and uninviting. But having stayed a while and watched it being used, as well as moving around and experiencing the space inside and looking at it from outside, I was surprised by how it seemed to blend into the environment. It almost seemed as though it had always been there – truly incorporating the past with the present. The cork, as well as looking earth like, has the effect of absorbing sound. Its warmth and softness is ideal for children to run on and climb over while being enclosed in a safe space and yet open to the outside.

It is a very inter-penetrable space (which does rather contradict thinking of it as a bunker!) linking outside and inside and blurring boundaries and thresholds, all of which appeals greatly to me and maybe others too. But it also has references to the cave and the womb, symbolically a place for birth. In the Zuni Native American origin myth the people were born from the underworld beneath the earth. The earth is also symbolic of renewal and rebirth.

Another landscape aspect of the pavilion is the lid or cover, a shallow water filled almost circle of metal, creating a pool open to the sky and reflections. A pool is a liminal space symbolising the boundary between this world and the next, life and death, the marriage of Mother Earth with the sky, appearing in many mythologies.

A liquid surface is also a contrast to the void beneath and gives a strangely upside down feeling to the structure as well as bringing the outside landscape into itself.

The changing light and colours join the changing leaves moving around the surface, although the colours are again mainly shades of brown rather than the idealised blue shown in the publicity material. The diffused light of the space beneath, with its minimum of artificial light sometimes reflects the landscape and sometimes is more self-contained.

The views out are intriguing, sometimes cut off at strange levels, framing people and surroundings in a way reminiscent of Japanese art. This is when it seems most bunker like to me with some almost arrow slit holes and a definite feeling of being hidden from the world even though it is open to the outside. (Apologies to all you true bunkerologists if I have got you here under false pretences!)

There is also a political dimension to the pavilion. Talks and events are always held in the pavilion each year. It represents a space to debate and express views, which of course Ai Weiwei has been persecuted for doing.