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In comparison, the replacement for the MVRDV pavilion is simplicity itself.
A cafe by day and a venue for talks and events at night, it is little more than a grid made from short planks of timber, folded down at the edges to form the walls. Panes of polycarbonate fill in the squares of the grid until it meets the ground on extended “legs”. Anyone with a basic knowledge of woodwork will be able to see immediately how it’s been put together: with mortise and tenon joints. A bolt secures each joint and there’s your pavilion. So while MVRDV set themselves a mountain to climb, this looks like it could have been assembled from a flat-pack – given a thousand years’ worth of Sunday afternoons.
“A pavilion is usually an isolated building, but with this site we felt we should maintain a relationship with the gallery and the trees, and these things were the start of the idea,” explains Siza. “In front of the house there are two hedges forming half an ellipse. That gave us the suggestion to make a curved surface to complete the ellipse. And as the trees outside were in a position that avoided making a rectangle, we decided to make the four faces curved. The curves are not symmetrical because of the position of these trees, so they adapted to these accidents. Also the roof began suffering accidents. It’s like a vault but it comes down approaching the gallery, like a compliment. Architecture is often developed through such accidents and difficulties. In the end that gives character to the buildings.”
A quick poll of passers-by on the exterior of the pavilion before it had opened produced mixed reactions: many likened it to a dinosaur or an armadillo; some couldn’t wait to get inside; others found it hostile, unremarkable, or even ugly. A group of workmen nearby said they preferred it before they put the polycarbonate panels on it, others that it would look better with plants growing over it.
After more than 50 years in the business, Siza is no stranger to such reactions. Although he is revered by fellow professionals, and won the prestigious Pritzker prize in 1992, he has never been a high-stakes architectural superstar like Norman Foster or Frank Gehry. Rather than turning out flamboyant structures, his buildings can look unremarkable at first glance. But Siza’s mastery lies in subtler qualities such as context, spatial relationships and use of light. He’s generally a less-is-more modernist who favours clean, straight lines, whitewashed walls and almost-blank geometric volumes, but his buildings are usually too sensitive to their users and their surroundings to veer into uptight minimalism.
One of his most celebrated works, for example, is a public swimming pool built in the late 1960s at Leça da Palmeira. It consists of little more than concrete planes and platforms defining a group of tidal pools, but with minimal intervention they create a space that relates to both the natural rock formations and the concrete seawalls of the decidedly un-picturesque Altantic coastline.
From a similar school of thought, the younger Eduardo Souto de Moura worked in Siza’s office during the 1970s before branching off on his own. At least one of his projects is arguably more famous in Britain than any of Siza’s: the Braga Stadium, which hosted football matches during Euro 2004 – it was the one with a sheer granite rock face at one end of the pitch. The two architects have collaborated before, on Portugal’s flagship pavilion at Expo 98 in Lisbon, but that was formal and monumental, in marked contrast to the casual, playful building at the Serpentine.
“We worked at the same table, sometimes both writing in different corners of the same piece of paper,” says Siza. “It’s a work of friendship and amusement. It’s like a holiday, because one of the attractions of this work is that there is no bureaucracy, no need to know about regulations. It was very free.”
The influence of Arup’s Cecil Balmond is there to see in the broken up geometry of the structure, and the fact that the whole thing stands up. On closer inspection, the timber grid appears to be warped out of shape and the lines of the timber elements are staggered zig-zags, as if it the building had been shaken by an earthquake. Despite the basic construction methods, the pavilion is the result of serious computing power and precision engineering. Every piece of wood and every pane of polycarbonate is different.
Had they been allowed inside the pavilion, the sceptics of Kensington Gardens might have been won over by Siza and Souto de Moura’s artistry. In contrast to the exterior, the space inside is unexpectedly grand and yet almost ecclesiastically tranquil. The semi-opaque panels give the ceiling a luminous glow, and the leaves of the surrounding trees are silhouetted on the walls. A solar-powered light in the centre of each roof panel turns on automatically at dusk, but because each panel is differently orientated, the lights come on one by one. And as with Siza’s other works, the pavilion is acutely sensitive to its surroundings. The walls appear to bow outwards in deference to the surrounding trees, and openings at the corners neatly frame young trees and views across the park. The decision to leave the bottom metre or so of the structure open means that visitors sitting at the cafe tables (designed by Siza, of course) will be able to see out across the park.
Siza has yet to visit the site, though. Souto de Moura came and took notes and photos from which they worked out the design. But Siza is not offended that people have likened his structure a giant armadillo. “Actually, I think it is my fault,” he says. “In the beginning when describing it, I said it was like an animal with its feet in the ground. It wasn’t in our minds to make it look like an animal, but in the end we are always confronted with nature and with natural forms. Forms are not only defined by complex mathematics and proportions, we can look around and we have trees and dogs and people. It’s like an alphabet of proportions and relations that we use. I think that’s one of the tasks of the architect: to make things look simple and natural which in fact are complex.”
By Fernando Guerra
Designed in Portugal, engineered in England, fabricated in Germany using innovative Finnish technology, built, with lashings of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, in London and all done in six months without a penny of subsidy: if Tony Blair wants a symbol of the New Europe to mark his presidency of the European Union, he had better claim this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens as his own.
If all had gone well, this year would have seen the Serpentine Gallery swallowed up by the radical Dutch practice MVRDV’s mountain. But that proved one leap too far. Cost and, one suspects, such practical issues as fire escapes, intervened, so although technically still a work “in progress”, it was shelved.
Instead, Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s director, turned last December to the magisterial 72-year-old Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza and his long-term collaborator Eduardo Souto de Moura to come up with this year’s pavilion.
Siza is one of the grand old men of European architecture, best known for crisp white buildings such as the Museu Serralves in Porto, the church of Sta Maria at Marco de Canavezes, and the wonderful Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo of 1998, with its hanging concrete “veil”.
Souto de Moura, who is 53, worked for Siza for five years before setting up on his own, but they still share the same building and occasionally collaborate on projects such as the Lisbon Pavilion.
And there is a third figure to throw into the mix – the engineer Cecil Balmond, deputy chairman of Arup, who worked with Siza and Souto de Moura on the Portuguese Pavilion and has been the éminence grise behind all the Serpentine Pavilions, making sure that these small but complex buildings can actually stand up.
The brief is simple: a pavilion that can be used by the cramped Serpentine Gallery as a café for the summer by day and a place for parties and events by night. But the aim is much more ambitious: to create an instant architectural exhibition as substantial and satisfying as any show within the Serpentine. Architecture is notoriously difficult to turn into an exhibition, so why not call in architects who have never built in London to design a temporary building instead?
The last pavilion, the ageing Niemeyer’s small but monumental structure, was a built retrospective, a summation of key ideas from a career that has lasted more than 70 years. Those expecting something similar from Siza are in for a surprise.
Instead of a highly sophisticated exploration of the ideals of classic white modernism like the Museu Serralves, this year’s pavilion is unprecedented in his work, a billowing lattice-like timber structure, filled in with polycarbonate panels, that resembles nothing so much as a “tortoise”, the instant defence that Roman legionaries created by locking their shields together.
When I met Siza and Souto de Moura at the pavilion, fresh from the airport, it became clear that what had driven the design was the site, particularly the two handsome oak trees that sail over the pavilion, which Siza described as like a sculpture, and which form an anchor for the building.
The parameters were simple: the two trees, the bulk of the Serpentine Gallery and the lawn in-between, which is embraced by curving paths. From this came the idea of a rectangular structure pushed out of shape by the trees – the timber supports almost seem to shy away from the branches – with the wall towards the Serpentine Gallery curving to respect the shape of the lawn.
The first discussion with Cecil Balmond brought up the question of whether the structure should have a refined, almost “high-tech” feel (like all the preceding pavilions) or be something more vernacular. Despite their long-term interest in clean white lines, both Siza and Souto de Moura have always had a fascination with local materials such as timber, masonry and ceramic tiles, so they chose to take the vernacular route. (Siza explained that the result was partly inspired by English half-timbered structures, but with a strongly Japanese touch.)
The structure is entirely constructed out of an innovative, strong laminated timber, Laminated Veneer Lumber, made by Finnforest in Finland, cut from great sheets into small planks outside Munich, stained to match the oak trees and bring out the grain and put together like a giant flatpack in London.
Choosing the cladding was the other key decision. Should this be fabric or a fixed cladding? Siza wanted it to be light but solid, so he chose translucent polycarbonate panels, carefully arranged so that when you stand up your eye is caught by the structure, but when you sit down you can look through the open trellis to the park.
Each of the panels in the roof is penetrated by a ventilation cowl holding a battery-operated, solar-powered light, which illuminates the interior by night and gives it an ethereal glow from outside – all with the added benefit that there is no need for any cabling to spoil the lines.
The result is a chunky, engaging building that is definitely more challenging than any of the other pavilions so far. Instead of the spatial pyrotechnics of Hadid and Libeskind, the thrilling geometry of Ito or the satisfying inevitability of Niemeyer, Siza and Souto de Moura’s pavilion takes time to reveal its qualities. But sit under the restless grid, at chairs and tables designed by Siza, watching the life of the park go by and the subtleties of the building slowly reveal themselves.
Architecture, particularly temporary architecture, should not necessarily be an instant wow. Sometimes it should require us to delve deeper, to think a little harder, and that is what Siza and Souto de Moura make us do.
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