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Interactive Art: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto

All photos by Frank Kaltenbach

"The same procedure as every year." The legendary phrase of the traditional sketch "Dinner for One" broadcast in a number of European countries every New Year’s Eve could also apply to the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. Director Julia Peyton-Jones and co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist have commissioned the thirteenth  architect to construct a pavilion right in front of the gallery in London's Hyde Park.

But this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto is different in many ways. At 41, Fujimoto is the youngest Serpentine architect so far. His pavilion does not rely on sensational visual effects or an overloaded theory. It is not yet another infusion of an ageing star. Fujimoto is not at the end, but nearing the peak of his career. This fresh and relaxed energy can be perceived by all, from aficionados of architecture to casual passers-by attracted by the aura of the diaphanous structure.

The simplicity of the means with which Fujimoto creates the most complex spatial effects through aggregation and disaggregation is absolutely fascinating. Two-centimetre-wide square-shaped steel poles form the three-dimensional coordinate system constituting the geometrical and constructive starting point of the welded structure. The basic modules of the construction are simple lattice blocks with sides of 40 or 80 cm.

Areas of the abstract grid designated to fulfil a specific function are fitted with hardly noticeable transparent elements. Fish scale-like polycarbonate disks arranged in clusters in the roof area serve as rain protection. The installation attempts to replicate the open structure of clouds, which works by varying the density of the modules admitting sunlight through the white steel construction. When the sky is overcast, the polycarbonate disks accentuate the appearance of the grey clouds with their curved contours.

Non-slip printed glass panels fill structures located near the ground, offering seating that is much more comfortable than one might expect. Transparent polycarbonate strips securing the sitting steps prevent small children from falling through the three-dimensional grid, and thin anti-fall guard rods are positioned inconspicuously.

The variation in the floor covering corresponds to the transition from inside to outside. Glass panel floor sections echo the polycarbonate disks in the roof. Viewed in an orthogonal direction, the structure has a clear and delicate appearance.

The transitions to the sky are frayed like the fringes of a three-dimensional carpet or the branches of a tree.

From a diagonal perspective, the various sections begin to oscillate with the bundles of light admitted through the grid – a dramatic constructivist-futurist scenery presents itself with the changing sunlight between the clouds. Friedrich Kiesler's "City in Space" at the Exposition des Arts Dècoratifs 1925 in Paris springs to mind.

The structure is versatile in the sense that it is open and transparent, yet also as effective as barbed wire in screening off the public. For an event like a panel discussion with an invited audience the three entrances can easily be guarded with minimal staff.

Japanese film makers have also come to London with Sou Fujimoto.

The architect strives to create architecture in which material, construction, surface and usage form one entity, something that he feels only to have successfully achieved in the "Final Wooden House" so far. With the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Sou Fujimoto has however gone much further. The "Final Wooden House" also consists of only one basic module comprised of square-shaped natural-finish wooden beams, which are used as floor, platform, wall or roof. Here too, no additional furniture exists: the structure functions as envelope and furniture at the same time. In terms of spatial design, it focuses on the contrast between a closed rectangular exterior and a cavernous interior. The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion on the other hand knows no outside or inside, with nature and architecture merging, much like the topological character of the Klein bottle. The lattice structure moreover acts as a permeable membrane.

The circulation design of the construction is based on the existing layout of access paths, with the visitor led through the space in a serpentine up to the entrance of the historical gallery building, like through an open tunnel.

From the south, it appears as though Fujimoto wanted to continue the historical white lattice windows and the cross on the old building into infinity with his sculpture. Truth or conjecture? During a lecture, Fujimoto admitted with a smile that what amazed him most is when he saw that his pavilion goes really well with the white lattice structures of the gallery.

Although the ground plan of the pavilion is almost circular in shape, its appearance changes entirely with the position of the observer.

As in the sketches and model photos of Primitive House, visitors seem to float in the latticework.

In an often rainy London, the west terrace overlooking the Serpentine Gallery is a popular open-air solarium towards the end of the day.

People look for a quiet place to sit or position themselves near one of the entrances to be able to study newcomers and their usually emotional reactions to the pavilion.

The north exit to the gallery opens up to a tree, exemplifying the traditional Japanese principle of "borrowed scenery", with the surrounding area directly integrated in the composition.

The structure attracts children magically and it’s hard to stop them from climbing up to the highest level.

But there are also areas where the roof floats above the flat landscape cloud-like. Interwoven in nature and architecture like in a Japanese woodcut, the trees in the background, the clouds and the openings create a virtual, almost surreal depth.

Above the tiered seating, the space finally opens up to the sky, with roles inevitably alternating between being observed and observing.

One becomes very much aware of the horizon line up there, with complete slit-like views through the structure, but only straight ahead at eye level.

At the height of the tops of the trees, it is almost liberating to emerge from this open and yet stringent order. The grid structures are more than welcome to hold on to here, because this position is at a dizzy height on account of the glass floor. Sou Fujimoto has not reinvented architecture with the Serpentine Pavilion. But he has thought up a construction of edged steel profiles that looks as if it had been thrown on paper with a single brushstroke. The poetry inherent in this design is best felt up here, at the abyss between architecture and nature.

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