Tthe Serpentine Gallery’s Pavilion, an architectural essay that appears in Kensington Gardens every summer, pandemics permitting, tends to be a bit of a sketch. The intriguing ideas of imaginative architects are blurred by the demands of project management. Details don’t always survive your first encounter with building regulations. Pavilions are temporary and built at high speed, which can give them a feeling of clutter. The intention can be more rewarding than the execution.
Except in this year’s edition, by the Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace, led by Sumayya Vally. It has what could be called architecture: scale, detail, articulation of mass and volume, and of shadow and light. It has high and airy ceilings. It has presence and depth.
On one level, it is simple, a large, almost circular roof supported by pillars. It is a refuge in the park, which makes it a place for events and meetings. It has no walls, so the interior and exterior flow into each other, and trees can be seen through and from it. It also has its own distinctive range of atmospheres: calm, gloomy, a touch cooler. The outer surfaces are black, the inner ones in gradations of gray, which superimpose the progression from the outside to the inside. This creates a feeling of the interior as a separate place.
At another level, the pavilion is complex, with irregular groupings of elements and expansions of space. There are architectural fragments: grooves, corbels, pieces of arches, enigmatically arranged. You feel the intelligence, even if you don’t really know what it says.
The design practices what might be considered deception: the construction looks like concrete from a distance, seemingly sculpted from a single heavy substance, but turns out to be made of cement-coated plywood. If you touch your solid looking blocks, they sound hollow. This choice of materials is practical, it would have been absurd to have made a temporary mass concrete structure, and it also adds a strange note to your perception. If your wide-span ceiling were actually made of concrete, it would have to work hard to support itself, so you’re not quite sure how heavy it really is.
It is surprising that this pavilion is so architectural, as Counterspace strives to explore beyond the usual limits and canons of the discipline. His work includes choreographies, films, and sculptural installations. Vally looks for inspiration outside of the works of renowned architects, living or dead. For the Serpentine Pavilion, he spent four months living in London, exploring and researching “places of gathering, organizing and belonging” that were “important to diasporic and cross-cultural communities.”
He searched for “lost and vulnerable spaces” and places both existing and erased. These included women’s centers, cinemas, clubs, mosques, markets, newspaper offices, restaurants, theaters, libraries, art centers, hair salons, bookstores, nurseries, and community gardens. Also, streets of carnivals and protests in Notting Hill and Brixton and the Wall of Truth memorial to the Grenfell victims below the concrete viaduct known as the Westway.
The reasons for these investigations, a piece of pilaster or a coffee table, became the raw material in the design of the pavilion. There is a touch of Rachel Whitereads in the way the rendered textures and patterns are transferred to the pavilion fabric. Not that you can trace any item to a source. Rather, it has created an abstract hybrid of formal and informal architecture, a chimera that is both London and not, a space for people who could belong to more than one place.
Vally also tried to learn how these common places function as meeting and intimate spaces and achieve some of those qualities in the pavilion; the intention, he says, is to create “an architecture of many generosities”, a building that can be accessed from several sides and inhabited both on a large and small scale. Architects often like to proclaim their desire to bring people together, and in doing so they challenge themselves: what can they make that work better than sitting on the grass? Some earlier pavilions have included rhetorical devices – steps and seats – that tended to mean more than enact such a union. Counterspace’s version looks more compelling.
Its strength is that it does not prescribe. It does not say “sit here now and speak”, but establishes its own identity and character, which includes the possibility that you will pose somewhere, alone or with others. Its architectural presence helps here: the building is self-sufficient, it has a life of its own, it is not needed, its lack of desperation makes the expected meetings more than less likely. It also helps that it is sophisticated, that it rejects the common assumption that an interest in the everyday and ordinary involves nonsense or condescension.
One factor that has made the Counterspace pavilion less sketchy than others is time. It was supposed to open last year but, for obvious reasons, it didn’t. It has also helped that, at the age of 31, Vally is the youngest architect to have designed a Serpentine Pavilion. She is not an established star who could shed some ideas for a pavilion from a heavy workload. The commission could be his biggest opportunity to date, which is why he has paid close attention to it, including the months he spent investigating in London.
Like any Serpentine Pavilion, this version is partly an emblem: its meaning lies both in its suggestion of what built spaces might be like and in any sociability that may be engendered in its short life in a privileged location. This year, for the first time, an attempt has been made to spread the magic of the pavilion, with “snippets” of the design spread across four locations elsewhere in London, the kind that inspired Vally. Not all of them were available to visit at the time of writing, but the one I did see, in the Tabernacle cultural venue in West London, it was too small to make much of an impact. It’s a nice thought that could unfold in the future, but for now the mothership is the strongest expression of your ideals.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism