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Summer of Sustainability 2023 Serpentine Pavilion visit

Summer of Sustainability 2023 Serpentine Pavilion visit. Image Catherine Byrne

We met at the Serpentine Pavilion and luckily the weather was kind to us - no umbrellas necessary for our day out after all! In fact the only umbrella we saw was the one topping the centre of the pavilion roof - but more on that later…

What we did:

We had a good look around the pavilion, inside and out, investigating the materials, the details and how it sits in its environment. We talked about how it might have been constructed and what sustainability issues may have been considered in its design.

The finished pavilion looks complex, but is actually made almost entirely from one material. It is constructed from a few very cleverly designed, and then repeated, modular parts. Designing the pavilion in this way ensures that the minimum amount of materials are utilised and very little is wasted. Seemingly small details such as making sure that the angles of different elements are identical - mean that many pieces can be cut from the same sheet material without any off-cuts. The structural glulam beams, decorative fretwork infill panels, slim folded roof covering and interior flooring were all made from timber. There is a steel ring element in the centre of the roof that possibly acts a little like a ‘key-stone’ adding structural stability to the radiating glulam beams, and then there is a tensile fabric umbrella over the top of the central roof void. All in all we counted about eight or nine different designed elements in total (there may have been more but that was what we could see) that were repeated several times, and assembled together to make the finished pavilion. A really clever, elegant, economical and effective design.

There was time for close examination of different elements of the structure, and then some note taking, sketching and photographic recording - all important things to do when visiting a new space so that you can gain a better understanding of how and why the design decisions were made.

A little bit about the annual Serpentine Pavilion project:

The initial idea behind the Serpentine Pavilion project was that each new temporary structure should be dismantled at the end of the summer, and relocated for a permanent purpose. This was to ensure that any materials used did not contribute to the built environments alarming practice/ease of demolishing built spaces and replacing them with newer structures.

Over the years several, but not all, of the pavilions have been dismantled and then re-erected at a new site for a new purpose. For example: The 2013 pavilion, designed by Sou Fujimoto, is now in the National Art Gallery, Tirana, Albania, where it houses exhibitions. The 2014 pavilion, by Smiljan Radić, has been relocated to the Oudolf garden at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, near Bruton in Somerset. A few others have been repurposed too - see if you can find out which by researching for yourself.

There has been a much more concerted effort to address sustainability issues in recent years. Although some of the previous pavilions may look as though they are made entirely from sustainable materials - we can only see the surface, and above ground level. In the past, for example, many have used concrete piling/foundations that have been removed when the pavilion is dismantled and then become redundant or landfill. The 2021 pavilion, although reportedly employed ‘a mix of low-tech and high-tech approaches to sustainability’, also used 95 cubic metres of concrete for the foundations, which understandably caused a bit of a scandal at the time. The general public are much more aware of global issues than we were when the first pavilion was built in 2000. Consequently there is now much more thought around the whole project (not just what we see above ground) and concern with the ‘circularity’ of materials, objects, buildings and processes.

An uncomfortable fact:

Of the 21 pavilions, only the first and four others have been designed by women, something that possibly speaks to the gender imbalance in the perception of built environment professionals. But at least this year's designer is helping to redress that balance.

A little bit about this years architect Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture:

From a statement on the practice website - “Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture is committed to a fair and sustainable future. The practice takes an in-depth, historical, and materially sensitive approach to its projects. ...every new gesture reinvents the traces of the past.”

Her practice “designs ecologically and sustainably: the studio's projects derive their aesthetics from their close relationship with nature and express the essence of the materials from which they are fashioned.”.

She sees her work as the Archaeology of the Future but rather than being rediscovered, buried, in later years, their architecture - or space making - is a constant process of researching traces and elements that come from many different disciplines. These traces are then synthesised into spaces.

An important factor in their designing is to consider the relationship that each building or space has with its environment. And in this instance the environment includes the climate, the geography (or site), the capacity for the structure to be sustainable, and to be built with the resources of the place that it inhabits, its site. They believe that each new built intervention should be so integrated into its environment that it almost disappears.

The structure of the 2023 pavilion is inspired by a leaf - with the main veins fanning out from the centre providing the beam structure on which the roof sits.

The design is informed by other spaces that were made for community and rituals, such as Stonehenge or the Toguna huts in Mali, West Africa which were designed for communities to gather, facilitating important discussions and decision making.

The structure provides a kaleidoscopic effect with the detailing in the fretwork panels, giving a connection between the interior and exterior space outside the pavilion.

Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture 2023 Serpentine Pavilion, Fretwork panel detail. Image Catherine Byrne

The construction is designed to be as simple as possible, with the glulam timber beams supporting the pleated timber roof and timber wall panels. The entire structure is relatively lightweight and detailed to facilitate being disassembled and then reassembled elsewhere. The opening in the centre has an off-set umbrella top as a nod to the climate of the host city (rain rain rain!) but this amusing detail also has a practical function in that it allows for natural ventilation, drawing warmer air up and out of the interior space.

The spatial intention is for people to inhabit the building and to come together to create a community-of-sorts. People gathering, discussing, and maybe eating their lunch?

Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture 2023 Serpentine Pavilion, Interior. Image Catherine Byrne

“When visitors experience this pavilion I would wish that they feel at ease, that they feel conviviality… …but also have a moment of wonder and just enjoy the day in the park.” - Lina Ghotmeh

For those with a bit of extra time:

With a little bit of extra time at the end of the visit, some of us popped in to see the free exhibition in the Serpentine Gallery Tomás Saraceno In Collaboration: Web(s) of Life.

Described as a “multi-species exhibition” that looks at how different life forms (human, animal, insect, plant life) technologies and energy systems are all connected, and affected by the climate emergency - it was a really thought provoking take on both ‘art’ and sustainability, which made us question our preconceptions of both.

There were some stunning spiders-web installations (which sound odd and eerie, but were surprisingly structural and incredibly beautiful) and a fascinating film installation focussing on the impact of supposed green innovations in the global West (electric cars) having a devastating impact on the environment in the global South due to increasingly destructive lithium mining. It certainly made us think, and then rethink our initial ideas of what sustainability really means.

Further reading:

Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture 2023 Serpentine Pavilion, Exterior. Image Catherine Byrne

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Tracy Walker
Tracy Walker
Aug 20, 2023

It was great to meet with Catherine and students again and experience the Serpentine Pavilion, which is beautiful. Another visit to London, another opportunity to be that tourist and walk for miles in such a vibrant city! 😍

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