Better unpeopled

Steel cloud: Sou Fujimoto’s Serpentine Pavilion

People spoil it, that’s the trouble. Having been elsewhere during the press scrum of the morning’s preview, I dropped by to look at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in the afternoon. The place was deserted apart from one or two workmen and the odd architect from Fujimoto’s office. But the presence of even this thin scattering of humanity felt like an affront to the purity of the structure. From an aesthetic point of view, it doesn’t really want to be inhabited at all.

I’m charmed by it, of course. It is beautiful, ethereal, Metabolist. The thin white-painted steel grillage works beautifully against the green of the trees and (today) the blue of the sky. On a more typical overcast London day it will dematerialise even more convincingly than the top of the Shard. As to how it will fare in a London summer thunderstorm of the type that typically greets the opening of the Serpentine’s superior annual pop-up – well, those minimalist overlapping discs of acrylic set within parts of the structure don’t look terribly convincing to me, while the various glass steps and platforms will get mighty slippery. But then, all the Serpentine Galleries leak, sometimes torrentially. We expect them to, we forgive them for it.

Visually, this is possibly the most pleasing Pavilion yet, which means it is the best of the three Japanese offerings so far. It could have seemed mechanistic, instead it seems to be a steel vapour – a vapour improbably composed of right angles. Deliberately over-engineered (a multitude of small columns and beams more than make up for the absence of large ones, allowing you to carve into the structure) it manages to seem fragile as it doglegs into the sky and fades out.

Although it notionally encloses a café and events space, has a scattering of white chairs and tables around it, it is much less a building, much more a sculpture. It’s a perfect counterpoint to Fischi & Weiss’s nearby work “Rock on top of Another Rock”, and I’d say that in a game of paper, scissors, stone, Fujimoto’s is the paper that beats the stone. But the people! No, really, it needs to be fenced off with a ‘do not touch’ sign in front of it, and the grass growing right through it.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman, 4 June 2013

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