London gallery unveils Ai Weiwei summer pavilion

Reuters, Sunday 3 Jun 2012

Embedded in the pristine front lawn of London's Serpentine Gallery lies its latest creation, a large circular structure made of muted steel and earth-colored cork

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (Photo courtesy: Serpentine Gallery)

The pavilion is the work of architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who were asked to design the structure as part of an annual summer series.

"We realized we wanted something that has a peaceful appearance, but a very complicated internal structure, like an archeologist excavating and exposing an underground structure," Ai told Reuters in Beijing.

"It tells us that architecture is not only about space and shape, at the same time, it is also about the circumstances we find ourselves in, our mental state, and our political background."

The circular structure features two levels, a dull steel roof with a shallow layer of water to reflect the sky and an abstract myriad of shapes that represent each footprint of the former pavilions laid to rest.

The lower level, which is coated entirely in earth-color cork, omits a strong smell and round stools resembling button mushrooms are dotted about place, for visitors to sit and interact during the pavilion's three month duration at the gallery.

Dressed in a dark suit and pale shirt, Pierre de Meuron told Reuters it was a thrill to design the pavilion this year, despite the challenges of collaborating with Ai Weiwei over Skype, a tight deadline of 6 months and building the structure in poor weather.

"It's always a thrill. A thrill is a positive thing and also you have concerns, but I think it came out well. Now it's open to the public, it's given to the public, so I think it's important that people experience the space and come together well."

The architect hopes visitors will enjoy the space and be intrigued by it. "People are walking around, sitting down and that's what it's meant to be. Exchanging their expressions, this is what we can provide with good architecture."

Design duo Herzog & de Meuron and Ai have previously collaborated on Beijing's "Bird Nest" National Stadium and met 10 years ago in 2002 when Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador in Beijing, introduced them.

The architects and Ai communicated through Skype to collaborate on this project, a method that worked smoothly for both parties.

"We were very familiar with one another because we've worked on five to six projects together. We would hold up our drawings to show one another and throw out suggestions. We cooperated very well in this aspect," Ai said.

"Under such special circumstances, it is greatly significant that I, as a criminal suspect, a criminal suspect of a country, used modern technologies (referring to Skype) to work together with the best architecture company in the world and design a very high-profile project for Serpentine," he added

"It was not at all difficult, it was like as if he was in the same room with us," de Meuron mused.

The artist, who was not present in London as he is under travel restrictions by the government in China, told Reuters he would have liked to have attended the opening.

De Meuron echoed this sentiment, hoping this would change in the future for Ai.

"I wish him this. Freedom to do it."

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