Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates, photo © Iwan Baan
Black Chapel, a circular dark volume, photo ©Iwan Baan

A play with circles at Serpentine Summer Pavilion by Theaster Gates

Black Chapel is a dark cylindrical pavilion designed by artist Theaster Gates for the Serpentine Gallery in London.  In dialogue with iconic sacred architecture, this year’s Summer Pavilion is the largest volume to date in this programme for exhibiting temporary architecture. It’s 10 meters high with an open oculus on top, which creates a play with passing time and weather conditions inside the space.

The oculus and the circular volume recall the Pantheon in Rome, but here as a contemporary interpretation, stripped of all ornamentation and classical references. Besides sacred historic architecture, Gates plays with ideas from industrial buildigs, such as kilns for clay-making, and also mentions the Rothko Chapel as inspiration. In the press release Gates stated that: “It is my hope that Black Chapel will achieve the honorific, interrogate the sacred and encourage the social.”  

Accentuated by the circular form and the dark interior, with entry and exit points to the east and west, there is a sense of mysterious togetherness in this formal conception. A path leads through the quiet volume, making you aware of physical presence and others sharing the space in a solemn and sensuous way. The structural simplicity of the construction does not call attention to itself like some of the earlier pavilion designs. The ones by  Daniel Liebeskind (2001), Toyo Ito (2002), or Oscar Niemeyer 2003) were famous for their sculptural formal experiments.

In recent years the pavilion has been more focused on materiality, and as a temporary structure, with increasing attention to sustainability in the materials used.  This year the pavilion is constructed with structural timber clad in modular plywood panels, which can be easily demounted. It’s a lightweight structure – with wall thickness of just 9 mm – designed to be reinstalled elsewhere eventually. The precast concrete foundations are also designed to be removed and reused.

Black Chapel by Theaster Gates, Serpentine Summer Pavilion 2022, photo Marianna Wahlsten
Daylight falling from above, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Chicago-based Theaster Gates worked in partnership with Adjaye Associates, the architectural studio founded by David Adjaye. Although several artists have previously collaborated in the Serpentine Summer Pavilion design, the Black Chapel is the first one credited primarily to an artist.  In the same way as Olafur Eliasson (2007 pavilion with Kjetil Thorsen) and Ai Weiwei (2017 pavilion with Herzog & de Meuron) Theaster Gates is known for his crossdisciplinary artistic approach. Urban projects to reinvigorate abandoned spaces are part of his practice. He is the founder of Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit platform in Chicago for strengthening communities through arts programs. 

A lightweight timber and steel structure around the open oculus, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

As an architectural showcase the Summer Pavilion allows for creative experimentation, and strong personal expression, beyond the reach of traditional architecture exhibitions. The location in the very heart of London, in the crossroads of Kensington Gardens, makes it accessible to a wide range of audiences, also for unexpected chance encounters for people passing through the park. As a showcase for architectural design, the Summer Pavilion always brings a new, contemporary dynamic to the Royal Parks. 

Attention to the ground works surrounding the pavilion on this historic site is always immaculate, enabled by financial support from Golden Sachs, Thermes and LUMA Foundation. Technical expertise was provided this year from Aecom, an engineering firm where the team focused on small details of the cylindrical structure and minimizing materials used. Ethical sourcing of materials was supported by Grace Farms Foundation.

Salvaged church bell on the lawn, as an aural architectural element, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

It’s always fascinating to follow the different narrative forms and ideas that have been seen in the Summer Pavilion designs over the past two decades. Gates’s circular form could be seen in correspondence with Koolhaas’ (2006) and Kéré’s (2018) pavilions, as well as the rectangular simplicity of Zumthor’s (2011). The name Black Chapel is a continuation with Gates’ project for the Haus der Kunst in Munich, perhaps as an homage to the late curator Okwui Enwezor, while also reminding of David Adjaye’s previous residential projects.

Open every day until October 16th, the pavilion is a space for quiet contemplation, as well as a special venue for hosting cultural events over the summer. The black-stained timber seems to absorb sound onto its matt surface and a sense of mysticism lies inside the pavilion. The height and the cylindrical volume enhance the acoustic properties of the timber structure, which will no doubt make the pavilion a great spot for all the musical performances and events that will take place over the summer. There will be a wide range of styles, from minimalist, experimental piano music, to contemporary jazz and The Choir of London Oratory performance, to look forward to.  

 Seven abstract paintings by Gates are displayed inside. It’s the first time that the Summer Pavilion concept includes artworks. Although Serpentine Gallery is an institution for contemporary art, until this year, the pavilion itself has been a purely architectural commission. 

Serpentine Pavilion 2022, 10 June – 16 October 2022


The mysteriously dark cafe enclosure …, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten