Serpentine Pavilion 2019 – latest chapter in the summer ritual: a low-lying canopy of slate tiles

An architect of international repute at a young age, Junya Ishigami is known for alternative models and expressions. Complimented by a digital app launched this week, an artistic summer experience is there to be discovered in London’s Kensington Gardens – and free for all.

photos by Danica Kus –

A sloping roof of dark grey Cumbrian slate will occupy the front yard of the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens this summer. It’s the latest commission in the architectural programme of the Serpentine Gallery, led by artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. The architect in charge this year is the 45-year old Japanese Junya Ishigami, whom Obrist first met in the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Ishigami was awarded the Golden Lion that year at only 34 years old. At the biennale Obrist had been struck by Ishigami’s poetic approach and explains how he has always seen great architecture as an outcome of a constant dialogue with other art forms. In Ishihgami’s project for the Serpentine a multi-layered philosophical and artistic dialogue is there to be discovered, in which the built form draws from the natural environment.

This summer the Serpentine programme will offer a digital element exploring the landscape, the vast green space surrounding the Serpentine Gallery. The Deep Listener app was created by Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen and can be downloaded on a smartphone. The artist is interested in ecological questions and has brought a new dimension to the park experience. His work was awarded at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival last week, showing great creative vision and skills developed through animation and video games. brought to a new context in a collaboration with Google Arts and Culture.

Junya Ishigami and Hans Ulrich Obrist presenting the pavilion, this year without resigned director Yana Peel, photo: ©Danica Kus
Carefully landscaped into the Royal Parks site, the interior area is 350 sqm, photo: ©Danica Kus
The pavilion will host many public events over the summer, photo: ©Danica Kus

The pavilion building has been conceived as an imaginative play with materiality and weight, representing the most basic architectural element: the roof. The unusual structure is the outcome of formal experimentation, created with the help and technical expertise by AECOM this year. It is a collaboration with traditional stonemasonry as well as high tech digital design. The heavy stone roof supported by thin steel columns could be seen as an interpretation of traditional architectural conventions. It reminds Abbé Laugier’s ‘primitive hut’, a conceptual idea in architectural history translated here into contemporary context.

Below the slated roof, an open space connects with the surrounding landscape by its free-flowing abstract form. Slightly ominous, its formal play could be seen as reflecting the global political and ecological situation. Like a shelter below a bird’s wing, the space is designed to be a comfortable environment within the garden, as Ishigami explains. His architectural oeuvre has been influenced by Le Corbusier, which can be recognized on the carefully considered details and proportions. Perhaps an homage to the corbusien legacy could be read in the symbolic of the raven’s wing.

The slate roof is laid over a metal net above the steel columns, photo: ©Danica Kus
A forest of steel columns supporting 61 tonnes of slate, photo: ©Danica Kus

For Ishigami the six months time frame given from start to completion was a challenge. He proposed several projects to the Serpentine team and then discussed the possibilities. Normally for each architectural project he starts by a longer period of research, because each project is disconnected from any previous work, as Ishigami explains: ”Each project and each site is unique”. This is an approach he adopted from working for the japanese firm SANAA at the start of his career. One of the challenges at the Serpentine pavilion is its temporary nature. The pavilion will have another life beyond the Serpentine site. It will be reconstructed elsewhere, which in terms of suitable materials poses considerations in order to be easily rebuilt and sustainable, Ishigami explains.

The pavilion is open daily with a café 10am-6pm, photo: ©Danica Kus

Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright claimed that UK safety regulations had not been in favour of the project and suggested that architects should be given more time than six months to finish the pavilion design. This would completely transform the initial idea though. Also as a yearly summer event, it is one of London’s summer rituals. It should be accepted that there is an element of urgency and transience as a starting point.

Ishigami himself points out that he was aware of the UK regulations from the start and is used to the varying requirements in different global situations through many other international projects. He explained that normally there would have been more time to find aesthetic solutions. But in the final pavilion design the only details that he finds slightly distracting are the small dots on the transparent walls.

This year’s pavilion is the nineteenth completed commission and forms a chapter in some incredible experimental approaches in architecture. Each pavilion seems to continue within a formal, shared narrative with the previous ones, introducing contemporary architecture to wider audiences – a unique architectural experience and free to visit throughout the summer. In 2016 with Bjarke Ingels and five smaller pavilions, it was the most visited architectural exhibition in the world.

For Obrist a key idea in the Serpentine Pavilion is the legacy of Zaha Hadid that ’there should be no end to experimentation’. Hadid, whose pavilion was the first, is the spiritual mentor of this architectural programme. Since then each pavilion has represented an experiment, a temporary building in a unique site in one of the most iconic locations in the world. The only one that never got realised – perhaps for being too radical for this historic location – was in 2004 by MVRDV.

Like each summer the pavilion will host Park Nights, a programme sponsored by  COS for artists, fashion designers, architects and film makers on selected Friday evenings. The Serpentine Pavilion is a much anticipated event each year, completed always with incredible attention to detail. This year Ishigami’s design will provide an unforgettable meeting place for all London visitors.

Ishigami with Hans Ulrich Obrist, photo: ©Danica Kus
Ishigami wanted to emphasise the plain natural materiality of the stone in the park, photo: ©Danica Kus

Serpentine Pavilion 2019: 21.6 – 6.10.2019