Friday, 23 July 2021

Some thoughts on the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion

For a variety of reasons I have not written anything for quite a while, not for magazines, not for publications and certainly not for a book, so maybe what I’m doing here could be considered something of an exercise, a stretch perhaps. Writing this text is both a workout, an attempt to get the momentum of putting words into orders back, but also it is meant as a slight provocation, to test a couple of thoughts, having been vexed recently by some issues that I feel might benefit from being exposed to others. I don’t feel it’s worth writing whatever this is for money, partly because I’m going to be negative, and we live in a time when everything’s so hard, nobody needs the knocks, but also because I’d like to raise a couple of questions which are, if not exactly pressing, slightly more discursive than most publication writing generally allows for now.

The thing that brought these thoughts on is the new Serpentine Pavilion, which, as per tradition, is currently sitting in Hyde Park. It is designed by a young architect working out of South Africa, Sumayya Vally, whose studio is called Counterspace, and she is the youngest architect who has ever been commissioned for the pavilion. The Serpentine has been running since 2000, and its mission has traditionally been to give an architect yet to build in the UK their first British commission, although that is no longer applied particularly strictly. A variety of well known architects have built pavilions there, although generally speaking there is something of a consensus that the project is no longer fresh.

I visited the pavilion on a hot summer’s day a few weeks ago. I did not enjoy it at all.

But actually, before I go into this, it might be time for a quick digression, on being a critic and the concept of ‘punching up/down’. I often hear it said, and I tend to agree, that in jokes, anything is acceptable if it is ‘punching up’, i.e. aiming at someone more powerful than yourself. Being rude about the powerful, well, it may or may not be efficacious, and indeed the recent history of the UK has shown how satire can be not only toothless, but indeed part of a process of trivialising political culture in general, but as a rule of thumb I think it safe to say that it is good not to be a bully. 

Since I started writing about architecture, I suppose I have always seen myself as being an up-puncher, given that I was young, unestablished, without connections, and the people I was writing about were at the top of their game. Indeed, some of the very first things I wrote that got noticed were polemics against some really terrible public architecture by big names: the over-priced second-rate museum by Zaha Hadid Architects in Glasgow, and the Olympic sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, to take two examples. The context for this was also that I (and a few other architecture writers better known than I) began writing at a point when the financial crisis of 2008 had wiped out a boom period of architecture, where a lot of the work had been both poor, and overly celebrated.

But this was more than a decade ago, and while I would hardly say that I am a success now, it really doesn’t make sense for me to pose as an angry young man speaking truth to the powerful, when I am complacently tied up in various ways with the architecture world, from which I require employment, validation, and so forth. In my tired state, every terrible work of architecture no longer seems deserving of a hatchet job, and not every fool talking nonsense about the subject is worth ranting about. I would prefer to say that today I am more interested in looking at systemic problems, and larger questions of history, but perhaps I am just not as hungry any more, too conflicted by experiencing the problems of getting anything of quality done at all in today’s world.

So, if I have big problems with this project, big enough that I want to share them with you, I also need to be aware as I write that the architect is a good few years younger than I am, is just starting out on their career, and indeed their identity is subject to intersecting forms of oppression that I myself do not experience directly. If I decide to write a work of criticism about this project, me, whose name adorns serious books on the shelves of booksellers, shouldn’t these questions, about the power I exert by complaining, and the vulnerability of the new practitioner putting their work out into the world, be at the forefront of our minds, no? 

Well, let’s pretend for a second that I’m capable of discussing the project as a building, on its own, as an autonomous work of architecture. Well on these terms, it’s a complete flop. At its simplest, it is a canopy on a set of columns. The canopy is roughly ovoid, and sits about five or so meters up – quite a monumental space. The columns are irregularly spaced, and are formally complex, seemingly composed out of fragments of other spaces, which fold out into a variety of different possible seats strewn around the space. It’s big, and it’s very busy – there are hints of classical forms, there are hints of quotidian architectural spaces like rooftops or garden walls, and there are all kinds of strange shapes that seem – to me – to have no discernable source. 

The pavilion is not really made up of materials so much as it is made up of colours – black, grey with a pinkish tint, and some minty green in locations. These colours are realised by thin panels of cork, and of a cementitious board that has ribs cast into it. As an architect, one tends to tap and bump buildings to work out what is going on behind the surfaces, and in this case, the panels are all about an inch thick – my first raps on the blocky forms let me hear its thinness, its hollowness, its general skin-deepness. It turns out that the whole thing is built with a concealed steel frame, on a large concrete pad foundation, to which all the forms have been attached. Importantly, to me at least, the panels meet each other without any form of detailing – one material stops, there’s a little gap, and then the next material runs in another direction. This, along with some strange gaps and shapes elsewhere, strongly lead me to believe that the pavilion was conceived primarily as a CAD model, using ‘boolean’ tools (subtract, intersect, etc), and was then translated in conjunction with engineers and fabricators into something that could be built.

To me, in terms of architecture, this is just simply not good enough. There is no sense of order, of proportional relationships, or the basic fundamentals of architectural composition, although this is not in itself a problem, you are not obliged to follow those in the 21st century. There is also no sense of how structure can be a form of communication, can have powerful qualities of its own, in terms of balance, weight, or – fashionably – ‘tectonics’, where the intuitive sense of force and mass gives a power to the work that is non-verbal and non-representational. It’s very difficult to tell whether a design ‘process’ has been followed, and by that I mean that I do not see how the forms could be first evaluated, and then improved, iteratively. The warped truncated form of that column over there – should it be elsewhere? Should it be thicker? Taller? How does the designer judge whether each form is successful, as they go through the process? I do not think it is clear at all. And furthermore, there is no sense either of the joy of materiality, of making things well, according to their intrinsic qualities – the hollow flimsiness of the materials betrays the apparent monumentality of the spaces created, and there is no sense of joy or craft in the construction. 

Ok, this is harsh, but if I may contextualise a little: currently, within the realms of fine-architecture, if we can call it that, there are two quite significant lines of interest, being pursued sometimes by the same architects. One is a kind of pretentious earthiness, an ostentatious rejection of modern layered construction, attempting to use mud, stone, and materials in their rawest forms to create architecture that has something akin to the megalithic about it. It’s a kind of ultra-brutalism, in a funny way, and it is probably best represented by recent work by Anne Holtrop, or the hilariously OTT projects of Ensamble studio, who dig holes in the ground to cast against, creating latter day menhirs. The other pole is an attempt to use the thinness of modern construction almost against itself, through witty subversions of the limitations of multiple skins, as demonstrated by Lütjens Padmanabhan, whose wry postmodernism, revelling in its articulated surfaces, has become highly influential, even as they themselves are yet to build much. 

The Serpentine Pavilion misses both of those poles, and can’t decide whether it’s big or slight, weighty or paper-thin, and in fact doesn’t give the impression that its presence has been much considered at all. On these terms, it’s very poor work, and certainly if I’m being very critical I’d say that it’s the sort of work students often come up with before they’ve had any experience. The capriciousness of the various forms and shapes are in a way uncriticisable – there’s no logic to them, and so at the end of the day they can’t be challenged, other than in the simplest ‘do I like this or not?’ formulation.

But, a very easy objection is that there’s no inherent reason why it has to be evaluated on the terms of architecture-qua-architecture, of mitteleuropean seriousness, of the long chains of the history of the discipline and its discourses. The pavilion has lots of interesting places to sit, it has a cafe, and indeed it looks interesting enough on a smartphone photo, perfect for posing on social media, and in many ways that’s all it has to do. I often worry that there is something inscrutable in caring about architecture, that not only are the things that affect those of us who care about it invisible to the ordinary person’s eyes, but also that they make no meaningful difference to the world. A lot of the architects I know create a strange personal moral mythology for their designs, I think largely to justify the energy that they expend convincing clients and authorities to do things well rather than adequately, and I feel that this masks the fact that most people simply don’t care. And nowadays, if it looks good in a selfie, then why complain?

But there’s something else going on here that needs to be mentioned, and that is that the pavilion has a backstory. In press releases and short films, Vally has discussed how the pavilion is born out of attempting to convey a sense of the spaces that migrant communities experience in London, this exemplary global city, with its constant flux of arrivals and flight. To this end, Vally describes travelling around London, visiting neighbourhoods and studying spaces that various precarious migrant communities made their own, including spaces in Brixton, Dalston, Tower Hamlets, etc, and spaces such as community bookshops, mosques, clubs etc. These spaces were then subjected to, and I quote, “abstracting, superimposing and splicing elements” which then are incorporated into the pavilion. Further to this, the original concept, inevitably watered down, was to have the pavilion distributed around in these communities, various additional fragments that could act at dispersing the institutional nature of the project. This has manifested itself in four small structures built elsewhere, and also in funding that is to be given by the Serpentine to a variety of community groups as part of the project as a whole. 

To be honest, this sounds a lot more interesting, but I think it raises a number of additional issues. First of all is the question of understanding. It is possible to visit the pavilion and not learn anything about Vally’s interest in marginalised communities. In which case, the supposed correspondence with spaces of migration is completely absent. Would someone who worked at the now-lost Centerprise bookshop recognise its influence? Or a regular at the East London Mosque spot a translated fragment? I dare say that they would not. But even in the know, how are we meant to interpret the various ‘figurative’ elements throughout the pavilion? I am willing to argue that there’s nothing to be gained from seeing these forms in the light of the social groups that are supposed to be evoked in this way. I found myself staring at the ceiling, where a green patch extrudes in a shape that looks a little like one half of a pair of shears, and wondered, how on earth can you attach a narrative to this shape? what is it supposed to mean? If it was removed, would the project be better, or worse? There are not really possible ways to answer this.

Vally’s work is engaged in an attempt to broaden the voices that are expressed through architecture, and also broaden our understanding of material, informational and cultural flows, and a video accompanying the pavilion talks of gold deposits, global trade, colonial history and modern migration, encouraging us to see their interconnections, and also to see the pavilion as somehow a manifestation of this wide ranging yet sharply focused investigation. This is very topical, and is part of a tendency of what we might call “research architecture”, which is increasingly influential in the boundary space between architecture and fine art. With this in mind you might argue that the rejection of certain conventions of architectural quality are not omissions but positive decisions in the process, and that those conventions are indeed irrelevant considerations, even tainted by their association with political domination, and I think there’s a point there, but I think the methodology also has a complicated relationship with less on-trend architectural concepts.

Two projects come to mind here. One of them is the Jewish Museum Berlin, by Daniel Libeskind, what would turn out to be his only great project. It’s a one off, a building that is more like a large immersive sculpture, one in which there are multiple wall texts telling you that, for example, a sloping floor is meant to evoke the feeling of homelessness, a tiny window is meant to evoke the feeling of being trapped, the floor plan is an exploded Star of David, and the jagged windows are composed from plans of streets whose Jewish residents were murdered. Here is a project of pure form, where forms have corresponding meanings, and architectural matters recede into problems of memory and memorialisation in space. The point however is that the project relies on the wall texts to impart its meaning, because it does not ‘explain’ itself directly. 

The other project is the Wexner Centre for the Arts by Peter Eisenman, his first big project, a test of the architecture based around his readings of Derridean deconstruction. Famously, along with the grid that runs obliquely through the project, one end of the building features fragmentary reconstructions of a mock-castle armoury that apparently once stood upon the site. Arches are incomplete, a tower is split in two, columns don’t reach the ground, etc etc. The processes of “abstracting, superimposing and splicing” that Vally engages in are extremely similar to those used by Eisenman. His broken forms, which themselves are ‘about’ memory, culture, history, etc, albeit phrased in a very different cultural register, set the tone for a type of architecture that was rightly criticised for its wastefulness, its pretentiousness, and its inability to stand by itself without justification. I think the Serpentine pavilion is unfortunately part of this tradition, setting aside things that architecture is actually good at, in favour of trying to wrestle with questions of greater gravity, but questions that built structures are actually ill-disposed to be able to address. 

Which is a shame because institutionally, Vally’s ideas about community could be very powerful. The Serpentine, still associated with Hans Ulrich Obrist, is a pillar of the art world, with its fair share of complexities and contradictions. For example, two years ago, Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries, resigned after a campaign claimed she had personal connections to an Israeli cybersecurity firm whose products had been used by various governments to target journalists and human rights activists. And think, for a second, about the various times that the pavilion gets closed to the public for donors’ drinks and other such events – what do billionaires think about the communities that the pavilion is supposed to be addressing and bringing into focus? It feels that an approach much more powerful would have been to really abandon the architectural part of the project – why bother with a lackadaisical bit of Serious Architecture when it is the community connections that are important? Why not just pop up a marquee for the duration, and invite the people you wish to give voice to to come down and take part in events and discussions, even meet and challenge the billionaires, while donating the budget to them and their own projects?

It’s not Vally’s fault, she and her studio have their interests and the things that they want to campaign on, and who’s going to turn down a commission like that at such an early point in their career? But I think it marks a difficult, nay, ‘problematic’ aspect of this kind of campaigning architecture, because certain unpleasant parts of the industry are being put in question and others are not. So, for example, I note the presence of Professor Lesley Lokko in the selection team for the pavilion. Lokko, an extremely popular public academic, was until recently the head of the graduate school at the University of Johannesburg, under whom Vally began teaching a masters studio. David Adjaye was also one of the selection committee, and he had previously mentored Vally as part of the Rolex Mentorship Protege Initiative. This is of course fine, there is nothing new in patronage, but I think it is at the very least worth considering which forms of exclusivity we urgently need to eliminate and which ones are still very much ok. 

Anyway, to bring this to a close, I think the most important points are these: Increasingly I see a real hunger for architecture to engage with pressing social matters, especially amongst students, but I also see an innocence about what architecture is actually capable of, and how projects come about in the first place. Architecture always struggles against its own limits as a discipline, and it attracts people who are curious in wide reaching ways, and due to its 20th century history as a vital aspect of various political projects, there is a latent belief in a certain kind of agency that is available to an architect. But this can lead to real frustrations, in running up against a highly commodified production of space, ossified networks of success and histories that have not been challenged nearly enough in terms of occluded or denied injustices. So far, as far as I can see, this often leads to a retreat from the things that architecture is actually uniquely capable of, with a network of schools, exhibitions and biennales existing within architecture, but strangely loathing it, because of its unavoidable connections with power. The Counterspace Serpentine attempts to channel the energies of certain spaces of subjugated or otherwise vulnerable subjectivities, but in crudely abstracting them into a work of architecture, existing within the corporate art world, I think it fails in this mission. It may well be possible to square this conceptual circle, but this project doesn’t make me hopeful.