March 2016

Serpentine Pavilion: Sound & Smell... And Plankton

I am meeting a friend at the new Serpentine Pavilion; Summer 2012, London.It is a floating disc of water with a dark sunken space beneath.

As I step down into the space of the carved steps, two things strike me at once; Sound and Smell.

Sound is deadened; everything is made of cork – molded steps, molded seats – all absorbent. It is hard to say if this makes it easier to hear the noises about me or less easy – because the cork sucks in the sound around. The Smell too is definitive; cork has a distinctive smell. If I was blind I would be able to sense this place, inspite of the darkness.

What strikes me next is that I cannot get my bearings – this cavern is disorientating. People moving, children jumping. Where is my friend ? I scan the space horizontally; the glare of daylight blinds me. The metal ceiling is softly reflective, pulling in an eerie light. And the darkness beneath the daylight is tinted by strings of electric bulbs.

More than the edge-glare however, beneath the disc, I think it is the space which disorientates. It is intricate, complex and incomprehensible; I like that – I can feel lost and so can the children running around.

I am told that the 11 columns supporting the water-roof mean something, but I do not want to know what. I have always wondered, do Herzog & de Meuron believe in Narrative ? Do they like to make architectural jokes I wonder ? Why are the seats shaped like champagne corks?

As I get up to leave, I think Le Corbusier would have appreciated this structure; the master of the horizontal; the maestro of ‘droiture’ would smile.

Corbusier preached about the horizon; above it, below it; the all important datum. Water finds it own level … and in this water – the pool of water on the roof – we find an innumerable population of plankton; enjoying their day in the life of an architectural gem.