Since 2000, the Serpentine Gallery in London has commissioned some of the world’s most celebrated architects and artists to design a pavilion on the gallery’s grounds. The pavilion is a temporary adjunct to the gallery that provides a distinctive showcase for contemporary art and architecture. Renowned designers such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Cecil Balmond, Oscar Niemeyer, and Daniel Libeskind are some of the select few that have had the honor of designing a pavilion. This year the pavilion will coincide with a special occasion—the London Olympics, and the gallery selected revolutionary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the 2012 pavilion—the very team that designed the “Bird’s Nest,” the spectacular Beijing National Stadium in 2008.
Director of the Serpentine Gallery Julia Peyton-Jones says this is “tremendously exciting,” as the reunion of Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron will provide an “extraordinary link of the two games, a Beijing-London axis.” Peyton-Jones added: “These are old and dear friends, so for them, they are picking up where they left off. It is a continuation of a conversation that began in Beijing to great effect and they have conceived something really remarkable for our lawn.”
The importance of Weiwei’s involvement goes well beyond the Olympic correlation. In fact, the collaboration is a welcome turn of events in what has been an otherwise traumatic year for Weiwei. Known for his outspoken personality and brazen art that sought to expose the corruption of Chinese government, Weiwei has become an highly controversial figure in his homeland. Last April, he was arrested and held without charge in an undisclosed location for nearly 3 months. During this time, he was interrogated more than 50 times for what authorities later claimed were his supposed breaches of tax laws. Despite these claims, his arrest was largely seen as punishment for his political activism and fight for democracy. After he was released, Weiwei was strictly forbidden from commenting on the nature of his arrest, and has declined all interviews. This past November he admitted: “Everyday I think: ‘This will be the day I will be taken in again.’” Weiwei has been banned from using social media for one year and barred from leaving the country.
In order to adhere to his restricted travel rights, Weiwei has had to plan the pavilion project with Herzog & de Meuron via Skype. At this point it is unknown whether or not Weiwei will be allowed to leave China for the opening of the pavilion in June.
Despite all odds, the plans for the pavilion are well under way. The trio recently released a statement that they would honor all past eleven pavilions in their design, but their’s will be its own entity. The statement says: “so many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape.” The structure will be a bowl-shaped auditorium carved into the earth. There will be 12 columns (11 of which will represent the past pavilions and the last representing the present) that will support a flat, circular steel roof. The roof will hover barely 5 feet over the ground, making this the Serpentine’s lowest pavilion ever (the team plans to dig several feet down to allow access into the subterranean structure). Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron have described the roof as “floating” at a level that allows visitors to “see the water on it, its surface reflecting the infinitely varied, atmospheric skies of London.”
Not merely an aesthetic masterpiece, the pavilion promises to maintain a solid sense of accessibility, open to public use as well as speaking engagements and other events. According to the statement, the roof itself could even be used for special occasions “as a dance floor or simply as a platform suspended above the park.” Simply put, the pavilion will become “the perfect place to sit, stand, lie down or just look and be amazed.”
Peyton-Jones says: “This is a project about art and architecture. It came about because it is an Olympic year and it is the same team which worked on the Beijing stadium.” The pavilion has created a sense of architectural and artistic continuity between the Beijing and London games, but it is Weiwei’s involvement that marks the real triumph. The pavilion itself will ultimately be an extension of his voice, and a testament to his resounding courage in the face of the most extreme adversity.
The pavilion is set to open in June as part of the London 2012 festival, a nationwide cultural event that marks the culmination of the London games. The installation will run until October 2012.