Every summer, a splashy architectural chimera descends on the wide grassy expanse of Hyde Park’s Kensington Gardens in West London. The Serpentine Pavilion, now in its 13th iteration, showcases the work of a celebrated architect who has not yet had the chance to work in the U.K. This year, the grounds have been given over to Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto and the sprawling steel jungle gym he envisioned for the place.
Fujimoto, who at 41 has experienced successes unmatched by many architects 20 years his senior, likens his pavilion to a cloud nestled among trees. It’s a quaint image, and the all-white steel structure seems like it might just take off into the sky once more.
But behind the miasmic, buoyant form is structural rigidity: A porous steel cube is iteratively repeated in all directions, creating a three-dimensional grid or “space frame” that could withstand the most violent of storms. The steel members are arranged in an irregular, amorphous shape, almost as if the algorithmic sequence (the building was based on Fujimoto’s hand sketches of branching bonsai trees) was cut off before completing its full course. “The fine, fragile grid creates a strong structural system that can expand to become a large cloud-like shape, combining strict order with softness,” Fujimoto says in a statement.
The pavilion straddles a laundry list of well-worn binary categories, raising questions about several perennial architectural concepts. The relationships between the organic and the abstract, exterior and interior, man-made and nature, material and immaterial are all explored by Fujimoto’s curious folly.
Seen from a distance, the pavilion seems more like land art. But visitors can actually walk into the sculpture and perch themselves on raised platforms while enjoying a coffee or a conversation. The cubic volumes are fitted with glass panes that support the weight of guests, letting them ascend the structure’s peak and traverse its craggy topography. It’s an elegant solution that comfortably accommodates human occupants while not tarnishing the heady purity of Fujimoto’s geometric concept. The same goes for the acrylic circles wedged into the grid at the structure’s higher registers, which are meant to shield visitors below from rain.
The space frame system is surprisingly robust and multifunctional, and one gets the idea that, if scaled up, whole rooms could be plugged into its voids. Of course, that was the idea for the Japanese Metabolists, the pie-in-the-sky architects that reared Fujimoto’s generation. The group’s 1960s mega-structural projects imagined entire cities contained within mammoth space frames.
Fujimoto’s project pays homage to these ambitious schemes, though his design is more dainty and lilting than commandeering. The structure is relentlessly self-effacing, completely content to dissolve into the gray London sky. (The installation will literally disappear, or rather close, at the end of the summer.)