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Serpentine butterfly struggles to take flight

Rosemary Milne

The opening of the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami, was engulfed in political drama. Rosemary Milne visits the site to see if the architecture manages to rise above it all

An enclosed cave-like space rising from the ground.
An enclosed cave-like space rising from the ground. Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/Iwan Baan

The narrative surrounding Junya Ishigami’s Serpentine Pavilion has been a dramatic one thus far. First there was the controversy of unpaid interns at Ishigami’s practice, and more recently the resignation of Yana Peel, CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, who stepped down the same morning as the pavilion’s press opening amid claims of dealings with a cyberweapons company. These are, of course, important issues, and should be discussed – but they are not why we are here.

Junya Ishigami’s first structure in the UK, the 2019 pavilion is a curious weave of inversions – heavy and light, earth and sky, outside and inside. Ishigami himself describes it with contradictions characteristic of his poetic approach, at one moment likening it to an enclosed cave-like space rising from the ground, at another calling it a canopy in conversation with the surrounding trees, and at another designating it as a ‘black wing’. The undulating 61 tonne Cumbrian slate roof, held aloft by slender white columns, speaks of the permanence of stone while also gesturing towards the temporary nature of pavilion architecture, which is always about to lift off and take itself elsewhere — here Ishigami implicitly refers to the original pavilion, a kind of tent named for its resemblance to wings, being etymologically connected to the French word for butterfly, papillon.

For an architect who has succeeded in conjuring clouds out of concrete in projects such as his Cloud Garden Nursery (2015) or turning blank space into reddish caves in his House and Restaurant (2013), such architectural reversals are characteristic. Ishigami has made a name for himself internationally as a true architectural poet, using tangible materials in lieu of words, ingenious structural reasoning instead of line breaks, and spatial inversions rather than rhyme. Yet he really sits in the productive niche between the poetic word and the pragmatic world, being most revered for his ability to turn reverie into reality. Unfortunately, his dream for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, which was to make stone soar, to cause rock to ‘levitate like a billowing curtain’, does not quite materialise the way one might have desired. Alas, our little papillon fails to take off.

  • A captive wing?
    A captive wing? Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/John Offenbach
  • Like the scales of a butterfly…
    Like the scales of a butterfly… Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/Iwan Baan
  • or a jumble of slate in its natural habitat.
    or a jumble of slate in its natural habitat. Credit: John-Paul Nunes, RIBA

The problem with the pavilion is that it is a beautiful reverie rudely interrupted by the bastions of bureaucracy. It is meant to read simultaneously as an exaggeration of the ground and an extension of the canopy of trees surrounding it, creating a space where one can freely flutter between inside and outside, between a canopy of green and a canopy of stone providing a contemplative refuge. Yet this idea, which is in accordance with Ishigami’s philosophy of ‘free space,’ is subverted by a regiment of pedantic polycarbonate barriers, apparently as a precaution against wind and concerns over head-room at the lower ends of the pavilion’s roof. Despite their transparency, they bring an unwanted opacity into the scheme, destroying the freedom to move in and out of the space as one chooses.

Oliver Wainwright, in a slightly slating article in the Guardian on 18 June, notes that Ishigami ‘does not hide his disappointment’ at the introduction of the transparent barriers into the scheme, recommended by the technical advisors and mandated by health and safety. And yet it is not enough for architects to be ‘disappointed’, nor to simply blame the engineers, the bureaucracy, or the laws of health and safety for a poorly articulated architecture. Part of the role of the architect is to take imposed restrictions and transform them into creative opportunities – and is certainly something Ishigami is capable of, given his response to spatial requirements in other projects that have enabled him to invent spaces where long tables appear to float, for instance. Thus, and especially given his interest in traditional Japanese architecture, the need for barriers could have been an intriguing opportunity to explore the idea of screen in a way that contributed to the manifesting of the wider ideas and inversions he is working with. Rather than an array of pedantic plastic sheets, imagine an elegant architectural investigation and reinterpretation of the very notion of screen, moveable barriers as means of dividing spaces in varying degrees of translucency… A little more invention could have restored an element of freedom to a now-captive space – instead we have a little black wing that, like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, shall be lifted, nevermore… 

This is not to say the pavilion is a complete disaster, nor that Ishigami’s architectural future in the UK is doomed. There are many successful architectural moments throughout. One particularly thoughtful one is the carefully orchestrated relationship between the pavilion and the Serpentine Gallery. I had initially wondered about the choice of Cumbrian slate, which travelled 321 miles to get here, for an architect who purports a desire to amplify the surrounding landscape. But on approach, the material choice is demystified as one sees two slate roofs in conversation, the pavilion using gesticulations of undulation and wave, and the gallery using a dialect of rigid historical syntax; one, a representative of experimentation; the other, an emblem of institution.

  • Spreading in front of the Serpentine Gallery.
    Spreading in front of the Serpentine Gallery. Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/Iwan Baan
  • The wing basking in the sun.
    The wing basking in the sun. Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/Norbert Tukaj
  • After a soaking.
    After a soaking. Credit: Junya Ishigami + Associates/Taran Wilkhu

Another poetic moment is when one can see only the feet of those on the other side of the roof, whether looking from inside or from outside. This is testament to the human scale of the pavilion, and emphasises the architecture as a playful exercise in meeting the ground. Yet, these poetic moments are held hostage by the fact that the pavilion does not ‘hold its own ground’, failing to stay true to its own architectural ambitions – instead succumbing to out-of-the-box solutions for what should have been opportunities for further creativity and investigation. Profundity, sadly, here gives way to a pedantic mundanity in an architecture for which the most palpable thing is its desire to be more than it is: ground desiring to be roof, earth desiring to be sky – and a captive wing desiring to fly.

Serpentine Pavilion 2019 Designed by Junya Ishigami, Serpentine Gallery, London (until 6 October 2019)

Rosemary Milne won the RIBA Dissertation Medal with her work Species of Nooks and Other Niches. She is studying for her Part 2 at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture