This is the 18th Serpentine Pavilion, the temporary installation appearing each summer in London’s Kensington Gardens. It is the work of Frida Escobedo, a complex and fascinating architect with a small studio in Mexico concerned with reactivating urban spaces. In Hyde Park, her practice imagines a courtyard of light, water and geometry. It takes the form of an enclosed courtyard, with two rectangular volumes positioned at an angle. The courtyard and lattice walls are inspired by a celosia, the traditional breeze wall found in Mexican domestic architecture. Yet here they are made with a very English material, cement roof tiles, and arranged to blur our vision so we see the park as fragments of blues and greens. Like Mexico this structure is at once tough, fluid, flexible. It is anchored in space but also spaceless. Through a blend of simple materials made complex and surprising, and the pivoted axis that traces the 1851 Greenwich meridian, we find ourselves reflecting on the past and present.
At 38, Escobedo is the youngest candidate and only the second female architect to complete this project alone – the other being Zaha Hadid who designed the inaugural pavilion. What started as a initiative for allowing some of the grand masters of architecture to build in London has since evolved to be a space for experimentation, for exploration and for opening a wider discourse as to the role of the arts in shaping our world. Under the leadership of the Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist and the chief executive Yana Peel, the pavilion project has become more daring, more radical and therefore much more exciting.
Walking through this simple structure on the preview day, I was reminded of BIG’s pavilion of 2016 – the most visited and certainly the most Instagramable of all these park projects. It was visually dramatic, but had no connection to its surroundings and said so little. The materials were cold, harsh and sharp and felt disconnected to its green natural environment. In contrast, Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s quiet pavilion the following year, a giant treehouse of sorts, was inviting. It was a sanctuary that naturally provoked intimate discourses – and no it wasn’t much of a hit on social media. It was Peel’s first pavilion choice as the then new chief executive, and it certainly made a stance as to where she feels the Serpentine Galleries should be heading.
Like Francis Kéré’s, Escobedo’s structure isn’t showy. Instead it initiates a much more complex set of questions about time, space, identity and multiple geographies. Hadid famously said ‘there should be no end to experimentation’ and the Serpentine sees its mission to champion arts and ideas to a wider public, to ‘share our beliefs in internationalism and radical inclusion,’ says Peel. The pavilion project is architecture for everyone, and Escobedo’s delicately-harsh courtyard is here for the summer months to be explored and enjoyed by all offering, in the words of Peel, a space for healthy self-reflection from above and below.