TIME WELL SPENT: A Review of Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion
Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion catches your eye before you realize what you are looking at. Glimpsed through the trees of Hyde Park the structure, open since Monday, emits a strange darkness. While early renders of the pavilion indicated a light and airy space penetrated with London’s elusive sunlight, the reality is a much heavier affair and it’s all the more impressive for it.
These murky tones are created by “concrete tiles woven like a tapestry” as Escobedo puts it. The locally sourced tiles are arranged in an interlinking pattern, held up by a steel structure to form the walls of the pavilion. Gaps between the tiles — just wide enough to peer through at close range — allow the subtle penetration of light. Pavilions past have often emphasized porosity and a visual connection with the surrounding park, and this, the 18th commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries, is no exception.
The use of the roof tiles as perimeter material, however, feels different. More down to earth than Sou Fujimoto’s steel cloud, subtler than Bjarke Ingels’s stacked pixels, Escobedo’s pavilion forms an enclosure, a cool embrace in separation from the rest of the park. The exterior walls are arranged in a simple rectangle interrupted by an extrusion that forms an entrance. Inside, the space splits into four sections: one small area for a cafe; a central courtyard; a triangular pool beneath open sky; and an alcove, also exposed to the elements. The roof, over the cafe and courtyard, has a curved underside and is clad with a mirrored stainless steel, a perfect feature visitor for ’gram-happy visitors (you’ve no doubt already seen it).
This roof and the triangular pool are intended to encourage reflection and “an awareness of time spent in shared experience.” The pool is a beautifully executed feature. While on opening day it provided a serene setting for photo shoots with the Mexican architect, it will surely come into its own when invaded by splashing kids, or London’s reliable summer rain, when the reflection of the latticed walls will be distorted into a deep grey blur. The reflective roof, however, feels less well-integrated. The stainless steel jars with the muted material palette and seems like a slightly corny addition to an otherwise ice-cool space. What’s more, when the pavilion plays host to a range of events in the coming months, such as performances by Kamasi Washington and Yaeji, it will likely become distracting, even over-bearing.
Nonetheless, the courtyard, a reference to Mexican domestic typologies, is an effective centerpiece to the ensemble. From here, the park outside can be glimpsed in flashes but the focus is more on what happens inside. The line of the roof, which matches the long edge of the triangular pool creates a void open to the sky that brings in light while complementing the more contemplative and poetic elements of the space. This line also supposedly refers to the Prime Meridian line, although this feels like a slightly contrived addition, especially considering Hyde Park’s distance from Greenwich, where the international standard for the meridian was established in 1884.
To ponder this tenuous connection for a second, though, is to ponder on time, which may yet prove to be the pavilion’s greatest asset. While pavilions past have relied on a particular punchline — a structural quirk or material innovation — Escobedo’s seems to contain something more elusive that will grow as it nests in the space. As the summer progresses the light in the space will shift, the water will cloud, drain and return, and the dark edges will remain aloof. What’s more, the poured concrete floor gives the structure a solidity outweighing its four months on the site (after which it goes to a private purchaser). There’s something intriguing about this dark mass in the center of the park; I’m already planning my next visit.