This year’s sleek Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, designed by Frida Escobedo, aligns with the Greenwich Meridian. Floating on the lake nearby, Christo’s The London Mastaba makes a splash
Words by Marta Bausells
Photography by Paul Raftery
An elegant, black, rectangular structure has quietly settled on the lawn of London’s Serpentine Galleries. It is so sleek that one might be mistaken to think, at first glance, that it has always been there. Venturing inside will reveal an enclosed courtyard that offers a soothing space for contemplation and community. The courtyard is framed by celosías, traditional breeze walls commonly used in Mexican domestic architecture to bring air and light into homes. Here, they are sophisticated lattices made of British-manufactured dark concrete roof tiles, through which openings the hues of green and blue from the park and the sky infuse the whole space.
Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion is full of contradictions and dualities, which the Mexico City-born architect exploits and explores. While the structure’s outer walls align with the gallery’s facade, its internal axis is rotated to align with the Greenwich Meridian, established in 1851 at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, some nine miles away, to divide the globe into east and west. At the pavilion, that line clearly divides the space in two: on one side is a canopied area, the soffit of which is a mirror made of stainless-steel panels; on the other side, a shallow pool of water reflects the sky. The inside and outside thus coexist in harmony, with the reflective elements ‘emphasising the movement of light and shadow within the pavilion over the course of the day’, says Escobedo, at the pavilion’s sunny June opening.
The pavilion’s walls are made up of latticed concrete roof tiles, referencing traditional breeze walls commonly used in Mexican domestic architecture
The pavilion has both local and global ambitions, and, as is usual in Escobedo’s practice, uses simple materials to create complex structures — in this case, the tiles were a common kind made in Britain, but fired specially with bespoke holes and then stacked on steel rods and spacers, resulting in the porous walls. The challenge of designing the pavilion was precisely its ‘total contradiction’, Escobedo tells Blueprint: it is designed for an extremely specific place for a brief period, and it later gets sold to a private collector who could be anywhere, where it will stay permanently. The meridian was ‘the perfect anchor so that even if it won’t be in London, it will have a permanent reference to this first version, like a compass of sorts.’
The 18th architect commissioned to design the Serpentine Pavilion, Escobedo is also its youngest. The prestigious summer commission, in which internationally renowned architects are invited to design a temporary structure, started in 2000 with a reinvention of the idea of the marquee by the now late Zaha Hadid, and has since featured works by — among others — Frank Gehry, Peter Zumthor, Sou Fujimoto and most recently Kéré Architecture. They all had the same freedoms and restrictions: the structure has to be roughly 300 sq m and suitable to function as a cafe and meeting place by day and an events space by night; the budget, meanwhile, comes from sponsorship and the sale of the pavilion itself. There are, of course, time constraints too. In this case, the concrete tiles drove much of the design process — the manufacturing procedures required that their designs were agreed in the first two weeks of the 24-week time frame.
The design of the perimeter walls is deliberately porous, letting light, air and glimpses of views through
On the perimeter of the 257 sq m pavilion is a series of freestanding walls, totally detached from the roof. These sit on a platform of poured concrete, cast using a bespoke mix that matches the colour of the tiled walls; the surface is power floated to provide the smooth finish. Rainwater is guided inside and collected in sustainable, below-ground storage reused from last year’s pavilion. The mirror pool though fills and drains through different hidden channels that have been cast into the floor. Asked about its adaptation to London weather, especially given that the area above the pool is uncovered, Escobedo says that if it rains, the floor will be ‘like the rest of the park’s pavements’.
The pool is only 5mm deep, and will also double as a module to regulate how the space is used, she adds. While for smaller events it will stay there, preserving the contemplative atmosphere, for more crowded events it will be swiftly emptied, so that ‘it works almost like the water on the seashore, receding and growing. The intention was always for the space to change depending on its use, and to always be active. That it can expand and contract, even in a space contained by four walls’.
While the structure’s outer walls align with the Serpentine Gallery’s facade, its internal axis is rotated to match up with the Greenwich Meridian
This aptly matches the social ethos of the pavilion’s events programme. As well as the live music, film and performance evening series known as Park Nights, the successful weekly lunchtime talks dubbed Radical Kitchen spearheaded last year will be coming back. In them, community groups, artists and activists meet to discuss sustainable change — this year focused on the themes of food, empire, geological time, exchange and decolonisation, inspired by Escobedo’s work.
Escobedo was born in Mexico City in 1979, and growing up in the ever-changing, unstable, fluid metropolis gave her the notion that ‘architecture is not static, it evolves and needs to adapt.’ She studied architecture at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and, at the age of 24, founded the studio Perro Rojo with Alejandro Alarcón. She went on to found her own practice in 2006. After seven years of work, Harvard University happened to inaugurate a new master’s degree in art, design and public domain, which gathered all the ideas she ‘couldn’t find a solution to in my head’, so she enrolled. She now says the degree completely changed her way of understanding architecture: ‘It expanded it. Architecture isn’t just built space, it’s also all the practices that revolve around it.’
The underside of the curved canopy roof, made of stainless-steel panels, functions as a mirror, reflecting the pavilion and the activity within
The idea of making truly public spaces is a visible thread through Escobedo’s work and that of her practice in Mexico City, from housing projects to conceptual works such as Civic Stage, designed for the Lisbon Triennial in 2013. Consisting of a round wooden surface pivoted on a metal structure, people could walk on top of the stage, and their presence and the size of the crowd would alter the height of the platform.
The artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist, first came across Escobedo’s work through this very structure, late one night in Lisbon on a research trip to the triennial with Serpentine colleagues. ‘All of a sudden we saw an empty disk in the middle of the city,’ he remembers. ‘It was almost like the moon. And then we came back the next morning and realised that, actually, during the day it became a platform, a civic stage for public activity and programmes, for DIY initiatives by people from Lisbon.’ That led him to invite Escobedo to the Sepentine’s 2012 ‘marathon’, a series of public interviews. Her most prominent project pre-Serpentine Pavilion has been La Tallera, in Cuernavaca (2010): the refurbishment and expansion of the home and studio of the late Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros into a public museum.
The wavy, dark concrete tiles are a common kind made in Britain, but fired specially with bespoke holes and stacked on steel rods and spacers
Escobedo’s work has consistently explored the idea of making the public aware of time — as a social operation, not as urgent currency, an idea inspired by Henri Bergson’s ‘social time’. She does it here by transforming the pavilion into a version of a public square, where the public is invited to spend time of a different kind. She mentions how the idea of time as we understand it now is relatively new, as the meridian’s recent establishment proves. ‘Before we lived with our phones glued to us, making us aware of time as minutes and seconds, there was this other kind of time — more biological and regulated by the climate, even,’ she reflects. ‘But there are also other ways to understand time, which have to do with how we exchange things and relate to one another, and how these experiences accumulate to form other registers of time — such as memory. Really short experiences can expand in our memory, and vice versa: the wait before seeing the doctor feels immensely long but is forgotten immediately, while holidays feel short but can be ever-present in our memory…
The 5mm-deep ‘mirror pool’ will come and go depending on use, ‘almost like the water on the seashore, receding and growing’, says Escobedo
These other mechanisms by which we register time don’t really manifest in architecture, and I’m really interested in that.’ As time passes and its hues change, Escobedo’s pavilion gently provides a feeling of safety and escape, while keeping Kensington Gardens at arm’s length. ‘I see architecture as a language that helps me understand the world and see how people move in it, but it’s also a way to express who I am and how I see it. It sounds a bit selfish, but at the end of the day I think all jobs are that,’ she says. Escobedo compares private commissions to writing a letter, having an intimate conversation. For public projects, though, ‘you don’t really know who is going to use it or how. It’s like writing music and waiting for someone to like it, to feel in sync with the melody you’re playing. And when that happens, to me that’s magic’.
Christo: The London Mastaba (2018)
Alongside the swans and ducks, there is something altogether more alien floating on Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake this summer. A polychrome trapezoid made of 7,506 stacked painted oil barrels, the temporary floating sculpture, The London Mastaba, is mysterious and alluring, beautiful in an almost uncanny or other-worldly way. It is the first major outdoor public work in London by the artist Christo, who with his late wife Jeanne-Claude became world-renowned for their big-scale works in urban and rural sites around the world over the past half century, many of which involved fabric and the large-scale wrapping of buildings (or even a whole coast).
This is the second major project that Christo has executed without Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009; the first was The Floating Piers, at Italy’s Lake Iseo, which in 2016 allowed people to walk on water — or rather, on the 100,000 sq m of bright yellow fabric which formed a carpet on top of a hidden floating dock system. The Mastaba was one of the pair’s many unrealised ideas so far — they’d made plans for a similar floating Mastaba for Lake Michigan in 1968 and a much bigger one for the desert in Abu Dhabi — but its adaptation to the relatively small Serpentine Lake, where its footprint takes up less than 1% of the lake’s surface, doesn’t make it look any less monumental.
Swanning around: The Mastaba appears like an alien presence on the lake — if only we could ask the resident birds what they think
A ‘mastaba’, a term the ancient Egyptians applied to certain flat-roofed tombs, originated in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago, to signify a bench that was built into the walls at the front of houses; ‘really a structure to spend time in’, remarked Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director, at the sculpture’s launch in June, adding that it was ‘a dream to realise one of Christo’s unrealised projects’.
The London Mastaba is 20m high by 40m long and 30m wide, and weighs 600 tonnes. Construction took two months, and started with the building of a floating platform made of interlocking polyethylene cubes held in place with 32 anchors. On top of it, a steel frame and scaffolding supports the barrels.
The thousands of horizontally stacked barrels were specifically manufactured for the occasion and are painted in hues of red, mauve, blue and white, projecting reflections on the water in different colours depending on the weather and time of day. From afar, the main faces of the work can look like a red beehive, with flecks of cold colours impressionistically blended in. The sides of the barrels, visible from the sides and the top of the structure, are all painted white and a different shade of red. All the materials have low environmental impact, and they’ve either been rented and will be returned, or will be industrially recycled on removal.
The barrels are painted in hues of red, mauve, blue and white, casting an array of colourful reflections on the water depending on the weather and time of day
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is known for emerging out of an intention to make art entirely for pleasure’s sake — everyone’s pleasure. The London Mastaba’s magic pyramid of sorts is visible from most of the lake’s shore and across Hyde Park, and those wanting a closer look can rent boats and approach it. The pair began their collaboration in 1961, shortly after meeting and falling in love. They were born on the same day in 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria and Casablanca, Morocco, and never travelled on the same plane together so that one could continue the art if the other one’s plane crashed.
Some of their previous works have wrapped powerfully significant buildings, such as the Reichstag, and many others have revealed new ways to experience and expand natural spaces, such as the Floating Piers project, the 7,503 orange ‘gate’ structures of The Gates (2005) in New York’s Central Park and Surrounded Islands (1983) in Miami, in which 11 islands in Biscayne Bay were strikingly surrounded with floating pink polypropylene fabric covering the surface of the water.
Like them, The London Mastaba unveils a new way of seeing the familiar or the iconic, creating somewhat of a cognitive dissonance — usually prompting an awe reaction. Their works, they declare on an artists’ statement, are entire environments: ‘The artists temporarily use one part of the environment. In doing so, we see and perceive the whole environment with new eyes and a new consciousness. The effect lasts longer than the actual work of art.’
The barrels are painted in hues of red, mauve, blue and white, casting an array of colourful reflections on the water depending on the weather and time of day
At its launch, Christo welcomed all reactions to The London Mastaba, whether negative or positive: ‘I hope you enjoy it. Walk around. See. There’s nothing more I can say. Any interpretation is legitimate — all of them make you think. This is why we are human: to think.’
Christo continues to fund his projects entirely independently, through selling his own art. The couple’s works involved copious amounts of planning, generating a lot of archival materials and plans for unrealised (or ‘in progress’ until public planners say otherwise) projects. Christo began using barrels in his work in 1958, and his and Jeanne-Claude’s artistic evolution is documented in an adjacent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018, in which sculptures, drawings, collages, photographs and models show, among other gems, the proposals for their ambitious The Mastaba (Project for United Arab Emirates), first conceived in 1977, which if realised would be the world’s largest sculpture.
The London Mastaba is on view until 23 September. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and the Mastaba 1958-2018 is on show at the Serpentine Galleries, London until 9 September
This article is published in Issue 359 of Blueprint. To purchase a single issue or subscribe, please visit Buy That Mag.