Serpentine Pavilion 2021

Lond, United Kingdom

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The 20th Serpentine Pavilion is designed by Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace, directed by Sumayya Vally. A TIME100 Next List honouree, Vally is the youngest architect to be commissioned for this internationally renowned architecture programme.

Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the Pavilion’s design is based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities

As technical advisor, our role is to bridge the gap between client and architect, developing the design whilst maintaining the balance between a prescriptive technical brief and evolving architectural intent.

Historically the Pavilion has been a vehicle for showcasing innovative materials and this year was no different. The team replaced the original aluminum and concrete-clad concept with a range of reused and repurposed materials, adding to the Pavilion’s environmental credentials.


Design development and the structure

Early research and experimentation included the use of unfired bricks made from reclaimed construction waste and biologically-derived materials such as mycelium. Given the project’s challenging programme, using these materials on such a large and geometrically complex scheme proved a step too far this year, but it is clear they have great potential for wider use in the construction industry.

The Pavilion’s primary structure is made entirely from steelwork salvaged from other projects. Already in storage at contractor Stage One’s yard where all elements of the Pavilion are prefabricated off site, this minimised the embodied carbon of the structure both in material production and transportation. Carbon-negative cork produced as a by-product from the wine industry and micro-cement derived from lime and waste from marble production are used in the structure’s cladding.

Steelwork is only used where dictated by structural requirements, with sustainably sourced timber used in all other areas. The sculptural forms are constructed using a lightweight plywood to ensure the Pavilion is simple to transport, construct, deconstruct and relocate in the future. Like previous Pavilions that have successfully relocated in the UK and overseas, the future repurposing of the 2021 Pavilion is a great legacy for the Gallery and ensures the structure is reused despite the temporary nature of the initial installation.


Delivering on a budget and tight constraints

The fixed budget and extremely short programme of the project, with design, planning approval, manufacture and construction achieved in less than 20 weeks, has always driven spontaneity, innovation and creativity. Balancing the ability of the architect to freely express their vision with practical cost, buildability, time and functional constraints, as well as the restrictions of working within the Royal Parks, is a key challenge that the team embraces each year.

Located in Kensington Gardens, the project is not permitted to install any permanent foundations or intrusion in the ground in the form of piles or anchors and the lawn must be returned to its virgin state after the Pavilion has been removed. However, permanent electrical and water infrastructure has been installed along with below-ground rainwater attenuation and connection to adjacent soakaways. These features are reused each year.


Riding high above the gallery

At more than six metres high, the structure is one of the tallest Pavilions in recent years and with a footprint of approximately 350m2, it is also one of the largest. This year’s tall and slender superstructure required a shallow concrete base to support the loads and to allow a seamless integration between the landscape and safely accessible gathering spaces, both critical to the project vision for the circa 300,000 visitors that the Pavilion typically attracts. Cut and fill volumes have been balanced, the use of concrete and reinforcement has been minimised as far as practical, and the use of industry byproducts such as cement replacements help to reduce the environmental impact of the development. The base materials will be recycled locally to the site after the removal of the Pavilion and the lawn replaced as required by the Royal Parks.”

The embodied carbon from the Pavilion build has been studied in detail and monitored throughout the design and construction process.  Through innovative material selection, and measures to ensure the main structure can be easily dismantled and reused, the result is a carbon-negative Pavilion at the point of construction and a positive net outcome.”