How they laid a cosmic egg
Morgan Falconer
The latest Serpentine pavilion is all hot air — quite literally
A giant will o’ the wisp is going to light up in Kensington Gardens this
week. Above the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion will float a huge,
translucent inflatable ovoid canopy nearly 80ft (24m) high. The maverick
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has teamed up with Cecil Balmond, the
innovative structural designer, and his team from Arup to construct the
pavilion and its shimmering canopy — a “cosmic egg”, as Balmond
described it when we met to talk over the drawings.

You’ll be able to sip coffee there, watch videos of events and there
will be two 24-hour debating marathons, one this month about the arts in
London, the second, in October, about international culture. The first
starts at 6pm on July 28, when you’ll be able to hear Koolhaas and Hans
Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine’s curator, interview a range of figures
from politicians to philosophers, artists to economists, until 6pm the
following day.

It will be quite a beacon in the wild, and one can only hope that,
unlike the traditional will o’ the wisps, this one doesn’t befuddle
passing travellers and lead to a pile-up on Exhibition Road.

Although this will be the first time the Dutchman has constructed
something in London, Balmond and Koolhaas have formed a tight
partnership since the mid-1980s. “At that time I was breaking away from
traditional design methods,” Balmond says, “and trying to develop a new
description of space. Rem was interested in breaking with traditional
architectural models, so we found fertile ground.”

They’ve worked on the startling glass prism that is the Seattle Central
Library, the massive bulk of the new concert hall in Porto; and, closer
to home, Balmond is well-respected for his work with Anish Kapoor on
Marsyas, his extraordinary trumpet-uterus-ear thing for Tate Modern in
2002, and he’s currently working on the redevelopment of Battersea Power
Station. It’s a “horse-jockey relationship,” he says. “Sometimes I lead,
sometimes Rem does.”

This time Koolhaas is very much on Balmond’s turf as Arup’s man has
worked closely on four of the previous five pavilions, each time pushing
them towards something new. “Each year we think, ‘What next?’ And Rem’s
first thought this year was: ‘Why don’t we build a non-pavilion?’ So the
first time we met on the site in February we thought of trying to sling
some kind of something over the area, a temporary cover — almost a nothing.”

One can imagine the Serpentine’s enthusiasm for this, as originally the
gallery had envisaged that this year Koolhaas’s Dutch rivals MVRDV would
construct a 200-tonne, 75ft grass-coated hill over the gallery. It was
meant to happen in 2004 but was postponed, and it has subsequently been
abandoned because of “outstanding technical and financial difficulties”
(ie, it was insane).

Simpler though their project may sound, Koolhaas and Balmond have
devised something with similarly grand structural ambition: helium will
inflate the semi-transparent membrane of their roof structure — the
“egg”. The canopy will come down to rest on a series of similarly
translucent polycarbonate wall panels which form a double layer of
walls. As it has not only to keep off the sun in the summer but to
resist the wind and the rain in the autumn, cables and winches will
secure it to the ground.

Inside, meanwhile, a generously high ceiling space will be provided by a
large cubic void at the centre of the canopy, which will itself be
decorated with a repeating pattern of ivy designed by the German artist
Thomas Demand, who is showing similar patterns in his solo exhibition in
the gallery. (The fact that a walkway will lead directly from the
gallery into the pavilion is also a novelty of this year’s project.)

Balmond says it all evolved from simple forms. “In a way this has
classic geometry. It started with a square within a circle, and
originally it was level, with a glass skirt around it to protect you
from the wind. But gradually it became three-dimensional, the square
became the cube inside and the circle became the egg.”

And, in some sense, it encapsulates the way their partnership works. “My
own work is more non-linear, curvilinear, but Rem is very prismatic in
what he likes. Seattle, for instance, is just a cube, with every level
pushed laterally on its side. Similarly, the concert hall in Porto has
another prismatic form being shaped.”

Previous architects have responded in myriad ways to the simple brief of
this project. Toyo Ito, from Japan, brought mathematical theory to bear
on it, and constructed a rectangular box that seemed as if cut with a
knife and reconstructed, geometric planes and openings going this way
and that. But Zaha Hadid’s design in 2000 was the closest to the
principle of a tent, employing a canopy of angular flat planes.

Balmond denies that their design is a return to the idea of the pavilion
as a grand tent, though he admits that there are parallels in its use of
fabric. Also, their design is perhaps the most redeployable of all the
pavilions to date. That’s great, I said, and asked whether our readers
could perhaps hire it for weddings and family camping holidays. I must
say he didn’t seem all that opposed to the idea — he just politely
pointed out that, a little like Rome, his cosmic egg wasn’t built in a day.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006: Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond with
Arup, July 13-Oct 15, Serpentine, London W2. Opens tomorrow
(http://www.serpentinegallery.org; 020-7402 6075)

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,585-2255109.html