One Hour Over Coffee

Having recently written an article for the popular web-platform Archinect, I’ve been reconnected to an area of interest in architecture that I've left largely untouched for the last few years: that of architectural criticism. This interest for me was then, as it is now, largely concerned with the how such works should be derived – favouring, personally, a method that communicates buildings more as something we experience in daily life and less of something that is objectively rendered on the page. At this time, I wanted to represent architecture as it was typically engaged with, using a form of narrative writing that placed the writer themselves into the mix: at once communicating an analogous experience of architecture to the reader, while giving a sort of critical context to its construction. This was something that I attempted to reignite with my recent feature article, yet in this case such a quality was rather limited and imagined. However, going back over my previous work, I felt that the following article, completed in 2015 reviewing the Serpentine Pavilion in London of the same year, captured much more of this style and intent, and still strikes me today as a valuable example of alternative forms of architectural criticism and representation in general. 


One Hour Over Coffee: Smiljan Radic's 2015 Serpentine Pavilion

“Tapping, knocking, brushing, kicking, pressing, pinching, scratching...”

Sat under the hazy orange light of this year’s (un)earthly pavilion, one is subjected to a irregular ensemble of light percussion produced by its many curious visitors. Difficult to pick out at times against a separate concerto created by the café’s boisterous baristas, such sounds are of mostly delicate and innocent inspection. Whether it’s the brushing of its “crude” finish, the tapping of its hard shell, or even the pinching of a “fragile” edge, the work demands an insatiable desire for haptic interaction from nearly all who are drawn through it. Such observations would no doubt be well received by the buildings architect, Samiljan Radic, whose aim was to transpose those sensations he felt in the model making process into a completed work: in a sense, to create a life-size model or even one of scale, created by a benevolent “giant” (an analogy he returns to frequently in describing this latest work).

Shuffling my chair into its hard curve I begin to inspect this layered and glowing skin for myself. The shell, a slovenly made patchwork of glass-reinforced plastic, creates a spectrum of orange light that delicately illuminates this strange yet earthy environment. Such an atmosphere reminds me momentarily of a large thick tree canopy I’d sat under the previous summer. The use of “memory” is a substantial theme in Radic’s architecture, with stone repeatedly used to communicate what he describes as a “sensation of the primitive, of time”, of something “strong or basic”. Accessing here a transcendental, earthly and perhaps even ballardian memory rather than any personal one. Considering the Chilean architect’s declared trio of European literary influences for this latest project, it is perhaps the French writer, Marcel Proust, who inspires Radic's use of stone in this way. His revered book, À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time), focusing on this notion of “involuntary memory” 100 years earlier.

Swallowing the last of my cold bitter coffee, I head outside. As I cross the pavilion’s thin and delicate threshold, the leafy orange interior changes, within a single step, to a now opaque and earthy exterior. Around the site, Radic’s stone devices are tossed about haphazardly, seeming to support his own pebble-like form by chance rather than through any considered placement. Contemplating the past hour spent in and around this turgid form, it seems that in spite of its “crude” and wholly unnatural fabrication the pavilion is, in almost every other way, strangely natural. Inside one never feels disconnected from the outside; there is an atmosphere of fragility and exposure as much as there is one of security and enclosure. A “in-between” space, more like a cave or tree canopy than any man-made structure.

From the outset Radic’s intention was to embrace the rich English tradition of the “folly”. To create a sense of “extravagance” and “atmosphere”, to place people in a radically unfamiliar environment. These were his principle objectives and in my mind they have been rendered successfully. It is a space most unlike anything we might experience in our conventional western relationship with architecture. It is the collision of two worlds we seem intent on separating: the inside and the outside, the sterile and the contaminated - permitted to meet only through the thick inspection glass of our picture windows.

The triumph of this latest pavilion may be measured not just in the curiosity and interaction it attracts but also the inquiry and contemplation it provokes. Whether these relate to ideas of “inside” and “outside”, perhaps speculating on what it really means to enclose space, or simply the recurring likeness it holds to a “spaceship”, the consideration of each can last much longer than the brief visits it receives or even its own ephemeral residency - a legacy of temporary work, any architect, artist or designer can be proud of.