Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 again

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Here is the transcript of a conversation between pavilion designers Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen and the Serpentine Gallery's Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist (see previous post for more on the pavilion). Update: this project is included in Dezeen Book of Ideas, which is on sale now for £12.

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The images are again by photographer Luke Hayes.

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The text has been provided by the Serpentine Gallery and will be published in the pavilion catalogue:

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Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen in Conversation with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, May 2007

To be published in the catalogue produced to accompany the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

JP-J Can we start by talking a little bit about your working processes in collaborating on this project?

KT One of the things we’ve been discussing when it comes to our working processes is the difference between the analogue and the digital process. On an old-fashioned typewriter, for instance, you have to know the full sentence before you can start typing it because it would be too much work to start all over again each time you changed your mind. So you sketch the whole piece of writing out before you commit it to print. The digital process means that you don’t have to know the end result: you can change things during the process. Then it’s just a matter of creating the environment for that process, which at that point has an uncertain goal within an uncertain time frame. Using digital tools, you can change positions: departing from point A with an uncertain result at point B. This is what the process has been about so far.

HUO This relationship between analogue and digital is very interesting. Some years ago, the artist Gustav Metzger raised the question of the disappearance of analogue drawing because of digital tools.

OE To me, the important thing is that Kjetil and I have the same approach in terms of content. When I say ‘content’, I don’t mean a programmatic sense of content; I mean intentionality, and a kind of free trajectory: not knowing exactly where it’s heading. We wouldn’t start out by drawing a curved line, for example, and then talk about what that could be used for. Normally we’d approach it the other way around, by saying, ‘We have a desire, we have a dream, we have intentions and we want to execute them’, and for that we need to have a form – we need some degree of containment in order to sustain the values we believe in. Then we would ask, ‘What does the line look like?’

It was after building that sense of a common trajectory through discussion that we started talking about drawing. This is how the idea of the spiral came about: using temporality as a very instrumental part of the Pavilion, looking at the previous Pavilions and trying to leave what has already been done behind and to add new layers of meaning to it. In the beginning we’d normally use analogue tools – drawing with pens – but I don’t think it’s very interesting to ask whether one draws with analogue or digital means. There’s a tendency to romanticise ‘Meister’ drawings – and I guess in some cases it’s justified – but if you’re good at both types of drawings, there’s no clear difference between analogue and digital.

For me, it’s about practicalities and about speed. Digital drawing is extremely slow, but it does save time at the other end, when you have to calculate how many square metres you need. Analogue drawing is very fast in the beginning but slow at the end. So you start with analogue drawing and use the digital tools later. It’s as pragmatic as that.

KT Drawing is a way of thinking. It’s a conceptual rather than a diagrammatic way of explaining, of clarifying. To me, the relationship between drawing and thinking is not limited to the specific tool of communication. The drawing is worth more than its value as artistic expression, although diagrams can be fantastically beautiful, and to transform that drawing into a digital production is just a different part of the process. The pencil and the computer are only tools; they’re not as important as the people behind them, but in any case they’re similar; they’re just different parts of the process.

HUO Did you do the drawings together or did one of you make them and the other one edit them? Does it work a little bit like a palimpsest?

KT When you’re talking about your ideas in a workshop situation, analogue drawing is an essential tool. You could call it Mischkunst – the mixing of arts. It’s like a game where you make one drawing, then the next person takes that drawing and copies it, almost, but adds a different angle, and thus it develops into a consensual understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.

JP-J Could you talk about how you conceived the project in relation to London, and not only London, but the park in which we sit, which is both part of the city and separate from the city. Was that factored into your ideas at all?

OE Yes. A city, with all its history, reflects the value systems at the time when its neighbourhoods were developed, and urban planning reveals the dominant ideologies. And the same goes for the park: it’s a wonderful recreational area within the city, and it’s also a construction of nature, an exhibition of a certain idea of life. And here we have a teahouse, the Serpentine, which has since become a gallery. When the teahouse was built, the aristocratic, oriental fashion of having tea while enjoying nature was at its peak. It was a highly constructed situation and therefore not about reality; it was about the construction of reality.

Nowadays, the teahouse is used for exhibitions that are also not reality, but pictures of reality, which then, as a consequence, become reality. On top of that, there’s the tradition of making Pavilions, which in a sense are not real buildings. It’s a display-oriented trajectory, from the large exhibitions in the 19th century to modern ones like the Frieze Art Fair. So, throughout the history of the relationship between the park and the city, between the Serpentine and the park and between the Serpentine and the Pavilion, we see an ongoing negotiation of what constitutes reality. This determines the degree to which we allow people to understand the potential of this construction as a means to re-evaluate themselves in relation to their surroundings.

The Pavilion is different from an urban house: it has a distinct relationship with a constructed natural setting, like follies in French and English gardens. Also like the folly, it aims to be unpredictable. So here we have a set of rules, or a tradition at least, where the idea is to be unpredictable; the Pavilion must perform something different from an urban house in a street in the city of London. The reflexive potential of such a structure, the question of what type of performativity is built into this complex event, is what we had to sit down and talk about before we could actually get to the point of designing and drawing. This is why every aspect of the Pavilion also makes reference to the other parts of it. There’s no vanishing point; there’s no ending – well, there is an ending, but it’s ...

KT A re-routing.

OE It’s not a goal in itself; it’s just a construction – and you have to go back down the ramp to leave the building.

KT The contemporary understanding of what generates urbanism tends to overrate certain factors, like, for instance, a critical mass of people, or defined 10 spaces enclosed with walls that generate the outdoor coordinates of a structure. The Pavilion is sited in an urban-park context, so it’s defined by the urban setting – not by being within a typology or outside a typology; it’s born in that real situation. With an urban building like a church, you have a freestanding structure within a very tight urban situation. Of course, there’s a more important side and a less important side to a church, but there isn’t a back side as there is with a house.

And this is also true of the Pavilion. So to me, that means that it can’t be expanded, it can’t grow, it can’t be higher or lower; it is what it is. Its form is not related directly to symmetry, nor to the typology of the structure, but to our early investigations into geometric sequences and to the setting in which the object is born. Having been born in Norway, for example, I can’t claim that I’m not Norwegian just because I have a different passport, but I might not be typical as a result of that. So you create realities that are defined by the realities around you.

HUO Olafur mentioned the folly, which Cedric Price defined as a distortion of space and time. There’s also the tradition of the grotto in the 18th-century English garden. This links to last year’s programme, when we had Thomas Demand’s work Grotto in the Gallery. Lately, architecture has become obsessed with icons like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that concentrate on exterior complexity, as opposed to forms such as the 18th-century grotto that opt for interior complexity. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of interior complexity? The Pavilion becomes pretty dense inside, in terms of the way the seating works in an almost organic way.

OE The Bilbao effect was very much a phenomenon of the 1990s. I think we’re now moving out of the Bilbao era, but maybe Dubai, by simply duplicating the world Las Vegas-style, will create another such effect. Instead, we’re witnessing the trends of experience economy and event management that often separate form from content. I think I can say for both of us that we don’t reject form, since it is of course still very productive, but today we find so many icons that all take away the performative aspect of objects. In general a lot of icons are being built all over the world that don’t actually achieve anything; they don’t perform, except as desirable objects in marketing terms. With our Pavilion we’re attempting to re-establish a degree of performativity.

KT Actually, I think the iconic started with Jørn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney.

OE You could even say it goes back to the Eiffel Tower.

KT These iconic works represent an undefined need in society: they’re just snapshots of certain conditions that are generated by a lack of something else. Very often, architecture is formalised by the lack of something. That’s why they’ll cease to be built: they’re not fulfilling anything.

A grotto, on the other hand, has a sheltering aspect; it romanticises the idea of shelter and intimacy. The space is defined by the human physical condition – standing, sitting, lying, whatever the body’s condition might be in that sheltering situation. In the dwellings of the Lepenski Vir, built between 6400 and 4600 BC in what is now Serbia, you move sideways when entering, because the intention is that you can’t look into the space before you enter it. To some extent, the romantic experience of the cave is related to its missing front wall, which generates the space behind; it’s like a tunnel. There’s the sense that you’re penetrating the surface.

And if you generate an artificial cave, you generate more air space on earth than you had before because you’re expanding the surface of the earth in square metres. You’ve taken away a mass of earth and put it somewhere else, or thrown it into the ocean. The intimacy of the space is connected to the fact that you’re capturing air space that’s common property and putting it into a defined area so that the air you breathe inside there belongs to you. And all the senses you use in these interior spaces are related to why you feel safe in a cave, even though there might not be enough light, and there might be something hiding round the next corner, so there’s also a dangerous feeling related to it. That’s the challenging aspect of the grotto.

OE One of the things that have interested me on the few occasions I’ve explored Icelandic grottos was the difference between that particular experience and the negotiation of a perpendicularly organised environment such as a cube-shaped house. In a grotto, because you have to climb and crawl and slide through tiny holes and work your way in through the innards, there’s no information telling you what’s up and what’s down. Going into a grotto makes you feel very heavy because you’re going closer to the centre of the earth, and you have the kind of feeling of suspense that you experience in an empty swimming pool where there’s no water but you can still almost feel it.

On the other hand, due to constantly having to organise what’s up and what’s down and what’s far and what’s near, you lose track of gravity and you start to feel as if you’re floating. It’s not that you lose yourself, but the need for recomposing yourself becomes obvious.

KT If you go to the cave dwellings at Petra in Jordan, where there’s a certain amount of getting under the skin of the surfaces, it’s like being born again. As you move in and out of the caves, it’s as if you’re being continuously reborn. I think there is this rebirth issue with the cave, like being in the womb, which also has to do with the weightlessness that Olafur was describing.

OE The border of yourself is no longer your skin, but the space in which you are; you start to attach and define yourself based on the skin of the space. The Pavilion did have, earlier in the design process, a grotto period. There was a time when the cone of the roof was extremely animated.

KT And we did have that discussion about turning things upside down, but I’m happy it became more about the simplified function of the space rather than a complex relationship to a grotto kind of condition.

OE I agree.

JP-J Why did you choose wood for the skin of the Pavilion, and why that particular colour?

OE It had to do both with practicalities and our desire to create a sensitive relationship between our vision and accessible materials. There’s something very liberating about wood, in that it can easily change form. The tendency has been to imply a certain degree of built-in, essentialist qualities in wood, which I’m very sceptical about, and this is why we’ve stressed the rather industrial feeling of the wood in the Pavilion – to avoid ascribing fixed, universal qualities to it. I think the reason for this tendency is that wood has been ascribed a kind of aura, which has resulted in many designers choosing to use something less stigmatised such as plastic materials. It was our intention to show that wood can in fact be very organic and pleasant and productive to have around; it has a great sense of performativity.

KT I think the reason why wood has been stigmatised is because within the development of Scandinavian architecture, and of modern architecture in general, it has been seen as private, while brick is related to the public sphere. Because of this, and because of its organic nature, until the late 1980s one wouldn’t have believed it possible to build public buildings using wood.

We made a huge mistake as a society in believing that public buildings are non-tactile. The public sphere is just as tactile as the private, and you have to be just as precise about the expectations of the general public as about those of an individual. The qualities of appearance have no basic differences when it comes to practicality. So to me, wood has all the advantages already mentioned: it can be industrialised, it’s extremely environmentally friendly if used correctly without destroying the rainforest, and it has all the qualities that you want from an organic material. These qualities just need to be enhanced through a tactile relationship between materials, people and objects.

HUO One of the ways in which you do that is through the form of the building, which has a spiralling dynamic. I recently spoke to the young architects Aranda and Lasch in New York, who said that the spiral is a shape unlike any other because it’s seldom experienced as geometry but rather as energy. I found this very interesting in relation to your building.

OE When talking about spirals and geometry, I believe one has to think in terms of the people in the space. The way in which we’ve organised the spiralling form is less about the form for its own sake, and more about how people move within the space. The building has the form it has because this supports a certain way of moving. The unusual thing is, the closer to the edge of the building you go, the faster you move; the further out on the ramp you are, the more you move. In the centre, you’re more likely to stand still. If you think of another kind of space, like an Italian piazza, people sit around the edge, and in the middle they tend to zig-zag. We’ve reversed that in order to sustain a field in the centre with a very high degree of focus.

There’s also the idea of the cone as a spinning top, where the point that moves the least is where it touches the ground. The spiralling movement creates a means of focusing: people on the ramp will understand that they’re looking into the space but also being looked at from this space where people tend not to move. There’s something to this idea of drawing people towards the centre, just as a vortex or funnel takes things and pulls them towards the centre, in terms of generating a momentum or a participatory relationship with the Pavilion. You feel you’re a part of something: you’re not just passing by. The intention is to show that indifference is not very productive, and that difference, instead of being a segregational way of organising a space, can become an asset and an element producing the space. Different speeds, different kinds of movement, different ideas and types of coming together, can actually constitute a sense of collectivity.

What’s unique about this park is that you feel alone when you walk through it, yet if you really were the only one in the park, it would be very strange and uncomfortable. It’s an odd situation where you need a sense of the collective in order to be alone, an idea of the singular/plural. In my view, some of the other Pavilions have been less concerned with the need to address the fact that you’re a single person but you’re also part of a social event. The question is how to sustain a tolerant frame where you can acknowledge the differences between people and use this actively. This is why the production of reality is not about reality per se, it’s about democracy being concerned with difference rather than with sameness. So the idea of the spiralling movement – forces, geometry, sequences in space – all fit round these beliefs and values about social relationships.

KT I like the thought that you can separate energy from geometry, but in essence everything that grows, grows around the spiral. In the transformative process of growth, through energy pulled from the earth or the air, the growth pattern of any plant or organic material is based on the 5-, 7-, 9-, 11-edged spiral. You see it clearly in the cactus, for instance, but every little blade of grass out there is a spiral. This relates to the way in which water runs down the plughole, gravity and so forth. So energy and geometry are strongly related. In the Pavilion, you don’t move directly from one position to the other as you walk along the ramp; you go in two directions: you go up and you go round, and
that again is to do with the complexity of the social situation rather than the simple organic extraction of energy and growth.

JP-J Your Pavilion really encapsulates the idea of the promenade. It’s about the counterpoint between the exterior and the interior, but also about how the park is used by people displaying themselves to each other. This idea of being seen is more of Continental European phenomenon than a British one, isn’t it?

KT In Margate you get that European sense along the seafront, the promenade. But I think it’s extremely important that you can meet people face to face while passing each other. That’s the whole issue about promenading, although Laurie Anderson said that walking is simply preventing yourself from falling forwards! So if you have a sense of promenading in this Pavilion, it isn’t so much about walking, as about walking past someone, face to face.

OE There aren’t many places in society today where the journey is seen as part of whatever experience you are having. Experiences have more or less been taken over by the experience economy. In museology, or the ideology involved in the communication of art, the journey and the promenade are never really given the prominence they deserve. The museum is a place that’s highly regulated, and very much about power. But the promenade is interesting in the sense that it’s a temporal phenomenon. Nobody would think of reducing the promenade to just the moment, when you see a seagull flying past, for instance.

There’s an interesting book by Rebecca Solnit [Wanderlust: A History of Walking] on this idea of the promenade and walking in general. It looks at the European tradition of the flâneur and continues to the museum and shopping malls. Promenades are sometimes mistakenly understood as being paths in nature, but many are organised around the city’s defence systems: the waterfront or the walk from one tower of the city wall to the next. The Royal Parks and Kensington Gardens don’t have an English garden layout, but if you go down to the other end of Hyde Park, it’s more organic and more of a typical English garden. The reason why it’s axial closer to the Palace is because this makes it easier to control the park. You can shoot with a rifle down a straight path without the bullet being deflected.

So the promenade is also about safety, about guarding the social structure. In the Austrian-Swiss mountains, when they built the fortresses against the Italians, the best vantage point for the castle was where you would see the valley. This would also be the most picturesque point, so there you have military strategy overlapping with the idea of the beautiful view.

JP-J Clearly, the relationship of the Pavilion to the park is important to you, but what about the relationship of the Pavilion to the Gallery building? �?lvaro Siza, for example, described his Pavilion as like a crouching animal ready to pounce on the Gallery. Could your Pavilion be described with a similar sort of simile?

KT It’s already been done: the spinning top.

OE I don’t think there’s a formal relationship in terms of the shape, the materials, the size, but there’s no way around the fact that the Pavilion is connected to the Serpentine building. Being a teahouse, the Gallery itself originated from the idea of a Pavilion for recreational activities, so there’s a relationship right there. And then there’s the simple fact that they’re located next to each other.

I’ve always thought of the front lawn of the Serpentine as being like a porch or a kind of pedestal. It’s as if you’re in the park, but not really. Due to the history of the other Pavilions, that particular space is no longer just the park, but the Pavilion spot and that’s why the Serpentine has a strong relationship with it. One shouldn’t underestimate the representational power of the previous Pavilions. There are so many expectations in that particular footprint and we need to take into consideration how we avoid the ephemera being lost along the way. If we insist on ephemera being important for philosophical and social reasons, how do we avoid that spot in front of the Serpentine ruling out ephemera in favour of the spectacle?

I experienced the same challenge with The weather project for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, because it was sometimes described simply as ‘the sun’ and almost became an icon in itself. We don’t want either extreme; we want to balance it responsibly. We want it to be a significant form but we also want it to produce ephemera and reality. The first Pavilion probably didn’t have the same need to stress the temporality because it was already there.

JP-J It was built in.

OE It was already on the site. But now the site has become a plinth, a pedestal, and slowly the feeling of time has changed or disintegrated, due to the politics of display. We now need to re-consider the display in order to reactivate the silent front of the Serpentine. And that’s not better or worse than the situation for the previous Pavilions; it’s just changing the rules of the game.

KT That’s very true. In deciphering or decoding the place, it’s no longer a question of, ‘Have you seen that Pavilion next to the Serpentine?’, but, ‘Have you seen this year’s Pavilion?’ That’s a big change. So on the one hand we have to be very direct; on the other hand, in order not to lose the ephemera, we have to be indirect. If all the contexts we’ve been through during this process were reduced to one selling point or a nickname, I think it would lose something.

But on the other hand, all the other buildings have nicknames, and maybe it’s only when you love something that you give it a nickname.

HUO The programme will also play a role in the content of the Pavilion. Could you talk a little bit about this aspect, and about the idea of eating and drinking in the Pavilion.

OE The third leg in the design process was a sensitivity to the public programme that will take place in and somehow respond well to the Pavilion. Since the whole idea of temporality was so instrumental to the layout of the Pavilion, we though it might be interesting to investigate how the body, as a time-based renewable source, is also a Pavilion of sorts. Every cell in our body renews itself regularly throughout our life; when we’re old our body is not the same as the one we had when we were middle-aged and when we were children. I’ve also become increasingly interested in the structure of our senses and how we take in our surroundings, so it was a logical step to think about the mouth in terms of what things taste like. In the world of eating there’s an architecture as
well – the architecture of taste.

HUO To finish, could we move to the question of historical precedents. Who have been your heroes or your oxygen or inspiration? Olafur has won the Kiesler Prize, and you both have an interest in Frederick Kiesler, particularly in relation to the spiral. It would be interesting to talk a little bit about that.

OE One of the most interesting things about Kiesler was that he managed to establish a body of work and a language around it that was completely inclusive and distinct. And yet as an architect and an artist he was never quite successful; it didn’t really work as art and it didn’t really work as architecture. Normally that would have meant that he wouldn’t have been successful in creating a language, but he was. I think he’s one of the people who has proved the increasingly important point that there’s a spatial performativity out there somewhere between art and architecture that has great potential. He understood that events don’t take place in a neutral environment. He was also very interested in the idea of time, and knew that the time it takes to really see something is crucial to what is actually seen.

This led to his creation of the exhibition display system Leger und Trager, which was a way of hanging paintings off the wall. He investigated the idea of time in his Endless House, from 1960, which Ben van Berkel then took up in his Möbius House. The idea of endlessness in this work was always interpreted as if it were about an externalised idea of time, in the sense that it would take a long time to understand the house. But it was a typical modern mistake to externalise endlessness and turn it into a dogma. In my view, Kiesler’s relationship with endlessness is about internal time, because you have an infinite number of relationships with that house. We also try to emphasise that with the Pavilion: we’re not attempting to make a picture of time; we’re trying to be of time.

KT Yes, very nice. The only infinite space is inside you.