Meet 2018’s Serpentine Pavilion Architect

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Photo by Dezeen

A Q&A with the Mexican architect reflecting on time and space in Hyde Park this summer.

At only 38, Frida Escobedo may be the youngest architect in the pavilions 18-year history, but her age is neither here nor there. Escobedo started her studio in 2003 and has since covered a lot of ground, working on high-profile projects both in her hometown of Mexico City and internationally, including pavilions in Chicago, Lisbon and my personal favourite, ‘A Very Short Space of Time Through Very Short Times of Space’ at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. As the first solo woman to take on the pavilion since the legendary Zaha Hadid back in 2000, Escobedo explored “materials of light and shadow, reflection and refraction, turning the building into a timepiece that charts the passage of the day.”

The Serpentine Pavilion is a much-anticipated landmark in London each summer. How does it feel to be designing a structure in the centre of London?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in London — I did an installation at the V&A in 2015, and then taught at the AA Summer School the following year. It’s one of my favourite cities, so it’s an amazing feeling to work on a project that’s been so celebrated by the people of London through the years. And, of course, I’m looking forward to visiting myself in June.

With six months between commission and completion, the Pavilion has a famously tight turnaround. How do you respond to that?

The schedule is certainly intense, but the Serpentine team has put us in a great position to succeed. They have an amazing group of engineers and contractors in place, so we have been really fortunate to collaborate with some remarkable people in the development of the project.

How does your design for the Serpentine Pavilion relate to other projects?

We set out to conceive of a design that would both react to the specifics of the site and fit into the continuing discourse of the studio. I’ve always been fixated on this question of scientific time versus duration, which goes back to Henri Bergson’s writings — the idea that time is better understood as an accretion of experiences and interactions than as the mere passage of minutes on the clock. Scientific time happens in a linear way, with the present understood as distinct from the past, whereas duration is a process of becoming, of accumulating, preserving and enfolding everything that comes before into the present moment. I think it’s instinctively understood that time and space are intertwined, so for me, architecture is an opportunity to express this idea, to create dynamic spaces that allow for multiple and evolving experiences, that display the signs of their use and their ageing in ways that enrich the work as time passes. This theme is pretty pervasive in my work — it’s been central to my thinking in permanent structures as well as temporary spaces, and each time I’ve attempted to articulate it in different ways. For the Serpentine Pavilion, I saw a unique opportunity to subtly draw scientific time into the project by rotating the inner courtyard to correspond to the Greenwich Meridian just a few miles to the east, which of course was the global time standard for many years, dictating our economic activity, navigation, telecommunication. I think that by incorporating this datum into the design, the Pavilion creates a juxtaposition between the notion of scientific time and duration. On the one hand, it functions as a kind of timepiece, with light and shadow marking the passage of the day, while on the other, the materials and forms of the pavilion create a space that’s more dynamic and unpredictable, which transforms rather dramatically over the course of each day. The celosia filters and dramatises the relationship between the interior and the exterior, while the interplay between the mirrored surfaces of the pool and the canopy throw light and shadow in unexpected directions and create movement in such a way as to defy expectation.

How does your design respond to the natural setting of a Royal Park?

The materials we’ve chosen are intentionally desaturated as a way to emphasize the vibrancy of the park in the summer. During the daytime, these colours should be pervasive, penetrating the interior through the celosia and by the exchange of reflections between the canopy and the mirror pool.

What materials have you used in your Pavilion and why?

I try to work with materials drawn from a project’s locale whenever I can. I’m especially interested in taking materials that are normally understood as commonplace, or even banal, and trying to elevate them into something more. This is usually an interesting challenge from a construction standpoint because of course every material has its own limitations and pushes you towards certain patterns. When we decided to use a typical roof as the basic unit for the Pavilion walls, it became a question of how to leverage its form and texture to achieve a result that both light enough to permit a sense of the surrounding area, and dense enough to achieve the desired atmosphere for the interior. The floor is a dark concrete. All of these decisions allow the visitor to focus more clearly on what I’ve begun to think of as the more important “materials” of the pavilion, in a way — the reflections of the sky and trees, distorted by the curve of the canopy or the shifting surface of the pool, the dissolving perspective of the surrounding park through the celosia, and the unpredictable play of light and shadow throughout the Pavilion.

Then there’s the question of how the Pavilion will age. Only after being contacted to design this year’s Pavilion did I really learn the extent to which the previous designs have been acquired and relocated to totally new contexts. So really, while the Serpentine is understood as a temporary structure, there’s actually a more drawn-out “afterlife” that has to be considered. For me, this really changed the stakes of the project, including the selection of materials. We had to design something that would communicate our concept and provide a memorable experience for people visiting Hyde Park over the summer, but we also had to consider how the Pavilion would be affected by time and weathering. We tried to envision what it might look like decades from now, even how it would react to being overtaken by nature. In selecting the roof tiles, we were also taking into consideration that this is a material that will, regardless of geographical location, gradually absorb its context — moss, snow, rain, lush vegetation, sun.

How important is the presence of light/shadows in your forms?

Light and shadow are such a crucial consideration in Mexican architecture — there are times of year when the temperature difference between the sun and shade is as much as ten degrees! The shadows in Mexico City also tend to be incredibly sharp, to the point that shadow nearly becomes a formal consideration in itself. This can be detected in so much of our architectural history, from terraced pre-Hispanic structures to colonial courtyard houses, to the modernism of Luis Barragán, Mathias Goeritz, or Juan O’Gorman. I’m really inspired by my environment and by this history, so the use of light and shadow has always been central to my practice, especially as it relates to the physical materials I’m using. Light and shadow have also been a useful vehicle for articulating ideas about the relationship between time and space.

Describe the experience the visitor will have moving through the Pavilion by day and by night.

The experience of the Pavilion should change quite dramatically from day to night. In this case, the way that the celosia functions in response to light is a little bit like a one-way mirror – during the day, it provides visitors with a diffused view of the park, while everything occurring within is obscured by the screen. In the evening, this relationship is reversed and the illuminated interior becomes more like a stage to its surroundings.

How do you anticipate people using the Pavilion. What do you hope visitors will take away from their experience?

I think that every Pavilion has created a unique relationship with Kensington Gardens and with the Serpentine Gallery itself, and I hope that this year’s will be no different. I hope visitors will find a space in which the passage of time feels a bit hazy — fun yet meditative, and hopefully engaging the senses in unexpected ways. On a more practical level, I envision it as a good space for conversation, for getting out of the sun, for splashing around in the water a little bit.