As you make your way through the symphony of wooden colonnades, leafy screen walls, and unfurled roofing, towards the converging veins of flooring and ceiling ribs leading to the light, it feels like a space that was always meant to be there. Part of the park, the pavilion complements the nature around it, reflecting its patterns, and illuminates a main interior feature: a concentric set of tables and stools that inspire people to sit at the moment, hold conversations, and connect with each other. This narrative tells the tale of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, designed by French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh.
Titled, À table, It draws inspiration from the designer’s connection with nature growing up and is reminiscent of the French call to sit together at a table, share a meal and enter a dialogue. It foregrounds the table as a laboratory of ideas, concerns, joys, connections, and essentially brings people together. It further reflects on the architectural ideals that can provoke and welcome moments of collective conversations.
In contrast to last year’s Theaster Gates pavilion, Black Chapel; a space that inspired contemplation and meditation, Lina Ghotmeh’s wooden structure opens up space with screen walls and apertures to its surrounding. This creates a friendly and playful atmosphere while retaining a sense of aspiration as its elements project towards the central skylight. The low roof scales down these pavilion features, presenting the user with an intimate relationship with architecture and curating the perfect setting for a table that brings to life various forms of conversation. “In a world that is becoming more isolated, it is almost radical to design democratic spaces for urgent conversations,” says the French-Lebanese designer. She hopes that through food, art, music, and literature, the table as a laboratory would host different voices in the coming weeks, welcome multiple conversations, allow for playful interactions, and curate lasting memories. The structure is an excellent example of how the design of spaces can encourage meaningful conversations, and the power architecture has in shaping human behavior. Its use of natural light, choice of materials, and furniture placement create an atmosphere of openness and engagement.
The pavilion reminds us of a few previous serpentine pavilions exploring similar themes, such as the 12th pavilion curated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Swiss architectural practice Herzog and de Meuron in 2012. This structure sank space into the ground with a random array of cork furniture patterns as an ode to the foundations of past pavilions and covered it with a reflective canopy. Its open, concentric, and amphitheatric seating drew people in to interact and engage in conversations. Another pavilion that explores this theme in depth is the 6th pavilion, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond with Arup in 2006. The pavilion featured an ovoid-shaped, illuminated, inflatable canopy floating above a designed circular space, and serving as a cover during inclement weather. Its constant illumination within the park acted as a catalyst for activating the space and bringing people together. The pavilion also hosted a 24-hour interview marathon, featuring politicians, architects, philosophers, writers, artists, filmmakers, and economists discussing the hidden layers of London.
These structures, along with this year’s pavilion, contribute to the school of thought that argues architecture and physical environments do not exist as inert spaces, but rather become spaces through the occupation and interaction of people. In this way, architecture exists as an intimate and continuous relationship to human connection.
Gordon Pask, a polymath, describes this intimate relationship with architecture as the design of conversations. He considers architecture a conversational system in human culture that serves as a stage for people to construct their own view of the world by interacting with it through conversations. Architecture can be passive or active, open and friendly, allowing users to be comfortable, or it can provoke communication through building elements, furniture, or fixtures. From the unitary brick to a structural element, building system, overall form, or disruption of physical space through technology, designers can engage different avenues that evoke conversations from people and allow them to connect with each other. One radical example of using technology to explore space as an interface for conversation is the Memory Cloud by Minimaforms. Installed in Trafalgar Square in 2008, it combined smoke signals, one of the oldest forms of communication, with contemporary messaging (SMS) to create a spatial atmosphere for collective expression. The installation invited people to interact with it by having conversations, as individual messages were projected into the atmosphere. It materialized in ways where people expressed themselves to lost loved ones, deceased individuals, relationships, and each other, and in response to what was being written. The Memory Cloud had an event-driven way of constructing space.
By exploring the design of conversations, this year’s serpentine pavilion contributes to this architectural discourse in various ways. It presents the table as a laboratory for ideas and interaction, questioning how everyday furniture can be radical tools for space-making. Through an open space that complements nature, it projects how the design of friendly spaces can inspire playfulness and interaction. Added elements of event design, including food, art, and literature, will allow the space to host a plethora of conversations in the coming weeks. Finally, as the structure is a catalog of wooden standardized elements, it puts ecology at the center stage of serpentine conversations, reminding designers of their ethos to build eco-friendly & sustainable environments.