Smiljan Radić's pavilion and a new kind of architecture
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
It's been compared to a doughnut, a spaceship, an egg shell, a Neolithic burial site, a futuristic cave – even one of those papier-mâché balloon-shaped heads you made at school. The Serpentine Gallery’s fourteenth Summer Pavilion opened on Friday with a talk from the Chilean architect, Smiljan Radić, followed by a lecture from Justin McGuirk, whose book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in search of a new architecture, was published earlier this month. (The event – which is the first of the Serpentine’s Park Nights – coincides with the London Festival of Architecture.)
Last year’s pavilion – an exquisite white steel, grid-based structure, like a crosshatched drawing – was designed by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Radić’s offering is very different. Layers of off-white fibreglass create a translucent pod structure (the walls are only twelve millimetres thick but measure eighteen metres in diameter). It rests on huge rocks and centres around a trunk-like column; solid on one side, it is exposed to reveal a ground level “atrium” in the rocks below, on the other. The dappled light inside the pavilion and angled cut-out openings framing Kensington Gardens make it feel like you’re under the canopy of a tree. A snaking track of white LED lights hangs from the ceiling. At night, the structure glows. But is it strange that an outdoor pavilion relies on artificial lighting during the day?
As in his previous work, mostly in Chile (the Serpentine only commissions architects who haven’t built in the UK before), Radić uses what he calls “found” objects, such as earth and rocks, to question what the built environment is. When designing this pavilion, he cannibalized models, taking sections from earlier attempts to add to the next one. “It’s a collage way of working”, he explained on Friday night. “There’s a sense of freedom when putting things together and changing their contexts, but as an architect I’m always conscious of the total.”
Architecture in Latin America is booming. And it’s based on the same principle: unexpected experimental collaboration. The Open City, established in Ritoque, Chile, in the 1970s, is still the main reference point (buildings were erected without plans, and inspired by a movement towards responsiveness to life and emancipation from rules). With little money and simple materials, these avant-garde architects created complex, fragile constructions built on top of each other.
If you’ve never seen the Open City projects, “imagine Frank Gehry and Mad Max pushed together”, Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the Serpentine, explained. The top level of Radić’s own home is a tent, apparently. It’s a room he’s only able to use for eight months of the year, but it’s about adapting to your environment. “My architecture’s not about what looks beautiful and polished”, Radić added.
They are “activist” architects with a social aim, not “starchitects”, McGuirk declared; they initiate design projects rather than waiting for commissions from the government. This new kind of architect talks to the self-built communities and finds out what structures would help improve their lives – as with the cable car built a few years ago in barrio San Agustín in Caracas (one of the poorest areas of the city). Residents can now reach their homes in ten minutes rather than an hour-and-a-half walk up the mountain. The cable cars have words emblazoned on them – “igualdad” (equality), “inclusión”, “libertad”.
And in Bogotá – previously known as the murder capital of the world, with an infrastructure in total disrepair – while he was mayor in 2001– 2003, Antanas Mockus (a real-life superman, or "supercivilian", as pictured above), led a civic movement to improve the city. “If you can’t change the hardware, change the software”, he claimed. He invested in public spaces, building the best structures in the poorest areas, to encourage respect and education. He also initiated more playful, but nonetheless successful, schemes: he replaced traffic police, who were being ignored by the public, with mime artists, and printed red cards for drivers to use to enforce their own road safety (more shameful to be caught out by your fellow citizens).
An architectural revolution in Latin America is slowly being recognized, and Smiljan Radić is certainly a key figure. But, Justin McGuirk asked: have we caught the end, or is this just the beginning?