Yesterday was the annual Notting Hill Carnival in London, which is why I was in Kensington Gardens to visit this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. Yes yes, I was missing thousands of elaborately spangled and befeathered celebrants shaking and bopping and pogoing to hundreds of steel bands, sustained by Red Stripe and Caribbean cooking and Mother Nature's finest. But I know from previous carnival experiences that five-foot-nothing me would end up sandwiched between boppers and pogoers, unable to see anything or to exercise free will as regards my ambulatory direction. And that gets old fast.
So here I was, sauntering in the sunshine towards Ai Weiwei's collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron: the twelfth annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion architectural commission. The Chinese artist is confined to his country under government surveillance, but developed the project via Skype with the same team with whom he worked on the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics.
The pavilion is cork-lined circular dugout with an infinity pool for a roof. The effect is that of a glorified child's fort: higgledy-piggledy stairs and levels and proportions, all hidden away from prying eyes from above. This resonates with me, because I had a phase at about eight years old when I was wildly enthusiastic about digging underground forts, which I would then cover with sheets of plywood “borrowed” from local building sites. I ended up with strong arms and an impressive collection of Native American arrowheads.
The 2012 Pavilion also has an archeological bent, as the design incorporates the footprints of the previous 11 pavilions, with their various patterns and lumps and bumps. This accounts for the higgledy-piggledyness.
|A map of 11 architectural footprints.|
But the particular reason I wanted to visit the pavilion was for the smell, which is most marvelously integral to the experience. The site's accompanying blurb proclaims that cork has “great haptic and olfactory qualities”, and indeed it does. While kids giddily clambered over the mushroom shaped stools playing multi-level tag, the adults sat silently in a collective trance, together but alone, clustered on cork benches and cork stairs and cork toadstools, fingers absently stroking the warm, spongy material.
I hid behind a column and pressed my nose to the cork. It smelled dry, mellow, almost imperceptibly sweet. It was a scent on its way to wood, but not quite, hovering in a zone between lightly toasted and slightly spicy. I'd love to smell a perfume with a cork accord. The bottle could even be wrapped in cork, adding to its “haptic and olfactory qualities”.
Interior image © 2012 Luke Hayes
Wide image © 2012 Iwan Baan