When I arrived at the Serpentine Pavilion today, admittedly on the hottest day of summer (what I am calling The Start of Living After-the-end-of-the-World), I was greeted by a gallery attendant sitting on a chair outside the pavilion – “I must warn you, she said, “it is very hot in there.”
I thought this was a little odd, but when I got inside I got it – Health and Safety! This year’s pavilion is a health and safety risk in current temperatures. Enter at your own peril. Most had taken heed.
Inside the plastic caterpillar shaped enclosure with its festive plastic ribbons, were some dehydrated-looking coffee shop and icecream stall attendants, but not a single person lingering in the space.
Most snapped pics with their iphones and exited from the sweltering interior as fast as possible to sit outside under the trees.
I am not quite sure this is what Salgas had in mind when he said “We think nature should take precedence over architecture!”
The pavilion has been variously described as a “psychedelic cocoon” with “supercharged wormholes,”
a “trippy womb,”
a “parallel dimension,” a “fantastical alien glow-worm,” a “chrysalis that has been torn open then bandaged with plastic webbing, as if patching up the holes where the creature squirmed its way out,”
“the intestines of a slippery deep-sea creature,” etc. These somewhat flamboyant, birthing metaphors seem to miss the obvious (to me) point that the building is little more than an iridescent poly-tunnel,
a technology transported by Salgascano (in keeping with their preference for cheap, off-the-peg components like extruded plastic sheeting and corrugated metal) from the plastic agricultural landscapes of southern Spain to Kensington Gardens and transformed into a party pavilion.
Ever since Keller Easterling so masterfully blew the cover on the Spanish vegetable growing industry in Almeria, Spain in her 2005 Enduring Innocence, Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades, plastic poly-tunnels have become the poster children for all that is awry with high-tech agriculture in a globalised world. In the manufacture of conditions to produce the perfect tomato for the European palate, Spain’s greenhouses have spun off illegal immigration (in their need for inexpensive labour), racial tension, export wars, environmental degradation and dead fish.
In 2012, I visited Almeria to see this sprawling “plasticulture urbanism” as Easterling calls it, for myself.
From the air, greenhouses extended to the horizon, interspersed with new walled housing developments and I clearly spotted an enormous new prison nestled within the patchwork quilt of plastic.
A bus ride to El Ejido took me through mile upon mile of plastic farmland,
interspersed with plastic factories, plastic suppliers,
and half-built housing.
The greenhouses themselves turned out to be hastily erected, rather tatty, rickety structures of timber, steel, wire and plastic, many enclosing nothing more than hot air.
One wonders whether Salgascano were commenting on this aspect of Spanish urbanism when they designed their Serpentine Pavilion, and if so, what were they saying?
What is their a colourful, festive, plastic greenhouse saying about these aspects of contemporary Spanish culture? What is being celebrated here? The globalised agri-tech rubbish dump in which millions of people live out their lives?
Lives risked crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better future, only to end up sweltering for low wages in plastic tunnels? Intersecting as it does with a London heat wave, the pavilion speaks less of the warm glow of the Spanish sunshine and more of climate catastrophe and carbon crisis, less of balloons and party-popper streamers, and more of the junk yard of a future past its sell by date.
Compare Salgascano’s pavilion with another by Spanish architect, Andre Jaque, for the PS1 Young Architects Program in New York this year.
COSMO, as the pavilion is called, uses remarkably similar cheap, off the shelf, industrial materials to Salgascano’s Serpentine Pavilion, but to very different effect.
It plays no painterly tricks with colour, aims not at affect, nor does it invite metaphoric associations. It is little more than a sophisticated plumbing system – a sequence of biological filters to purify up to 750 gallons of water in a day using biological systems.
Follow this link for how it works.
Jaque speaks the need to make the invisible systems on which urban life depends – water, electricity, food – visible and knowable. “I think the architecture of the future” says Jaque, “will not be that much about space but how we interact with resources.” COSMO is kind of an anticipation of what this future will be.