If black is the absorption of all light, it is fitting that architect Frida Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion is the darkest in the program’s recent history. Mimicking the absorptive qualities of its color, the structure latches on to the activities of the crowds it makes room for: whether that’s art-world paparazzi, teens on awkward first dates, or birds in search of a bath. Bands of light filter through the lattice enclosure, whose woven construction is based on Mexican celosia, or breeze walls. Inside the courtyard, a mirrored canopy and triangular sliver of water—all of 5 millimeters deep—reflect green foliage, bright blue skies, and, on this particular morning, a slew of cameramen and journalists pouring into the pavilion for the opening press conference.
Although she is the youngest commissioned architect in the pavilion’s 18-year history (not to mention the first woman to take it on solo since Zaha Hadid in 2000), Escobedo has already made a name for herself, and for her eponymous Mexico City atelier, with experimental projects that enliven public spaces from California to Lisbon. As the aim of the Serpentine has shifted away from producing designer trophies by celebrity architects toward spotlighting the work of promising young practices, the results have become increasingly daring, unconventional, and socially oriented—and this year’s selection of Escobedo speaks especially to this transition.
“With the Serpentine commission, there is always the challenge to be fresh, as well as respond to the dual nature of the pavilion,” says the 38-year-old Escobedo, who is dressed head-to-toe in white, as if to offset her charcoal-dark creation. She is referring not just to the vagaries of architectural fashion but also to the particular life cycle of the Serpentine Pavilion itself; like its predecessors, Escobedo’s edition will spend four months basking in this unusually hot British summer before being packed up and shipped to a buyer, whether public or private, down the road or halfway around the world.
So how to design a structure without knowing where it will eventually end up? Perhaps paradoxically, Escobedo and her team responded to this challenge by digging deep into the history of the British Empire for design inspiration. Almost 200 years ago and some ten miles east, the global prime meridian—the first standardized means of telling time and distance—was inducted at London’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Whoever sets the clock rules the world—and in 1851, a universal means of measuring time, distance, and maritime trade was crystallized in Britain’s favor, cementing its status as a world power.
This esoteric reference informs the orientation of the pavilion. The folly’s outer walls line up with the immediate environment of the adjacent Serpentine Gallery, while the axis of its internal courtyard pivots to the north, following the prime meridian line. “By anchoring the pavilion to this thin line, which has made concrete and universal a more abstract idea of time and space, it means the pavilion can be used anywhere,” Escobedo tells Metropolis.
The latticed cement-tile walls intentionally recall celosia, a staple of Mexican residential architecture that promotes the natural circulation of air from exterior to interior. In England, where mostly mild summer temperatures hardly require such passive cooling systems, the lattice instead serves a social and aesthetic function, creating a public space into which more private nooks are embedded, and backdrop scenery breaks down into pixels of blues and greens. This idea of embedding multiple private spaces within a larger public space follows from Escobedo’s interest in Henri Bergson’s idea of “social time,” or that our understanding of ourselves and our environments is based on duration. It shines through when the pavilion is jostling with bodies whose activity doubles or triples in the reflection of the water and mirrored ceiling, and again as visitors break off into their own private groups and slide toward the more private alcoves.
Building on the power of the elements, Escobedo’s pavilion—like much of her work—is, by her own admission, inspired by the shifting conditions of light and shadow as much as the shifts and cracks in the physical, social, and political conditions of Mexico. While satisfying on a sunny day like today, where the high contrast of rough, dark cement stands out against the backdrop of leafy trees and bulbous white clouds, the structure might struggle to elicit the same joy amid more typical British drizzle. (The delicate triangular pool, too, seems to me precarious, with its potential for flooding.)
Still, it is Escobedo’s attachment to the elemental and the cosmic that won her the commission in the first place. ”We were walking around Lisbon at night when we encountered what looked like a giant glowing moon,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, the venue’s artistic director (and this year’s summer pavilion co-curator), reminisced of his first encounter with Escobedo’s work in 2013. “We came back next morning and it had transformed into Civic Stage.” Designed for the Lisbon Triennial, Civic Stage was an ingeniously simple social seesaw that explored performance and hierarchy through weight distribution—a gravity so powerful that it sealed the deal for Escobedo’s U.K. debut five years later.
Though it consists of 10,000 dark cement tiles woven around an armature of steel rods, the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion feels surprisingly light on its feet. It exponentiates the joy it produces by reflecting it back on itself, blurring the boundaries between indoor and out, public and private. From the porous walls to the reflective ceiling, the success of the pavilion depends on having a social happening to multiply: a calling it promises to answer with the upcoming Serpentine Park Nights. “It lives through its social purpose, from here to its next home,” Escobedo tells Metropolis. Where might that be? ”I’m not picky, I just want it to be somewhere public.”