Mexican architect Frida Escobedo was so surprised by the invitation to design the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion in London that when the Serpentine Gallery first called she thought it had something to do with being put on their mailing list. This kind of admission, which Escobedo made at the pavilion opening earlier this week, brings home both the stature and popularity of an annual commission that recruits some of the world’s most compelling architects to create their first structure in the U.K.—and a one-of-a-kind architectural experience for locals and visitors alike.
Escobedo is only the second solo woman, after Zaha Hadid, and the youngest architect ever to design a pavilion for the Gallery’s lawn, erected in London’s Kensington Gardens every summer. And to make her mark on this high-profile stage, Escobedo stuck firmly to her studio’s ethos of “using raw, industrial and simple materials in sophisticated or complex ways”.
The result, which opens today and is on view through October 7, is sober, austere, and almost hermetic from a distance. On closer examination, you will discover its lattice walls, a contemporary reference to Mexican celosia (breeze walls), made of rough-edged and dark undulating cement roof tiles, and woven into patterns that vary in tightness to let in different amounts of light.
Once inside the pavilion, everything shifts. There are shimmering light effects and surprising views created by reflective ceilings, a shallow triangular pool, and unexpected geometry. Though the pavilion’s exterior walls are aligned with the Serpentine Gallery’s eastern facade, its interior walls are placed at an angle, more specifically on an axis that references the prime meridian, the global standard marker of time and distance, located only a few miles away in Greenwich.
Time and space and the experience of both is intrinsic to the structure, says Escobedo. She admits to being somewhat fixated with the idea of “scientific time versus duration”, something explored extensively by one of her influences, the 19th-century French philosopher Henri Bergson.
“It’s this idea that time is better understood as an accretion of experiences and interactions than as the mere passage of minutes on the clock,” she says.
The different sensations, shadows, and reflections created by the sky, light and people around you inside the pavilion become a vivid counterpoint to the global standard time and distance represented by the meridian line, and a celebration of a much more personal, intimate and interior experience of time.
Meanwhile, the meridian line reference itself creates “a sort of compass to the visitor in the park,” says Escobedo, and is a way of resolving the apparent contradiction of a structure with a “temporality” of four months that then goes on to have a second life with an institution or private collector. It’s also a clever but subtle way of “anchoring the pavilion to a space without it having to be site specific”, she says. After all, that reference will remain even after the pavilion has left its lush London environs.
When asked whether her pavilion celebrates Mexican architecture, Escobedo is clear that context matters but only to a certain point. “I am a Mexican architect designing a British pavilion that is eventually going to end up somewhere else,” she says. Her work is naturally informed by the context she grew up and practices in, she says, but the breeze walls in Mexico originally came from Spain and the Arab world.
“There is no regional architecture,” she says. “There is an architecture that absorbs the context and is informed by where it is from and where it is going to.”
Escobedo’s pavilion may not be exuberant but it is dynamic thanks to a clever use of light, water, and angles. It never looks the same for very long, whether inside or out. And every time a tree top emerges above its walls or round an angled porous wall, it’s a fresh and rewarding surprise that contrasts with the pavilion’s rough cement tiles.
“This is a material that will, regardless of geographical location, gradually absorb its context—moss, snow, rain, lush vegetation, sun,” she says.