Exploring Peripheries

The 23rd Serpentine Pavilion, Archipelagic Void, designed by architect Minsuk Cho (b. 1966), has opened to the public. Cho is the first Korean architect to be selected for the commission, and instead of designing just one structure, he has produced a collection of buildings. It stems from the idea of an archipelago – a chain of islands scattered across a body of water. Borne from the Greek “pelagus”, meaning “gulf”, the word conjures up images of water-framed nations both with a collective identity, perhaps culturally or politically, and yet distinct from one another. Such is the nature of Cho’s pavilion. It is comprised of five “islands”, each unique in size, form and purpose. The centre of the structure is a “void”, inspired by the small courtyard often found in Korean home, called a “mandang”, and each structure stretches out from the central empty space. “It begins to address the history of the Serpentine Pavilion,” Cho explains. By inverting the centre as a void, we shift our architectural focus away from the built centre of the past, facilitating new possibilities.” Throughout the scattering of buildings, Cho blends together the history of Kensington Gardens with his own personal and national identities.

Mass Studies, the architectural firm started by Cho is 2003, brings its experience to the Serpentine Pavilions, at once honouring the traditions of Korean construction and yet firmly placing itself in modern culture and design. Its work often considers the friction between past and future, individual and collective. The focus is on producing a harmony between oppositional forces, rather than striving to achieve a singular perspective. The Seoul-based company has shaped the architecture of the capital city over the past two decades, from the Songwon Art Center to the impressive S-Trenue Tower.  

Visitors to the Pavilions are welcomed through the main entrance to sounds of nature and human voices. They play alongside Korean vocal music and instruments, distinctive tones and melodies that trace the changing of seasons. The Willow <버들은> will be presented in the Summer and Moonlight <월정명> in Autumn, responding to the constantly transforming landscape and ecology of the park. Constructed with both with materials and techniques that echo Korean practices, the primary materials for the Pavilion are locally sourced limestone, Douglas fir timber and tensile membranes. The structure explores modern joinery techniques to achieve the customary ability to assemble and disassemble as needed.

The interior of Cho’s Pavilion also gradually shifts and transforms, like the landscape it mirrors. Heman Chong (b. 1977) and archivist Renée Staal’s Library of Unread Books, in the north of the Pavilion, is a “living” reference library which can be added to by visitors. Philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco famously called for an “antilibrary” made up of unread books. He argued that the potential for learning and knowledge an unread volume presents makes an unopened book far more valuable than a read one. More than 669 million books were sold in the UK in 2022, making it a record-breaking year for the publishing industry. Yet, since 2010, almost 800 local libraries have closed. With random stacks of books, donated by an individual who did not read it while it was in their possession, Chong and Staal consider notions of access, excess and the politics of redistribution. By reverting items that were once private property back to a common resource pool, the artists encourage us to reflect on what it would mean for society if everyone were to have unrestricted access to an “antilibrary”.

The invitation to engage with what is on display runs beyond just thumbing through the pages of donated books. The Play Tower offers visitors the chance to climb and interact with a bright orange netscape, and the Auditorium is a space for public gathering, performances and talks. The Tea House playfully references the Serpentine South’s role as a teahouse between 1934 and the 1960s, before opening as an art gallery in 1970. This speaks not only to the nature of the Serpentine Pavilion as a free space to allow connections between artists and audiences but brings us back to Cho’s desire to place Korea at the heart of his work. In an interview with the Financial Times he said: “we have a tactile relationship to architecture in Korea. We take out shoes off the enter a house, we caress materials. This is not a building to just take a photo of, but something to be stepped on, touched, climbed over.”  

The 23rd Serpentine Pavilion runs between 7 June and 27 October.  


Words: Emma Jacob

Image Credits: Serpentine Pavilion 2024, Archipelagic Void, designed by Minsuk Cho, Mass Studies © Mass Studies Photo: Iwan Baan Courtesy: Serpentine.