09 June 2014
Bedford Square, London
At the start of Term 3 there was a lot of activity in front of the AA, on the SW corner of Bedford Square. Students, staff and passersby watched as a structure slowly began to form as the days went by. Many tracked its progress from the windows lining the square, curiously wondering what was taking shape.
The Rainforest Pavilion, by Chilean-based GUN Architects brings the tradition of a summer pavilion back to Bedford Square. GUN Architects was founded in 2010 by AA DRL graduate Jorge Godoy and German architect Lene Nettelbeck. The office won the 2010 Young Architects Program (YAP) organised by MoMA PS1 to build their Water Cathedral Project in the walled courtyard of Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile as one of PS1’s satellite summer constructions. This project went on to win GUN Architects a RIBA award for emerging architecture in 2012. Although they didn’t know it at the time, this project also eventually led to the idea for the Rainforest Pavilion. To learn more about the pavilion and how it arrived in Bedford Square, I met with Jorge Godoy to talk about prototypes, constraints, Victorian pavilions and the unpredictable British weather.
How is the Rainforest Pavilion an evolution of your proposal for the Water Cathedral Project in 2011?
It began as an interest of working with water. We came up with the ‘type’ of working with pyramids much earlier than that. It’s always been an academic interest of mine but also of GUN, the practice I run with Lene (Nettelbeck), to integrate some natural forces or natural dimensions within our projects. When we got the invitation to send our proposal for the Young Architect’s Program competition, part of the brief was how to engage with water, how to incorporate water in the project because the tradition in Queens at PS1 is always to celebrate and have parties in the really hot summer. They wanted to replicate that in Santiago so we thought how can we put water in it. We didn’t want to just put a rain system or a fountain, so we started this exploration into something that can work with water distribution and by some previous research that we had, we came to this idea of working with an inverted pyramid filled with some substratum. This was followed by a lot of research and work until we decided that this was the final design. And then it was just about producing a larger field, variations, and to create different types of space within that.
How did that concept then become the pavilion at the AA?
Well that is a long story! Tom Weaver, the Editor of AA Files, once visited the Water Cathedral project while running a visiting school in Chile with Pedro Alonso, who is also currently exhibiting his work at the AA in the Front Members’ Room. Tom visited the project and seemed to like it because he said he would talk to Brett or if I came to London I should go and speak to him about this project. Everything started with the idea of a very simple small show, not a 1:1 construction at all, just to show something – it could even have been a little publication, or an article in AA Files. Then I came and met with Brett who was very enthusiastic about the idea of exhibiting the project here and suggested I speak to Vanessa, the Head of AA Exhibitions.
The initial proposal was to create a facade installation
Image credit: GUN Architects
Vanessa saw the Water Cathedral project and she suggested doing a 1:1 project to really experience what it means to be in between these strange things. I realised this was going to be a more ambitious project that what I first imagined. It wasn’t going to be easy but we decided to go ahead with it. Then, through several iterations came the idea of not having a pavilion but a facade which was going to be a water cascade in front of the AA. If you go to the exhibition in the AA Gallery you can see the model of our original proposal standing on the far wall. We applied for funding to do this, everything was ready with the engineers and then we ran into problems with English Heritage. They stopped us and then we had to go back to Plan A but without really having time to design it. This was in late February so everything had to happen really, really fast. That was the crazy thing, it was a really long process getting here, years almost, but suddenly everything had to be solved in a few weeks because we had to get all the designs sent to the engineers, speak with fabricators, and see if they were able to do it. It was really, really crazy.
Did you find it easier to build it this time since you had done it before with the Water Cathedral?
Some things were pretty easy like the organisation of the stalactites or the production of the pieces because we had the experience of how to classify them and how to tailor them. What was more complicated was how to deal with the different involved parties: the fabricators for steel, another guy in charge of scaffolds, the engineer. In Chile, we were used to controlling the project ourselves and here, it was in the hands of other people, and we just had to trust them. Of course there were a lot of discussions and changes because it was our design. That was more difficult. Here, you also have a lot more constraints imposed by the local council, insurance, and security issues, so the engineers had to incorporate a lot of that in their structural design, and whether we liked it or not we had to deal with it. It’s part of the business.
Are you happy with the final outcome? Is it what you had imagined?
We probably imagined something slightly different but I’m happy with the outcome. It’s still an experiment. All the ground work is something that we never tried before. There were some initial problems with the ground in the installation of the pavilion. All the columns are structured by a large beam system on the ground so we had to somehow give it a purpose so we didn’t just have exposed beams. We created this system of fins that you see in order to organise the ground, the soil, the stones. They came at the very last minute so we had to, very quickly, assemble them and see if it really worked.
The finished pavilion
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
What do you think this microclimate brings to the AA or the context of Bedford Square?
I think the idea of the microclimate is in a germinal state. Of course if we had more plants, I think its part of the experiment, if we would have better water management, higher or stronger enclosures through the textile components, all of that would increase or intensify the idea of the microclimate. That’s why I say it’s in a germinal stage because it’s there but in order to persist it probably also needs more than two months but something more like a year. Things can really develop then, things will grow and you can see the transformation over time. For me, a microclimate is not just a place that you enter and feel cooler or hotter, its not about that. It’s about what grows and what happens. It’s the transformation of an environment because of the external entity that you are introducing, which is not just a physical piece but has processes within it.
GUN Architects installing the stalactites of the pavilion
Image credit: Valerie Bennett
For us it’s close to the original idea of the pavilion that brings nature into the building and encloses you within it. This is an embodiment of the Victorian idea of the pavilion or the 19th century idea of creating this strange, exotic form, somewhere in a garden or a park. I think we are close to doing that by taking this geological shape and embedding it within Bedford Square.
Working with the elements relates to the interests of GUN architects, so would you say this is a system you will continue to develop?
It is one thing to make installations or pavilions, and another to produce commercial or standardised architecture. We try to do the former when we can and as much as we can when its possible. We are now about to start with the construction of a house. It’s also a prototype since its part of a larger project that we have to create a small self-sufficient community over 50-60 to 100 hectares. Our role is to make a housing prototype that incorporates some local materials. We are not trying to make something vernacular but rather thinking about how we can integrate materials that we don’t yet know about or have that much experience with. We are combining typological elements from different Chilean housing with concepts of pre-fabrication so you will see…
The Water Cathedral was an installation in Chile while the Rainforest Pavilion exists in London – how do you think these contrasting climes will impact the pavilion’s appearance and functionality over the two month period?
Over here the idea of the microclimate or even how the project exists is much more drastic. In Chile, it was very, very hot when we built the Water Cathedral so every day was pretty much the same and everything was quite predictable. We had very strong effects, such as the shading projections on the ground. The contrast between being out of the project or inside was quite dramatic – these were things you really felt. Here, everything is much more subtle but also more drastic because within one day in London you experience three seasons; you have storms, followed by sun and then wind. You see more of the reactions of the project to the weather, and you see some new forms of interaction with the project as well. People are more shy to enter, they don’t step directly into it – probably its the problem of the project – maybe it’s not really welcoming because of the stones? Instead, they stand at a distance, look at it and some of them eventually go in.
I think, this time around, it has more dimensions. The pond is something new, it’s a cycle of water that never stops. The rain effect stops from time to time. It’s raining now six times a day. It’s programmed in order to not lose too much water but so that you can keep the ferns wet and the stones cool. The pond seems to evolve as the days pass. Now it’s getting filled with stones that people have been throwing in. The other day I saw some floating insects in there, I don’t know where they came from but we drew them in one of our illustrations so it was funny to see them appear as though we predicted them. I think the project is also much more open to crossing over of nature from the square – I haven’t seen any birds yet – just pigeons – but I haven’t seen other birds going in there to drink water. Yesterday I spent quite a lot of hours checking the light transition and I saw totally new things that I never saw in the Matucana version.
The Water Cathedral in Santiago, Chile
Image credit: Cristobal Palma
Our conversation ended as we began to speculate over what will happen to the pavilion after its two month residency in Bedford Square – will it be scrapped, recycled into its various parts, be sold at auction like the Serpentine Pavilions or be transported to a larger AA context of the forests of Hooke Park? Irrespective of the outcome, it is a thought-provoking project that has brought the typology of the summer pavilion back to Bedford Square and created a new conversation about its purpose as a form, an exhibition, a microclimate and above all, an experiment.
For more information:
The pavilion will be documented through a short film about its construction and evolution over the two months.
Rainforest Pavilion exhibition
Rainforest Pavilion microsite
Water Cathedral Project