Our design: AECOM and the Serpentine Pavilion 2014

It’s summer so it must be time to take in the cutting edge design of Hyde Park Serpentine Pavilion. AECOM’s Tom Webster explains the thinking.

The annual Serpentine Pavilion has become the pinnacle for state-of-the-art architecture combined with innovative engineering. The launch of this year’s Pavilion unveiled the product of an intense, but rewarding six months, delivering what has become an intrinsic part of London’s culture.

AECOM was re-appointed to an expanded brief, providing cost and project management services, in addition to the usual engineering and technical services. It’s a great project to work on because the project brief, and the short timeframe, allows us to push the boundaries and embark on a more cutting-edge delivery than standard.

The Chilean architect commissioned this year, Smiljan Radic, based the design on his 2010 papier mâché sculpture, The Selfish Giant’s Castle, inspired by the Oscar Wilde story. He envisaged a life-sized re-embodiment of this – a fragile shell suspended on large quarry rocks. The hollow, cylindrical structure, gives the sensation, from the inside, of being suspended in air, as if floating; a feeling heightened by the semi-transparency of the shell.

This year’s main challenge was getting the balance right between the hand-made quality and fragility of the papier mâché structure on such a large scale; to find a material that gives a similar feel and visual effect while providing the strength required for a high quality event space. We then had to ensure that the structure could be built and transported to site, and still have a seamless shell structure once reconnected.

We chose Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) for the shell structure which was manufactured in Yorkshire on a machine-cut polystyrene mould. GRP is relatively light and very strong, and because of the flexible nature of the material before the resin has cured, it can be moulded to any shape.  We were able to form the GRP off-site and then transport the form in 57 sections.

The GRP shell is nominally 13mm thick and formed in 17 layers. The thickness is increased to 19mm above the entrances to create the large spans and limit the deflections. Modules were connected together by bonding the joints together and using a tapered layup of fabric which allowed us to connect pieces of GRP together using additional strips of fabric and resin on site. The use of LED lighting shining through at night lends a translucent glow. This, along with the continuous, unobstructed nature of the form, helps create a real sense of wonder.

This complex technical process was made more difficult by the six week, on-site, construction period, leaving little time for reflection so that snap decisions are made on an hourly basis. However, with the use of online tools, which I use regularly on various overseas projects, we were able to effectively communicate with Smiljan.

The time-difference between Japan and the UK when working with Sou Foujimoto last year made it slightly trickier, but Chile’s only four hours behind so there was a bigger overlap in our working days, meaning we were able to work closely together every step of the way.

Overcoming the challenges and accurately translating Smiljan’s design was immensely satisfying; making the long hours (and a few sleepless nights!) well worth it. We were lucky to form a close bond with the architect which made the final result all the more special. I believe this Pavilion creates its own calming experience, connected to the park yet separated from the outside chaos of London. It provides a peaceful, meditative type space – and, for me, a sense of inner peace.

Take a look at the video here 



Tom Webster is associate director, building engineering, AECOM