A slender wooden parasol will unfurl in Kensington Gardens next summer in London, its radial ribs supporting an expansive, low-slung canopy beneath the trees. It is the elegant vision of Lina Ghotmeh, the Lebanese-born, Paris-based architect who has been announced as the designer of the 22nd annual Serpentine Gallery pavilion.
“It’s a bit Mary Poppins,” said Ghotmeh, speaking from her studio in Paris. “I wanted to create an open, inviting shelter, a place to sit and eat and talk together in nature, and rethink our relationship to each other and the living world.”
Titled À Table – the French call to sit down together to eat – the pavilion will feature a ring of tables and benches arranged around the centre of the space, designed for public meetings and discussions, or simply for park-goers to come and sit, read, eat or work. “It should feel like the kind of place you might get chatting to someone seated not far from you,” said Ghotmeh. “It is a modest, low space where you can feel close to the earth.”
The wooden umbrella of nine pleated “petals” will be supported on a colonnade of laminated timber columns, forming a sheltered walkway around the edge of the pavilion, separated from the interior space by translucent glass screens. Each side of the flower-shaped structure will curve slightly inwards, in a deferential nod to the location of the surrounding trees’ roots, lending a subtle, shape-shifting geometry as you walk around the building.
Radial wooden ribs will extend across the ceiling from a central oculus, like the gills of a mushroom, supporting a wafer-thin plywood roof, braced with rows of v-shaped ridges (and, unlike this past summer’s open-to-the-elements design, the oculus will be covered with a tensile membrane crown to keep the rain out). The skeletal structure and taut, stripped-back design suggest the feeling of a fabric marquee or a pleated paper model, touching the ground as gently as possible – a departure from some recent years’ hefty constructions and their substantial concrete foundations.
“I’m trying to make the carbon footprint as low as can be,” said Ghotmeh, explaining how she intends to use a new kind of low-carbon recycled glass, developed by Saint-Gobain, and design the structure with bolted connections for easy disassembly. The timber will be LVL (laminated veneer lumber), which uses less material than more bulky cross-laminated timber, creating the skinniest possible columns and beams.
Ghotmeh says the design was informed by researching the history of community meeting places and sites of collective ritual, ranging from Stonehenge to the toguna huts of the Dogon people in Mali, west Africa. The toguna – meaning “great shelter” – usually occupies the centre of a village, providing a place for the community to come together to make decisions, mediate conflicts and dole out justice. Their low-level roofs are designed to force people to sit down rather than stand, helping to avoid violence when discussions get heated. The Serpentine’s artistic debates can no doubt get fiery, but Ghotmeh’s structure is designed more with accessibility in mind, its ceiling ranging from a comfortable two-and-a-half to three metres.
The selection of Ghotmeh continues the Serpentine’s welcome run of expanding the net and highlighting younger, lesser-known names. Born in 1980 in Beirut, where she grew up in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, Ghotmeh studied architecture at the American University of Beirut and the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. She worked with Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster in London, and received her big break in 2005, when she won an international competition, with two others, for the new Estonian National Museum, leading them to found DGT Architects in Paris and realise the building to wide critical acclaim.
Ghotmeh established her own studio in 2016, and garnered international recognition with the completion of the otherworldly Stone Garden apartment building in Beirut in 2020, exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year. Standing like a great geological outcrop, its rugged concrete facades are riddled with deep openings, echoing the bullet holes of the war-torn city, and scored with horizontal bands of striations, combed into the surface by hand as the concrete was curing. It looks like a giant chunk of sedimentary rock, chiselled into a habitable cliff face, with lush bursts of greenery now spilling from its openings.
Ghotmeh will soon complete a new leather workshop for French fashion house Hermès, designed as a series of interlocking walls of low brick arches around a pair of courtyards. It looks primed to create a similarly ethereal world of framed views, delicate enclosure and proximity to nature that we can hope to experience in next summer’s pavilion – a supercalifragilistic canopy, ready to float away on the breeze.