Well that was fast: the Serpentine Gallery opens its 2012 pavilion

Herzog and de Meuron with Ai WeiWei the Serpentine Pavilion

Herzog and de Meuron with Ai WeiWei the Serpentine Pavilion

What’s worse than someone shoving baby pictures in your face? Someone shoving a sonogram in your face of a fetus currently occupying some lady’s womb. “Isn’t she/him/it precious?” Maybe? For starters, these pictures usually look more like radar images than future humans. I can sometimes see a baby’s head (that is if head approaches the size of a category 5 hurricane on weather radar). Other times I can’t distinguish at all what’s happening in the distended uterus pictured before me. It’s none of my business what goes on in there. Really. This sonogram is really depicts the idea of a baby more than it conveys the eye color, smile, or laugh of your baby– you know, the things that will actually make him or her unique or fun to be around.

Before my nephew was born, my sister sent us a “4D” ultrasound that made me wonder if she was having a human baby or not. The image looks like someone tried to model a fetus using sketch-up… while on a boat in the middle of a hurricane. To be clear, she did birth a human baby that has spent the last five years making all of us laugh and become more patient. He recently drew a snowman with a penis and machine gun for Mother’s Day. And that’s what’s nice about having kids.

The first time I read someone talking about architecture in the same terms as fetal development, it was while working in Copenhagen. On the wall of the office there was a quote from Rem Koolhaas: “To often, when a project ‘ends’ it becomes a kind of aborted fetus…” The quote goes on to describe something about documenting projects, I don’t remember. But what has stayed with me is the puzzling analogy. So I will try to extend this analogy.

Yesterday, the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion opened. Here are images of the infant pavilion, and here is a video of Architect Jaques Herzog giving a tour of the cork-lined crater. It seems as if this pavilion had an incredibly short gestation period: the renderings of the pavilion were released less than a month ago. And now, you can walk around inside it. In the way that both renderings and sonograms approximate what something is going to be, I think it’s fair to call architectural renderings sonograms; specifically, they are sonograms of ideas.

But there are obviously problems with this. What was so alarming about my sister’s “4D” Ultrasound was how the skin was rendered in monochrome, making my nephew resemble a mass of silly puddy that almost looked human. The same thing happens when buildings are rendered without enough detail and start to resemble urban-scaled chunks of plastic. Photorealism isn’t necessarily the goal of renderings, and the best renderings are the ones that convey ideas rather than how specific finishes will look after construction is finished.

Of all the images released of the pavilion before its completion, my favorite is below:

Herzog and de Meuron with Ai WeiWei the Serpentine Pavilion

This does a better idea of conveying the idea behind the history of pavilion than the other images released before construction finished. What puzzles me is why fuzzy images of kids bother me (because they don’t look enough like people) while I tend to get bored with project images that try to look too much like a finished building. So I realize that there are plenty of problems with calling renderings “sonograms,” including the fact that nobody calls renderings “sonograms.” Still, sonograms and renderings can show us how something is developing and can even give us grainy clues about what to expect. But what may surprise or delight us the most is often invisible to us before they are born. The telephone wire that runs through a bench in the pavilion, the watershed just below the ground, or the crazy faces my nephews can make: all were surprises invisible in renderings. Or, I’m sorry– the sonograms.

Alex Dent

June 1, 2012 / By

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