Several years ago, I was lecturing at a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, when the crowd welcomed local son Smiljan Radic to the podium with a huge applause. I had never heard of this young Chilean architect (he is of Croatian descent), but what I saw astonished me. The architect is perhaps best known for Chilean House 1 and House for the Poem of the Right Angle. Now Radic has designed this summer’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion for London’s Hyde Park—and it's a good bet that a much larger number of people will soon appreciate his talents.
Serpentine visitors will be able to experience his architecture firsthand—something I have not been able to do. Chile is regrettably not a traditional stop along the circuit of architecture lectures, critiques, and surveys I seek out in order to see as much good work as I can. Architecture from Chile has filtered into the global conversation, of course. A combination of distance from the staid centers of discourse, a strong heritage of architectural education, and spectacular natural local conditions results in architecture of great power.
Radic’s work appears to be varied. His designs range from a minimalism that is rescued from Miesian evanescence only by a strong attention to simple materials such as weathered wood in the Copper House to Extension to Charcoal Burner's House, which is made out of the material burned in the device itself. The Mestizo Restaurant features beams balancing on rocks and sheltering terraces looking out over the landscape.
The design for the Serpentine Pavilion looks as if it will bring some of that sensibility to the heart of British landscaping and classicism. Radic has designed a fiberglass cloud that will sit on top of a trio of boulders. As is always the case with these summer pavilions, the structure will be a temporary place to hang out during the day and attend lectures or concerts in the evening, meaning there is very little function or concern about weather that the architect needs to incorporate. Instead, Radic can concentrate on creating a sense of being in another place—although from the renderings it looks as if Radic in this case is trying to seduce the clouds and sky from London's gray landscape, pulling them down to the ground plane.
Radic brings landscape and human construction into such close connection that the two deform each other. In this case, he had to work far from the environment in which he has produced most of his work. Perhaps for that reason, the pavilion looks as if it will float or hover but never quite root itself in the earth.
When Radic presented his work in Zagreb, he read poetry and showed sketches that only increased the enigmatic qualities of his architecture. Now, with a design that an international audience of hundreds of thousands of people will experience for themselves for the first time, Radic stands to show viewers how his architecture questions the real of wherever he builds it.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.