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Pavilion represents rare opportunity for architects

Features | March 1, 2007 | By:

Koolhaas’ 2006 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion huddled in Kensington Gardens, then went away.

Each summer the Serpentine Gallery—located in Kensington Gardens, London—commissions an internationally acclaimed architect to design a temporary Pavilion for its lawn. The program is unique worldwide. Conceived by Julia Peyton-Jones, Director, Serpentine Gallery, the project represents a rare opportunity for architects to create a more experimental structure in the United Kingdom, where none of those invited has ever built before.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006 was co-designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas and innovative structural designer Cecil Balmond. The centerpiece of the design is a spectacular ovoid-shaped inflatable canopy that floats above the Gallery’s lawn. Made from translucent material, the structure is illuminated from within at night. The canopy is raised into the air or lowered to cover the amphitheatre below according to the weather.

The Pavilion design incorporates a helium- and air-filled inflatable roof that can be raised and lowered to accommodate the activities within the structure. It provides protection from the weather—shade at the height of summer and rain and wind cover in the autumn. The inflatable roof is ovoid in shape and extends to a maximum height of 24m when open. In the closed position the height is 20m. Although higher than the Gallery building, it is not higher than some of the surrounding trees. The roof is fabricated from semi-clear PVC-coated polyester fabric. The base of the inflatable has been hollowed out to produce a cubic void 10-by-10-by-4m high. The inflatable roof is held securely in position by cables attached to four electrical winches, which in turn are anchored to the ground.

The technical challenge of the fabric part of this project was to realize, in a very short period, essentially a helium balloon to architectural specifications. From the beginning Luke Brooke, a lighter-than-air-structures-specialist from Tensys Ltd., gave invaluable advice on how to construct an airship. And following airship technology, this balloon is divided in the horizontal plane with a so-called ballonet membrane that separates the top half filled with helium from the bottom half pressurized with air at 500Pa. The ballonet membrane transfers the pressure of the air into the helium half and so gives stability to the overall structure.

A unique fabric was developed to meet the project requirements using a standard PES fabric coated with a semi-clear PVC. Since the pavilion was only up for four months, UV stability was of a lesser concern. For the ballonet material a clear PVC foil was chosen, which could easily be welded to the hull.

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