Minsuk Cho Designs The 23rd Serpentine Pavilion

With Goldman Sachs supporting the Serpentine‘s annual pavilion project for the 10th consecutive year, Seoul-based South Korean architect Minsuk Cho has just unveiled his star-shaped design with the debut of the 23rd Serpentine Pavilion. Beginning in 2000, the first Serpentine Pavilion project was undertaken by famed architect, Dame Zaha Hadid, and initiated in order to maintain the Kensington Gardens-based gallery’s commitment to providing diverse programs around architecture, education, live events and technological revolution. In the years since, the programme has birthed some of the most visionary architects out there, with Lina Ghotmeh, Frank Gehry, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Sou Fujimoto and Sumayya Vally as a notable few.

Calling his creation Archipelagic Void, Cho’s Serpentine design is his first-ever to be erected in the UK. A graduate of Yonsei University and Columbia University, it follows a successful architectural career in New York and a stint in Norway, before Cho moved back to Korea in 2003 to establish his architectural firm Mass Studies. Best known around the world as the co-curator of the famous Korean pavilion, which won the Golden Lion Award at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, Cho is also responsible for Korea’s Pixel House, and has won several awards during his career. Notable achievements include first prize at the 1994 Shinkenchiku International Residential Architecture Competition, the Young Architects Award in 2000 from the Architectural League of New York and two U.S. Progressive Architecture Awards (Citations) in 1999 and 2003. Cho was also awarded the Silver Medal by the B.I.E. in the category of Architectural Design at the World Expo 2010, Shanghai, for the Korea Pavilion, as well as a Presidential Citation from Korea.

Minsuk Cho

Cho’s Serpentine design is conscious of the natural space at Kensington Gardens and the 22 structures that have come before. The commission is an ode to Cho’s upbringing in Korea, emphasising the simple and serene beauty of the homes that he was raised in. Built at Serpentine South, one can observe a central void, which is representative of a madang – a small courtyard found in old Korean houses. The void is encircled by a series of smaller structures, aiming to replicate the space’s natural ecology and its conditions. With this, Cho hopes to shift the narrative away from structures built in the past, and to focus more on the actual space in which the pavilion is built in order to create more possibilities and new narratives.

The structures around the void will serve as “content machines“, each with their own names and purpose. The Gallery, the Auditorium, the Small Library, the Tea House and the Play Tower each include a series of sound installations, archives, historical exhibits, an interactive playground and a space for performances and talks. 

The modular pavilion comes together as a cohesive unit whilst allowing for the reimagining of the traditional pavilion. Year on year, the Serpentine Pavilion serves to provide the public with innovative ideas in architecture, and this year is no different. Here we speak with Cho and discuss his intentions, inspirations and hopes for the experiences of those who visit the pavilion.

How does the city of Seoul inform and inspire your practice? 

The Seoul I knew growing up was vastly different from the city I returned to after spending over a decade in the US and Europe. I had to rediscover my own city. I could physically see and feel the compressed history – the fast economic growth, fast democracy, and now, the rapid simultaneous shrinking and expanding outward of the population. This has compelled me to pursue a practice uniquely suited to Korea’s cultural conditions. The multiple moving targets have been an exciting challenge that keeps me constantly occupied. 

I am very happy working in Seoul and other parts of Korea because of the diverse opportunities, whether in densely urban areas or contrasting rural environments. The topography of this small country is remarkably varied. I approach each project on a case-by-case basis rather than adhering to a single grand narrative.

Seoul is a significant inspiration – urban density nestled in a mountainous topography, home to 10 million people. This setting requires that I discover opportunities by embracing the terrain – geographical, political and social. I often talk about ‘challenged grounds,’ my way of coping with the rapid development of a small area currently lacking in space for opportunity. I almost have to invent or restore the ground in a particular way.

All of this drives my commitment to nurturing the natural and cultural ecosystem of our city. It’s both an inspiration and an agony, but I am dedicated to finding meaningful ways to engage and demonstrate new possibilities through architecture.

What do you want visitors to experience when they walk through the Mass Studies pavilion?

As with any project, the current opportunity at hand has been advancing with aspirations based on the cartography of experiences and ideas we’ve accumulated so far. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park have significant historical importance as generous public spaces within London. The Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, alongside speeches by notable figures such as Karl Marx and George Orwell at Speakers’ Corner, marks pivotal moments in its history. The park has seen a historical evolution, becoming a civic, public space.

Our main aim is to create a space where diverse individuals can gather freely, nurturing a sense of community. The pathways of the Royal Park interconnects amenities and monuments, forming a web of radial pedestrian networks. The Serpentine South, originally built as a tea house in 1934, has a rectangular plan with five paths radiating out like the branches of a tree from a rectangular path encircling the gallery building.

Our proposal perhaps can be seen as a delicate outgrowth of the existing pedestrian network, becoming the Pavilion. It is composed of an empty space at the centre, around which five distinct structures are arranged like islands, extending radially. The roundabout, traditionally reserved for objects, is transformed into a ‘madang’ (traditional Korean residential courtyard), while the pathways leading to it are the large and small structures of the Pavilion, facilitating gatherings for park visitors with diverse intentions. It’s an inversion. The Pavilion serves as a hub for absorbing the diversity of London. Taking inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of achieving a “commonplace civilisation” in designing Central Park, our interest lies in creating inclusive spaces for “organised gregariousness,” or what we at Mass Studies call “collective intimacy.” This pursuit is particularly crucial in a world where there are increasing seductions to become mere spectators, drawn by spectacles, rather than actively engaging in voluntary participation.

Walk us through the design process – what first gave you the idea for this design and how did you see it to fruition?

We began by asking what can be uncovered and added to the Serpentine site, which has already explored over 20 iterations at the centre of the lawn, from a roster of great architects and artists. To approach this new chapter differently, instead of viewing it as a carte blanche, we embraced the challenge of considering the many existing peripheral elements while exploring the centre as a void. It also begins to address the history of the Serpentine Pavilion. By inverting the centre as a void, we shift our architectural focus away from the built centre of the past, facilitating new possibilities and narratives.

How did you decide on the theme of each structure?

Each Serpentine Pavilion occupied a distinct period of time and space, showcasing inspiring approaches to material usage, from innovative envelopes to non-envelopes to canopies. The designs have varied in plan, which I think is an important tool for organising activities, often featuring circular or rectangular plans with a completeness, while others have embraced free-form structures. Circular plan organisations have been the most prevalent among them.

Our proposal, which begins with an emptied circular void surrounded by five spaces, each covered by a roof and referred to as ‘islands’: the Gallery, Auditorium, Library, Tea House, and a Play Tower. These spaces vary in dimensions and purposes, forming intimate space between them defined by adjacent and peripheral elements like the park’s trees and the Serpentine South building. The arrangement of the five structures is highly specific to the site, yet flexible and siteless, offering 120 possible configurations, which is mathematically, a factorial of five. It has the ability to adapt to different future locations of the pavilion. This design reflects a polyphonic composition, embodying an unfinished, ‘trembling utopia’ as described by Édouard Glissant, who proposed the ‘archipelago’ as an alternative to a complete utopia.

How did you ensure your approach to designing the pavilion was different to those who came before you?

Throughout our 21-years of practice, Mass Studies has completed about a dozen or so of what we consider pavilion projects that engage the public and encourage interaction. Many of our earlier pavilions have dealt with a complete, circular geometry. This year’s pavilion is a departure from that approach, towards more of an openness and incompleteness. It is about a multiplicity and diversity united by a void, and a generosity in space and experience, that brings people together, which is related to our previous design for the much larger Shanghai World Expo 2010 Korea Pavilion, with a semi-open ground floor with nine entry points, that also allow for vistas outward. The more recent Won Buddhism Wonnam Temple, a spiritual space anchored by a small madang, where a complex constellation of spaces and ideas create a sort of urban acupuncture that creates seven new alleyways that connect to the complex, is also very relevant to this idea.

You are designing the backdrop for the step & repeat at the Serpentine Summer Party 2024 – how are your designs being translated? 

It’s an honour to contribute to the legendary Serpentine Summer Party 2024 by designing the visuals for the step and repeat board. This design incorporates the floor plan of this year’s Pavilion, but instead of a single repeating plan, it showcases the 120 possible compositions the Pavilion can take on depending on its location. This speaks to both the present and future of the Pavilion. I hope the concept of these visuals resonate with the vibrant and exciting collective experience and the creativity this event fosters.

Photography courtesy of Serpentine. Discover the pavilion here.


Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping