Archipelagic Void, Serpentine Pavilion 2024: Forget the pretentious waffle, and enjoy the way the building soaks up the sky

Korean architect Minsuk Cho poses inside his new Serpentine Pavilion installation
Korean architect Minsuk Cho poses inside his new Serpentine Pavilion installation - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Be warned: you need a degree in metaphysics to understand what Minsuk Cho is talking about. “By inverting the centre as a void,” the 58-year-old South Korean architect has said of his Serpentine Pavilion, “we shift our architectural focus away from the built centre of the past.”

There’s a whiff of pomp, too, about the Seoul-based firm he founded in 2003, Mass Studies: “a critical investigation of architecture in the context of mass production” and champion of “operative complexity”. Previous projects include “Pixel House”, a dwelling situated near the North Korean border whose cloak of tessellated brickworks is straight out of Minecraft, as well as the sinuous Wonnam Temple in Seoul, a dramatic staging of shadow and light.

Operative complexity! I’ll hazard that grand claims are the bread and butter of the Serpentine Pavilion. Last year’s boring biomorphic canopy by the French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh talked up its consideration of “food as an expression of care”; the year before, American artist Theaster Gates’s charred pantheon promised a “sanctuary for reflection, refuge and conviviality.”

This goes to the heart of the problem of the Pavilion, the commission which offers architects a chance to create their first building in the UK. Each year, faced with such weight of moral inquiry, this glorified tent and café – sponsorship courtesy of Goldman Sachs no less – feels like it’s just about ready to buckle.

And yet, perhaps with thanks to the not-so-glorious weather, Cho’s serenely christened “Archipelagic Void” carries little trace of doomed expectation. Composed predominantly of blackened timber on concrete supports – the frames’ exposed edges left unfinished on the pavilion’s rim – it is laid out as five “islands”. Viewed from above, it resembles a star: five pavilions in one.

Cho’s “islands” include a “tea house” (when I visited, this seemed nothing more than another outpost of the Colicci café chain), an inexplicable “play tower” kitted out with a net of orange rigging, and a mini-auditorium fringed in tinted purple polycarbonate windows.

The 23rd Serpentine Pavilion, Archipelagic Void
The 23rd Serpentine Pavilion, Archipelagic Void - Mass Studies, Courtesy: Serpentine.

Most irritating of all (if you forget the plink-plonk soundtrack by composer Jang Young-Gyu, which when piped through the structure makes it feel like you’ve entered the headquarters of a cult) is a “library of unread books” which speaks to “notions of access, excess and the politics of distribution”. It’s stacked with hefty art and architectural volumes that are guaranteed to remain unread by the end of the summer. You’re invited to donate your own, of course.

But the saving grace is the “void”: the way in which the roofs of Cho’s constellation suddenly come together in a low-hanging central steel ring, creating a vast oculus, soaking up the sky. (“No leaks yet”, the architect quips breezily.)

It is a homage to the ways in which, for centuries, Korean architects have always had an eye for the architectural importance of emptiness: the ways in which natural light can become a material in of itself, not just an ambience. You see this in traditional Korean homes, with their multiple exterior walls, long verandas, courtyard gardens and shutters of handmade paper, which diffuse daylight in lyrical ways.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of staying in a hanok knows how delightful they are. And in Kensington Gardens, such borrowing from the past – to create an elegant framing of the clouds above – might just be enough to save another oversold edifice.

June 7-Oct 27;