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Serpentine Pavilion: The project behind London’s temporary annual structure

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The opening of the temporary Serpentine Pavilion every summer in London’s Kensington Gardens is a much-anticipated event in the capital’s art scene. Now in its 22nd year, the invitation to artists and architects to design something eye-catching and thought-provoking garners much media attention — it’s a high-profile project that must open on time while under great scrutiny.  

This summer’s Pavilion is designed by French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh and is called A Table which acts as an invitation for people to sit down together to talk and share a meal. 

The design is built predominantly from bio-sourced and low-carbon materials and reflects the shape of the tree canopies that surround it. The internal wooden beams that encircle the perimeter represent thin tree trunks, while the fretwork panels that sit between the beams feature plant-like cut-out patterns.  

The pleated roof is reminiscent of palm leaves. The roof is low to emulate toguna structures, which are traditionally used for community gatherings in Mali and encourage people to remain seated peacefully.  

A tight programme with solid relationships 

Louise McGinley, Aecom’s Senior Project Manager for the Pavilion project, says she “jumped at the chance” to work on it. The biggest consideration for the project, she found, was its short timeframe.  

“I joined the team in September and we delivered this week. That’s such a short project cycle,” she said at the press launch on 8 June. 

“The programme is really tight and there’s already a well-established team,” she explains. The team comprised the staff from the Serpentine Gallery, architect Ghotmeh and her team, Aecom and Stage One Creative Services.  

“There are really solid relationships that already exist, so the challenge was for me to slide into that as a team member.”  

The biggest task was ensuring good communication between all the different partners and stakeholders. “We had twice-a-week meetings on Teams, as Lena was based in Paris.” 

Establishing relationships with each party independently to understand what their priorities were, what each one needed to do their job, and how they preferred to communicate was key to success, explains McGinley.  

“You can’t communicate the same way with the contractor as you would with the client. You have to adapt slightly and work in a little bit of flexibility. Essentially project management does come down to communication and relationships. Get to know your teams and establish a level of trust so you’re there to support.” 

Ethical sourcing of materials 

The build was prefabricated in Stage One’s facility in York and was optimised to minimise waste and simplify the fabrication and erection. The Pavilion was assessed from an embodied carbon perspective throughout the design period and the timber was sustainable.  

The project team audited all the materials to ensure they were ethically sourced from sustainable supply chains. The Pavilion is demountable using simple bolts and screws and can be taken apart and put back together elsewhere after its summer season at the Serpentine ends. 

McGinley says her previous career in architecture held her in good stead for the switch to project management.  

“A lot of the time, I’ve taken projects from concept through to delivery on-site, so I understand the full process. Technically, it’s quite easy for me to highlight if there are issues with details, so having that technical understanding is really beneficial,” she says.  

She describes working on the project as “incredible. You see the Serpentine’s Pavilion every year and it’s really interesting to get to see the inner workings of it. I had never really thought about the process behind it.” 

Be flexible and agile 

The most enjoyable period of the project has been the two months prior to the opening when McGinley had been coming on-site and seeing something different every couple of days. It was a rapid build, with everything prefabricated and slotted into place.  

“At the beginning of the project, it was quite challenging to get up to speed with a scheme that already existed, but I’m never going to get the chance to do a project like this again where it needs to be delivered so quickly.”  

Her advice to other project managers working on fast-delivery projects with an immovable delivery date (and very much in the public eye) is to be flexible and agile. “There’s very little room for anything going wrong.” 

She adds; “It’s quite interesting that people congratulate me on this because it’s very much Lena’s building. I’ve just done things in the background so it’s quite difficult to take any credit for it.” 

The Pavilion will be open every day from 10am to 6pm until 29 October. 


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