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Black Chapel- A Site for Convening & Connecting

Summer in London is synonymous with the Serpentine's prestigious annual architectural commission, the Serpentine Pavilion. The Pavilion commission has become an international site for architectural experimentation and is open annually from June to October.

It's one of the first places I visit on my summer trips to the city I call my second home.

Located in Kensington Gardens, one of London's eight Royal Parks, the Serpentine Pavilion draws a large crowd of locals and tourists who come to enjoy the structure, linger for a coffee, and engage with the public programming. What I love most about the Pavilion is its ability to reach a diverse public outside the traditional walls of the museum or gallery space and its success in redefining contemporary art viewing. It draws attention to the symbiotic relationship between the beautiful natural setting of the park and the structure itself: Art, culture and city merge to create a holistic space to gather.

Click here to see past commissions.

This pioneering commission began in 2000 with British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the intent being to present the first U.K building of some of the biggest names in international architecture.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2000 Designed by Zaha Hadid (19 June – 3 September 2000) Photograph © 2000 Hélène Binet

Past participants include Sou Fujimoto of Japan, Herzog & De Meuron of Switzerland, in collaboration with Ai Wei Wei, Jean Nouvel of France and Frank Gehry from the united States.

This year's commission went to Chicago-based multi-disciplinary artist, community advocate, and urban planner Theaster Gates. He is one of only three solo artists to have been selected to an otherwise architect-driven commission. Gates collaborated with award-winning Ghanaaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, who built, among others, Ruby City in San Antonio and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C, to create the simple cylindrical structure.

The architectural brief was to design a maximum 350-square-meter (approximately 3767 square feet) Pavilion that is used as a cafe and meeting space by day and a forum for learning, debate and entertainment at night.

Artists/ architects have six months to conceive and build the Pavilion on a zero budget: For the past eight years, Goldman Sachs has been the leading funder for the project. Remaining support comes from sponsorship, in-kind donation and the sale of the Pavilion.

Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine.

Black Chapel

According to Theaster Gates, "Black Chapel suggests that in these times there could be a space where one could rest from the pressures of the day and spend time in quietude." The namesake stems from a commission Gates received from the late curator Okwui Enwezor, to activate the central atrium of Haus der Kunst in Munich, built by and for the Nazi Regime.

When you come up to it, it seems imposing because it is a large black circular structure that stands out against the park's lush green background. But when you walk in, it feels like a sanctuary for contemplation. It is calming and reflective, reminiscent of the transcendental environment of Houston's Rothko Chapel, in its simplicity, contemplative atmosphere, and the singular oculus providing the only source of light.

"The design of my Pavilion has its origin in the great kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, used for firing pottery ware" said Gates, referencing the famous bottle kilns of west-central England. As such, his Pavilion pays homage to craft and manufacturing traditions. He was also inspired by the beehive kilns of the Western United States, monumental spaces like San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, as well as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon and Kasubi tombs of Kampala, Uganda.

Natalia Grabowska, project curator, explains that "In his design, he references these architectural forms, and the varying ways that they hold space, for people and for sacred moments. He is invested in how these forms produce energy and amplify sound, creating space for the sonic and the silent."

"The kilns themselves are also amazing empty vessels that can produce the energy and acoustics of a sacred space or chapel through their sound chamber and their condensed volumes." Theaster Gates.

His Pavilion also pays homage to his father, a roofer, who past away earlier this year. Theaster Gates creates a memorial to his father's vocation, paying tribute to the value of labor and making. The seven Tar paintings hanging in the Pavilion, reinforce this tribute: they are made of adhered rubber roofing material and stained modular wood.

Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine.

"I thought I would attempt to make a series of works that could both punctuate the space and also acknowledge the fact that my interest in architecture is very much that of a builder, a person who works with his hands....The seven paintings are a kind of salute to or memorial to the history of labor, in the ways in which labor is a beautiful, spiritual way of transmitting energy." Theaster Gates

Gates wanted to create a space that was not "flamboyant, that could disappear, and in disappearing can feel grand."

"It feels like we got it as simple as we could. All the bones are apparent. I love showing the skeleton. I wanted the structure to reflect a kind of simple builder's touch." Gates

This technique was informed by the work of American sculptor Louise Nevelson:

"She had this idea that if you limit the palette to one color, people can then pay attention to the form."

The Pavilion, the largest to date at 33 feet tall, is predominantly made up of structural timber clad in a plywood "stressed skin" and/or timber board stained and treated for external use. It features three large openings, one in the roof and two in the external walls, as well as an internal dividing wall made of timber construction. The interior is lined with seating and the series of tar paintings. The operating bronze bell at the entrance to the Pavilion is salvaged from Chicago's St. Laurence Church and is a reminder of the loss of spiritual spaces, but also the salvation/ capturing of things that are lost as a result of cities changing. It is used to announce performances and programs inside the Pavilion.

photo credit: Niklas Hallen/AFP

Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine.

This commission is the culmination of a three-part project called The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project which comprised exhibitions at London's Whitechapel gallery, (September 2021-January 2022), White Cube (September-October 2021) and a two-year residency at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The project seeks to investigate the making, labor and production of clay, as well as its collecting history, with the aim of generating new knowledge, meaning and connections about the material. Elements of the research for both exhibitions have fed into his thinking about the Pavilion design.

Black Chapel also continues his professional investment in the creation and preservation of structures for spiritual possibilities.

"When you build the right vessel, it unifies that interest in ceramics, the spiritual, the built environment."

When Gates was asked why the building clearly felt like a sacred space, Gates explained that verticality combined with height in an enclosed space gives the impression of sacred architecture. The gaze is drawn upwards to the presence of god. The oculus also acts as a link between what is happening on earth and what is happening above. In addition, he wanted to create a sense of austerity, of stripping back in order for the spiritualness to be seen.

From the onset, Gates wanted to include dynamic live public programing that would create community and creative exchanges.

"For most of my adult life, I've been thinking about what it means to be sacred, or what it means for space to be sacred. I found that when people get together and do things together, often something sacred could happen."

He was also interested in "building a space that considers the power of sound and music as a healing mechanism and emotive force that allows people to enter a space of deep reflection and deep participation....The kilns themselves are also amazing empty vessels that can produce the energy and acoustics of a sacred space or chapel through their sound chamber and condensed volumes."

Music plays an important role in Gates' artistic practice. His musical ensemble, The Black Monks, features in the pavilion's public programming. Their music is rooted in the Black music of the South, including the blues, gospel and wailings, but also linked to ascetic practices, related most closely to Eastern monastic traditions.

As in previous years, to minimize carbon footprint and environmental impact, the Pavilion is fully demountable and will be relocated to a permanent site after the summer installation. Black Chapel was purchased by Therme group.

Click here to see where past commissions ended up.

Black Chapel is a multi-sensorial experience that is immersive, plays with light and shadow, sound and echo, and as a project, straddles multiple disciplines: architecture, art and performance. But it is primarily a site for contemplation, convening and reflection set within the beautiful grounds of Kensington Gardens. The Pavilion's hallowed chamber fuses the secular with the sacred allowing for the public to lose themselves in the reverberation of voice and instrumentals.

In the end, Black Chapel is meant to be about people and the artists' ongoing engagement with creative space-making, regenerating urban spaces and making room for congregation and contemplation.

"It is my hope that Black Chapel will achieve the honorific, interrogate the sacred and encourage the social." Theaster Gates

The Pavilion is on view through October 16, 2022. Entrance is free.


A warm thank you goes to Nicolas Smirnoff, head of Media Relations at the Serpentine, for his enthusiasm about this blog post and for providing articles and images to facilitate my research.


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