Unveiled: Ai Weiwei and Herzog & De Meuron's Serpentine Pavilion

Unveiled: Ai Weiwei and Herzog & De Meuron's Serpentine Pavilion
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei
(© Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei Image © 2012 Iwan Baan)

The 12th Serpentine Pavilion officially opens to the public today. Designed by Swiss architect duo Herzog & De Meuron, together with Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the partly-buried structure comprises a round rooftop filled with water, covering a cork-clad, multi-layered atrium. It is a reunion for the design team, who had already joined forces for Beijing's National Stadium "the Nest," built for the 2008 Olympic Games. But following his detention last year, Weiwei is still forbidden to leave China. The artist had to work with the architects via Skype, and was glaringly absent from the press launch yesterday. During his presentation, Jacques Herzog remained upbeat and described the collaboration as "a great experience of friendship and intellectual enjoyment."

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is an annual commission, which has, since 2000, generated outstanding architectural interventions in the park by the likes of Peter Zumthor, Jean Nouvel, and Frank Gehry. And it's this recent past that Weiwei and Herzog & De Meuron have set out to address: when the 2012 pavilion's design was unveiled earlier this month, the team said that they intended to dig out the foundations of the earlier pavilions and integrate them into their own.

"Like a team of archaeologists, we identify these physical fragments as remains of the eleven Pavilions built between 2000 and 2011," Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron stated at the time. "All of these foundations will now be uncovered and reconstructed. The old foundations form a jumble of convoluted lines, like a sewing pattern. A distinctive landscape emerges out of the reconstructed foundations which is unlike anything we could have invented; its form and shape is actually a serendipitous gift."

Whether or not this was meant literally remains unclear. BD Online reported that when building works started and foundations failed to materialize, the architects had to superimpose the plans of the eleven previous structures "to find a new shape." Yet it seems likely that a fictional and symbolic archaeology, rather than an actual excavation, was always the plan. Sitting in the irregular steps that compose the structure's interior, visitors are invited to reflect upon the history of the place — the history of the pavilions, but perhaps also the history of Kensington Gardens, and of London as a whole, which stands, like all megalopolises, as a thick palimpsest of constructions and experiences.

Speaking in a video broadcast during the press launch, Ai Weiwei said: " We focused on memory and the past. We made a study to dig into the meaning of this total act and from that a very interesting result came out, which I think gives this pavilion a new meaning."

Real or dreamt-up foundations aside, one of the most appealing aspects of this new pavilion is how subtle and understated it is. From above, it almost looks like one the park's ponds, ever so slightly pushed to the side to reveal the earth underneath. Under the roof, the interior is quiet, restful, probably due in part to the acoustic qualities of the cork cladding. It's a space for slowing down, concentrating, or contemplating — a perfect set, in short, for Hans Ulrich Obrist's "Memory Marathon," a two-day series of events taking place during Frieze Weekend on the 13 and 14 October.

The pavilion will then join the collection of steel magnate Lakshmi N. Mittal, the main sponsor behind Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's Orbit ArcelorMittal tower in the Olympic park.

"Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012, Designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei," June 1 – October 14, 2012, Kensington Gardens, London