This year’s Serpentine Pavilion is structured around one element: the large, dark oak table that occupies the centre of the space. Visible from the outside between the handsome, scalloped pavilion’s tall thin columns, it bears as much importance as the building itself.
It's called A Table, after the French term "à table!", meaning a call to "come to the table", and is "a meeting place — a place for decision, for encounter and for joy", says Lina Ghotmeh, the Lebanese-born architect behind the project.
Among Ghotmeh's inspirations for the high-profile commission, which runs from June to October at London's Serpentine South, is the majlis — a form of architecture that brings people together, whether for spirited discussion or simply to share food.
Inscribed on Unesco's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015 as a submission from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, the majlis is a time-honoured piece of cultural heritage — a space where members of the community gather to share news, socialise, resolve issues and entertain guests.
Drawing on the tradition, Ghotmeh is hoping that families will come and picnic at the table, unwrapping snacks and juice boxes and sitting amongst one another.
“One of the things that is very much related to our [Arab] culture is hospitality and generosity — making people feel always at ease and tying links between communities and people," she says.
"The idea of communities is very primordial in taking decisions and, whether it's simple decisions with family-related matters, or it's more difficult or serious decisions on a political level — if you look at how gatherings happened, we have the majlis as our typology.”
Putting food and gathering front and centre at the pavilion is also a throwback to the Serpentine South's original function. It was built as a tea house in 1934 to provide refreshments to Hyde Park visitors, with tables outside on the lawns where customers could eat "en plein air", or outdoors.
The cafe was converted into an art gallery in 1970, and three decades later, the Serpentine launched its summer pavilion series, providing architects with the opportunity to create an experimental structure to hold talks and performances throughout the summer months.
The pavilion is the first UK commission for the architect, who grew up in Beirut during the civil war and studied at the American University of Beirut. After graduating, she joined Jean Nouvel Architects in Paris, who, at the time, were preparing the competition proposal that would later become the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
But she didn’t stay long: she left after two years to start the practice Dorell.Ghotmeh.Tane with two colleagues, and while Ghotmeh was only 26, they won an open call to design the National Museum of Estonia. The project was a major one for the small Baltic nation, which was able to tell its own story for the first time in a major way after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Like her Serpentine Pavilion, the Estonian National Museum was motivated by the sense of people’s emotional connection to the space. It was built on a former military airfield outside of Tartu, Estonia’s second city. Shaped like a "scar", as Ghotmeh refers to it, it bears the outline of the airstrip but transforms this Soviet-era history into one of openness and narration.
“The museum has such importance for the Estonians,” Ghotmeh says. “To have a national museum is a marker of their identity and their independence … there's a combination of trying to connect back to history to transform it — to restitch the site — and to reconcile with the past.”
Since the success of the museum, which won the Grand Prix Afex, France's premier award for global architecture, Ghotmeh has become one of the world's most promising architects. She is currently working on the Sara Hilden Art Museum in Tampere, Finland, and on other soon-to-be-announced institutional projects.
Part of a generation who are moving away from the starchitect model of a recognisable style that is plopped down in different places across the globe, she instead privileges context — and not just social context, but an understanding of the land itself and the links between earth, climate and culture.
For the Serpentine Pavilion, that means the table's significance lies both in the conviviality it enables and in the food that people bring to it.
“Thinking about food is a vector that links us as people to our ground, to our climate,” she underlines. “If I think about my relationship to home, I would think about food because it talks about my roots. It talks about what can grow on this land and how generations have been cooking and evolving these recipes that are very much linked to geographies.”
The Serpentine has made the climate crisis a curatorial priority, embarking last year on a multi-year project around the topic; and the programming in A Table will likewise address art and ecologies. The gallery is also working towards mitigating its carbon footprint, both in its year-round exhibitions and in the pavilion itself.
Wood, the primary material of the pavilion, has a lower-carbon tally than concrete or other typical building materials, and makes A Table easier to disassemble and reuse after its five months in Hyde Park. The internal design of the structure, says Ghotmeh, was also inspired by nature, with its central beam alluding to the central vein of a leaf.
“I grew up in Lebanon, in Beirut, a city that was violently destroyed — but at the same time, [I see that] nature has the capacity to bring beauty,” she says. “My father is originally from a village, and there I found moments of meditation, moments of wellness. I always say architecture is a continuity of its environment. We have the responsibility of respecting the environment around us and doing something that is not just pretty, but worthwhile.”