In 2013, philanthropist and academic Gene Sherman launched a four-year program to build temporary art pavilions in the garden of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney, of which she is the executive director and chairman. This year the program in question, Fugitive Structures, draws to a close, and in 2017 the SCAF itself will end its eight-year run as it morphs into the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas. For a decade the SCAF’s gallery program has presented museum-quality commissions from a range of contemporary artists. It debuted with Ai Weiwei’s large-scale installation Through (2008) and will end with an intervention by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who is known for his innovative work using recycled cardboard and paper. For the past four years, Fugitive Structures has run in parallel to SCAF’s main gallery program.
Inspired by London’s acclaimed annual Serpentine Pavilion series in Kensington Gardens, Sherman wanted to adapt the idea of temporary pavilions to one that could be accommodated in the garden of her compact gallery. But where the Serpentine uses internationally recognized architects and artists—such as Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry and the Japanese architectural firm SANAA (currently engaged in designing an extension for Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales)—Sherman commissioned emerging and mid-career architects, from Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, to great effect. Her approach may seem modest in comparison to the Serpentine, yet the outcomes have proven to be anything but, giving younger architects the opportunity to explore ideas and spatial relationships that are free of constraints imposed by such things as utilitarian outcomes.
Early on, Sherman established a criteria for Fugitive Structures, which proved to be flexible. “It should be able to be used as a waterproof, casual meeting space,” Sherman used to opine, a notion that soon evaporated as each of the four pavilions took on an ambiguous presence that successfully hovered between architectural installation and art object. The pavilions became manifestations of a pure form of architectural thinking.
The inaugural pavilion was Andrew Burn’s Crescent House (2013), which was perhaps the purest in its display of reductive aesthetic values and offered what was really little more than an open-fronted box. Made from various scorched woods, Crescent House created a highly poignant transformative environment that invited meditation. The following year, local Sydney architectural firm AR-MA built Trifolium (2014). Trifolium was a technological wonder. Designed in part by a computer and robotic fabrication techniques, it also utilized materials such as Corian—a popular countertop material created by DuPont scientists in 1967. Several informed builders believed Trifolium simply could not be built given the complexity of its genesis and construction. But built it was, and the end result looked as though some extraterrestrial object had landed in the SCAF garden. Last year, Israeli architectural collective Sack and Reicher + Muller, with designer Eyal Zur, created fabric tents for Sway (2015), which, having been made with thin transparent polyester, seemed vulnerable to the merest breeze, but remained firmly in place. Sway alluded to the biblical Jewish holiday Sukkot, which is a festival that commemorates the Exodus, but also marks the end of harvest time, and thus of the agricultural year, in Israel.
The SCAF’s latest and final iteration of Fugitive Structures is by Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia. His Green Ladder (2016), a deceptively minimal bamboo grid structure, forms the support for various flora and planters, which continue his lofty ambition to make “green” the cities of Vietnam and reunite humanity with nature. Here, Vo’s bamboo installation is smoked, emitting a warm scent that wafts through the honey-colored structure. However, as Vo told ArtAsiaPacific, the work is projected to only last 15 years before it will succumb to the damp, Sydney climate. Green Ladder was first shown for several weeks outside Brisbane’s State Library of Queensland, after which it relocated to the SCAF, where it remains until December 10.
The conceptual path of Green Ladder neatly circles back to the first pavilion Crescent House, where meditation played a central role in refining the architect’s minimalist aesthetics. The latter recently relocated to a permanent home at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Victoria. While Vo does not necessarily assert the notion of meditation as the core of his project, he insists that all of his 50 employees back in Vietnam must practice two hours of meditation daily as well as attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat during the year. It is a strict condition of employment. Five years ago his business was facing bankruptcy. He started personal meditation, which he attributes to the subsequent improvement of his business life; his workforce quickly climbed from 10 to 50 employees.
Currently, temporary pavilions seem to be popping up everywhere in Australia. The National Gallery of Victoria recently had one in its inner courtyard and the City of Sydney—while playing fast and loose with the definition of what a pavilion should be—plans to erect Australian artist Hany Armanious’s Pavilion (2014), a replica of a milk crate inflated to giant proportions, in the centrally-located Belmore Park in 2017. Melbourne-based philanthropist, contemporary art enthusiast and business woman Naomi Melgrom, with a string of nationwide fashion shops under her belt, also launched her own annual series of pavilions in 2014. The latest and third iteration is to be revealed in Melbourne in early October, which will be designed by Indian architect Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai. With plans for Studio Mumbai’s pavilion to also be made from bamboo and rope, a material that Vo uses so elegantly in Sydney, one can’t help but think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ “Green Ladder” is on view at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, is on view until December 10, 2016.