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Architecture Students Recreate Iconic Pavilion for Barbara Hepworth Retrospective

In the final room of Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture of a Modern World – a retrospective of Hepworth’s work currently on show at Tate Britain – sits an abstraction of the Rietveld Pavilion. This installation was devised and created by eight first-year architecture students, who spent six months researching the history of the pavilion and negotiating the practical challenges of recreating it within a gallery at Tate Britain.

Working alongside tutors Jamie Fobert, Oliver Bindloss and George Dawes, the students were tasked with proposing a reinterpretation of the iconic design. Named after its creator Gerrit Rietveld, the pavilion was originally created as temporary structure for the display of small sculptures at the 1955 Third International Sculpture Exhibition in Arnhem’s Sonsbeek Park. After this initial event it was dismantled, however, in 1965 it was rebuilt in a permanent home within the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. An exhibition of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures inaugurated the pavilion in this new setting.

The pavilion is formed of simple horizontal and vertical lines, made from concrete, brick, steel, glass and wood. Rietveld, who began his career as a furniture designer, was a key player in the De Stijl movement. Based on rectilinear forms and primary colours, this form of abstraction does not at first appear compatible with Hepworth’s, which is more organic, emotional and intuitive. However Hepworth described the pavilion as being an ideal setting for her large abstract bronzes, some of which are now on display within the exhibition.

At the start of the project in January, the students visited the pavilion at the Kröller-Müller Museum. Here they realised the challenge they faced in re-interpreting a structure situated in open parkland within a subterranean gallery with no natural light. One of the students, Ciaran Scannell explained that this was something they were initially sceptical of, perceiving the act of bringing a pavilion inside as a contradiction. However, Tate were impressed with the models proposed by each of the students, and any doubts were forgotten. From these initial designs, the students worked collaboratively on a final model, combining elements that were deemed most successful.

Discussing the end result, outgoing Dean of the School of Architecture Alex de Rijke explained: ‘They have captured the essence of the pavilion, rather than created a direct sample of it.’ While the exact methods of construction have been replicated, the composition was altered to fit within the dimensions of the gallery. Yet the design stays true to the grounding principles of the original structure. The students achieved this fidelity by carefully considering and replicating the spatial conditions surrounding each of the sculptures chosen to be displayed.

The exhibition is the first major Hepworth exhibition in London for almost 50 years, featuring some of her most significant sculptures in wood, stone and bronze. An overarching aim of the show is to place her work within the context of international modernism, for which the Rietveld Pavilion plays a key role. Another theme, which is outlined in the exhibition text, is the relation of Hepworth’s ‘long standing interest in the possibilities of the relationship between sculpture and architecture’. The show starts with small pieces, displaying them in the context of international artists, including Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. However, it is her larger works, in particular the large hardwood carved sculptures, which reveal an architectural preoccupation with the relationship between exterior and interior space. 

Jamie Fobert Architects has a longstanding relationship with Tate: in 2002 they designed a display for The Upright Figure, an exhibition in the Turbine Hall; in 2012 they created the structure for The Robinson Institute installation by Patrick Keiller in the Duveen Galleries; and the extension of Tate St Ives currently due to be completed in 2017 has also been designed by the firm. The students working on this live project gained from this rich expertise, but also from the valuable experience of partcipating in meetings with contractors, engineers, curators and Tate's design management team. Scannell described the opportunity as ‘amazing’ and explained that ‘working on a project from the ideas stage through to the final structure was extremely rewarding.’

Students who participated in the project are: Chiung-Ting Chiu, Paul Cohoon, Ohyun Kwon, Thomas Parsons, Charles Proctor, Nikolaus Rach, Simon Rickards, Ciaran Scannell and Jamie Wright.

Live projects are a core element of MA Architecture teaching at the RCA. Other live projects in 2014/15 include the Exhibition Road tunnel and the Helix Design Studio. For more information and how to apply, see Architecture and Apply.