Natalia Grabowska

To understand architecture, you need to enter and feel it, not just talk about it.

Text: Maja Von Horn
Photography: Kasia Bobula

London’s Serpentine have opened their 22nd Summer Pavilion, this year entitled À table. – Being at the table is not about just eating a meal, it’s about the opportunity to find out what’s new with the family or in politics, to talk about our successes or lack thereof, to laugh and to complain – says Natalia Grabowska, the curator of one of the most prestigious architectural projects in the world.

Maja von Horn: This is the fourth year in a row that you’ve curated the Serpentine Pavilion in London. This year it was designed by Lina Ghotmeh, a Paris-based French-Lebanese architect. Why did you choose her?

Natalia Grabowska: Lina has this remarkable approach to architecture that she calls “archeology of the future.” She surveys the landscape like an archeologist, closely studying the location, its context, and what was there in the past. It’s all in service of creating something innovative, while respecting the location’s history and making sure the new addition blends in with its surroundings. Lina was raised in Beirut during the civil war which significantly shaped her outlook on architecture and life in general.

I went to Lebanon and visited her in December, to witness and understand her culture, and I noticed many similarities between the Lebanese and the Poles. Just like Poland, Lebanon is a society that has gone through a lot of trauma, a lot of war. But the Lebanese also know how to have fun and celebrate like no one else, because they never know what will happen tomorrow.

When you live in a country as unstable as Lebanon, where you can lose your home and all your familiar places at any moment, sometimes the only thing that feels like home is food. Wherever there’s oppression, there needs to be some sort of escape valve. In Beirut it’s definitely the spirit of celebration, and its people’s warmth, openness, generosity. For Lina it was very important to recreate this warm atmosphere in the pavilion, so she had her friend design a custom soundtrack for the space, while in the cafe, instead of traditional English sandwiches with ham and cheese, we’re serving Mediterranean snacks.

From the very first design that Lina shared with us, the key feature of the pavilion was a long concentric table at which you could meet and feast. The project’s name is “À table,” - a call to gather “At the table.” It’s not about just eating a meal, it’s about the opportunity to find out what’s new with the family or in politics, to talk about our successes or lack thereof, to laugh and to complain. At the same time, Lina looked at a flat plan of the area where we always build the pavilion, and she saw that there were trees growing there. So she did this very simple thing – respecting the trees and the way they shape the landscape, she decided to adapt the form of the pavilion to the existing terrain.

M.v.H.: Lina Ghotmeh’s architectural studio is known for its sustainable approach to architecture. What is this year’s pavilion constructed out of?

N.G.: Lina prioritises craftsmanship and the idea of hand-made is important to her on both micro and macro scales. The pavilion is built predominantly from different forms of wood. The ceiling, roof, and panelling are from painted plywood. A tree branch and leaf pattern lattice designed by Lina lets in wind and light. Inside, there are oak tables and a wooden floor painted in a mahogany shade. The roof resembles a large palm leaf. Most of the forms and colours in this project are borrowed from the nature that surrounds us.

M.v.H.: The roof is quite low.

N.G.: The idea was for it to be an invitation to sit down. Lina was inspired by toguna structures – squat huts local to Mali in West Africa. All of the village’s most important decisions are taken in these buildings, and because they are often preceded by raucous debates, the roofs are built quite low on purpose, to discourage standing, which in turn can help slow down any outbursts of violence. When you come in, you have to stoop down, which inadvertently makes you give your respect to the building, and you have to sit down, which naturally makes you calmer. Sometimes we see buildings that we admire architecturally, but we don’t feel like spending time in them. Lina wanted people to come and sit in the pavilion for some time, to eat, talk, and listen.

Serpentine South Gallery
Natalia Photo 5

M.v.H.: During the day you can sit and grab a bite in the cafe, and in the evenings, the pavilion turns into a place for cultural events, with an excellent artistic programme, with lectures and workshops.

N.G.: The idea to create an architectural pavilion every year instead of having architecture exhibitions came about when 23 years ago the then-director of the gallery, Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, decided that in order to understand architecture, you need to enter it and feel it, and not just talk about it or look at sketches and models. The first pavilion was built as a location for our annual Summer Party, which is the biggest fundraising event for Serpentine. It was so successful that they decided in the following year that the pavilion needs a cafe, and that it will be a place for curators to organise lectures, film screenings, etc. For the last several years we’ve hosted this cyclical programme called Park Nights, which consists of a series of performances. There are also a number of private events and parties, and even weddings

M.v.H.: Who chooses the architect who will design the pavilion?

N.G.: For the last several years we’ve had the same team that selects the designer – it’s the gallery’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, its CEO Bettina Korek, the director of construction and special projects Julie Burnell, and myself as curator. We work with external advisors, architects and structural engineers. In June, when the pavilion opens, I already start doing research on who will be our next architect. I check who we haven’t worked with yet in terms of area of the world, age, etc. The four of us create a long list of names and then we start to meet to talk about them, which is when we’re joined by a structural engineer, who has to sometimes bring us down to Earth because we do have time and budget constraints. In the end, we pick about seven people who we ask to send us their designs.

M.v.H.: What are your criteria?

N.G.: The only one is that it must be an architect who has never built in England at the time of invitation. Their age or location are not important. In England you can see buildings designed by world-famous architects, and the pavilion’s concept is to showcase an architect who isn’t well-known in this country. During the pavilion’s first 15 years, the criteria were different – then, they chose the most well-known architect who hadn’t yet built in England. At the time, the pavilions were designed by so-called “starchitects,” like Jean Nouvel, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, etc. It was an interesting idea, but for these architects the pavilion was more of a playground, a project much, much smaller than what they were doing on a day-to-day basis. In 2016, we changed the concept, opening up the pavilion to more emerging architects, some of whom had never even built anything of their own.

M.v.H.: After you pick the winning design, the architect and curator launch into nine months of close cooperation. What does your role look like in this process?

N.G.: It’s very different from when I’m working on an exhibition. There is no selection of works or creation of a narrative, but there is a lot of work with space. I joined Serpentine as an art curator, I was not an architecture expert. But I always specialised in site-specific projects. I was drawn to work in the field, outside the gallery walls. My work with an architect is largely based on conversation, on conceptualising ideas – what is this building supposed to be, what does the architect want people to feel within it, what do they want to happen inside. I do research regarding materials, I’m part of the meetings with engineers and contractors. We think about the artistic program that accompanies the pavilion, about the events, performances, or lectures that would be the most interesting to host. I also oversee the editing of the catalogue, deciding who should write for it and on what topics. I often say that I hold the architect’s hand.

Serpentine Pavillion Photo 1
Serpentine Pavilion 2023 by Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture
Pavillion Photo 2
Serpentine Gallery

M.v.H.: Before you joined Serpentine over five years ago, you worked for, among others, the Lisson Gallery in London and Artists Space in New York. How did you get started in the art world? What were your first steps after graduating from high school in Warsaw?

N.G.: I started by studying at the European Studies department of the University of Warsaw. I lasted something like four months before realising that it definitely was not my thing. In the meantime, I was also working as an assistant during photo shoots, and ended up abandoning school in Warsaw to go to London to study photography. I was fascinated by documentary photography and wanted to become a war photographer, reporting and travelling from conflict to conflict. But after a week of studying in the UK I was incredibly disappointed and questioning what I was doing there. The system here emphasises individual study, there’s not much knowledge being passed on. This could be great if you’re 30, but I was 19 and still in need of mentorship. But I decided not to drop out. Luckily, two of my professors, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, had been invited to be curators of Kraków Photomonth, and they needed an assistant curator. I spoke Polish, I knew the context, so they took me along. There were 20 exhibitions from artists all around the world, sprinkled around the entire city, in addition to a historical retrospective of 55 artists in the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art. So I was thrown in at the deep end, but it was an amazing experience.

M.v.H.: Were you at that point still hoping to be an artist, a photographer?

N.G.: Yes, although I remember well when, while on our way to the airport, one of those professors said to me “You should be a curator, not an artist, you’d be a great curator.” At the time, of course, I took this as an insult, but several years later, after maturing a bit, I understood he was right.

Natalia Photo 2
Natalia Grabowska

M.v.H.: What is your favourite thing about being a curator?

N.G.: The opportunity to work with so many different artists, and to believe in them and their work. This is something that I never had with regard to myself, to my own work – probably because what I was doing was not very good. There were too many references, too much information in my work, it was boring. I also like that in this work so much depends on the curator: they can affect the entire show, even by simply switching up the order of the pieces. I like the lack of routine and boredom, that every project is different from the previous one.

M.v.H.: Do you ever have moments of doubt connected to your job?

N.G.: Yes, after seven years I had a crisis regarding London, but also the gallery world, so I decided to return to Poland. This was a very interesting experience, it lasted maybe two months. I would go to job interviews in Warsaw institutions like the Centre for Contemporary Art or the National Museum. I was determined, but everywhere I went I was met with scepticism, if only because I did not study art history in Poland. My experience in galleries in London didn’t count, it was more important that I didn’t have a Polish diploma. My interview at the National Museum, where I applied for the position of collection assistant, was very interesting. Then-director Piotr Rypson, whom I deeply respect, told me “Just so we’re clear, I definitely won’t hire you, but I wanted to meet you to understand why you wanted to come back here.” He explained to me what it means to work for a state-run museum in Poland, and encouraged me to run as far from it as possible.

M.v.H.: You then returned to London and dipped your toe back in with Serpentine?

N.G.: I wasn’t sure what to do with myself and I applied for a course called “Human Rights and Visual Culture” at Columbia University in New York. I was accepted, while at the same time getting a job at Artists Space – an organisation founded in the 1970s by artists and for artists, which went from being very experimental to one of the most important cultural and arts institutions in New York. I lived in the US for almost a year, but I missed Europe. I came back to London and started working at the Lisson Gallery, which was a wonderful experience – but I always felt like my end goal was to work at a public institution.

M.v.H.: Why?

N.G.: I still have this – maybe naive – sense of public service, of mission and belief that art should not be exclusive, that it should be as widely accessible. This may be why I like working in public spaces, more so than in galleries. At Serpentine, we have many people who come to the pavilion in the summer, but would never come to our exhibitions.

Many feel intimidated and uncomfortable in gallery buildings. A pavilion is usually an open structure, without doors and white walls – it’s just a building in a park which is why people are more likely to come in and get a sense of the architecture, spend some time with it.

*The Serpentine Pavilion 2023 is open until October 29th. *

Natalia Photo 3
Natalia Photo 6

Natalia's Favorite Places in London

  1. Emalin An excellent gallery which I’ve been following since it launched. The programming is consistently at a high level and keeps surprising me in a good way.
  2. Estorick Collection An art institution in my beloved Canonbury neighbourhood. It specialises in 19th and 20th century Italian art, which goes a bit beyond my interest and expertise, but I always learn something there. You can also sit on some of the most beautiful benches built for gallery spaces.
  3. Kenwood Ladies' Pond in Hampstead Heath A magical swimming hole. I love this spot because of the nature and the light, but also the diversity of women and female relationships one can encounter.
  4. Camden Passage (Wednesdays and Saturdays) A small vintage market where you can find great housewares, clothing, jewellery and unusual gifts.
  5. Rio CinemaWhich is 10 minutes from my house and is a wonderful movie theatre-institution.
  6. Restaurants and food It’s difficult to choose one spot in London! Green Valley is my favourite Lebanese store and deli where you can eat the tastiest lunch. I go to Daquise for traditional Polish dumplings and vodka, to Hector’s for a glass of wine, and for dinner St. John and Rochelle Canteen are always reliable.
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