This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about taking creative leaps in challenging times.
On Valerie Schweitzer’s front lawn in Water Mill, N.Y., a structure of intersecting cylinders, thrust aloft on posts and partly enclosed by vertical cedar boards, reaches for the sky.
Is it a building? A sculpture? An apparatus for play?
Ms. Schweitzer’s ethereal pavilion is all of those things and something more — a physical manifestation of her architectural dreams.
“I had this poetic idea of a structure that could simulate nature,” said Ms. Schweitzer, a New York-based architect. “It looks like the regenerating forest: big pods, little pods and varying elevations like branches.”
For years, she had experimented with similar pavilions on a computer screen while taking part in architectural competitions. When her mother-in-law saw the digital renderings, she commissioned Ms. Schweitzer to finally build one. Lacking the space for a pavilion at her Los Angeles home, she asked Ms. Schweitzer to erect it on the architect’s own lot.
The project follows a long tradition of small-scale structures that grow out of experiments with form, materials, space planning and construction methods. For centuries, landscape designers have enlivened gardens with pint-size follies resembling Greek and Roman temples, elaborate tents or hermit huts.
Philip Johnson famously built one experimental pavilion after another on the grounds of his Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Initiatives like the annual Serpentine Pavilion in London routinely commission architects to produce provocative structures.
In Toronto, the annual Winter Stations competition invites architects, designers and artists to create a handful of temporary pavilions on a frigid Lake Ontario beach every February. “They’re only up for two or three months, so it’s a way to really experiment,” said Roland Rom Colthoff, an architect who founded the program. “We’ve had one that was a series of upside-down Christmas trees on a large latticework, hanging. We’ve had ones that were giant swings people could jump on. We had one called Belly of a Bear, which was a giant fur-lined ball you could climb into.”
Whether temporary or permanent, such structures inhabit the space between art and architecture and are largely freed from the rigorous requirements of most residential and commercial buildings, where building codes inform many design decisions. By allowing for unbridled creativity, pavilions can offer glimpses of architecture’s potential, even before all the kinks are worked out.
In Ithaca, N.Y., the architects Leslie Lok and Sasa Zivkovic, who run a studio named Hannah, built an otherworldly 100-square-foot cabin out of 3D-printed concrete and robotically milled wood from trees infested with the emerald ash borer.
“It’s a proof of concept,” Mr. Zivkovic said. Informed by research at Cornell University, the partners had been exploring concepts related to mass customization and alternative building materials and wanted to prove that their ideas represented viable new directions in real-world construction.
“For us, it was important to have an actual small building, which meant that we had to think about how to 3D-print a fireplace, and how to 3D-print a kitchen island,” Mr. Zivkovic said. “We also had to think about insulation, windows and doors, and all of that. It’s a fully functioning building prototype.”
Now they are looking for partners in the building industry to deploy their techniques on a larger scale — “taking the next step toward residential housing,” Mr. Zivkovic said.
In the Netherlands, Company New Heroes built the Growing Pavilion for similar reasons, but to showcase different technologies.
Currently installed in the city of Almere, the pavilion is built from natural materials, including wall panels grown with mycelium from mushrooms, flooring made with cattail and built-in benches formed by rice-straw boards.
“If you just make a sculpture, people will say, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful but not practical,’” said Lucas De Man, a founder and the chief executive of Company New Heroes. “So we thought, ‘Let’s make a temporary house, which is a pavilion.’ And everything in that pavilion, except for some cables and a few screws, is made out of nature.”
The firm conceived the project after seeing mycelium-based packaging and small accessories. When they contacted the manufacturer of those products, Grown.bio, to ask if it would be possible to develop outdoor mycelium panels on an architectural scale, the initial answer was no.
But “the moment people tell us it’s impossible, of course we have the reflex to say, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Mr. De Man, whose firm went on to work with Grown.bio to develop just such a material.
Marc Fornes, who runs the Brooklyn-based architecture firm Theverymany, has spent more than a decade challenging traditional construction techniques by blending structure and surface in self-supporting, athletically twisted pavilions made from thousands of interconnected pieces of laser-cut aluminum.
His firm’s Pillars of Dreams pavilion in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, is fashioned from 3,564 pieces of precision-cut aluminum and rises from a plaza on pillars that swell to create a connected, cloudlike canopy. From below, openings reveal an interior of pink and blue.
“There’s no primary structure, no secondary structure, no traditional post and beam,” Mr. Fornes said. Because his projects don’t look like conventional buildings, they are sometimes seen solely as public art, which is a mistake, he said.
“We strongly refer to ourselves as architects,” he said, “and strongly believe what we produce is about space and architecture.”
Although experimental pavilions may not always seem as practical as traditional buildings, they routinely serve many important functions, from hosting public exhibitions to providing spaces for contemplation — and sometimes even fulfill needs their designers never imagined.
Ms. Schweitzer completed her pavilion in February. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, she, her husband and their two teenage daughters found it surprisingly useful as an open-air home office and guesthouse (the largest of the cylinders is equipped with mosquito netting).
“My daughter had a friend spend the night,” Ms. Schweitzer said. “We weren’t going to let her sleep in the house, but she slept on a mattress out there.”