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Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates
Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates© Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine

The story behind Theaster Gates’ Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

The Chicago-based artist reflects on his boundary-pushing commission and how he hopes to build spaces that make people smile at each other

On a moody morning in the midst of Frieze Week in London, Theaster Gates greets me with a solid handshake and a smile inside the Serpentine South Gallery. Just outside is Black Chapel, the 21st Serpentine Pavilion designed by Gates and realised with the support of Adjaye Associates. Notably, Gates is the first non-architect to be solely awarded the commission.

When we meet, Black Chapel is in the final days of its tenure at the London institution and Gates is reflective. “I’ve realised that the gift of architecture, the gift of the Pavilion commission, is that when done well it allows all these other things to happen,” he says. “I understand success today is when a project starts small, but then it quickly gets away from you, and it’s bigger than anything you can imagine – you’re no longer in control of it.”

Over four months, Black Chapel welcomed thousands of people from all over the world to either sit in the silence or witness the space activated by performances from artists and musicians, from Moses Boyd to Corinne Bailey Rae, and Gates’ own band, The Black Monks, as well as workshops by Phoebe Collings-James, among others. “I couldn’t keep up with the ambition that the Serpentine and people in the UK had for using it,” Gates continues. “I feel like it was successful because it became much bigger than me.”

Erected in June, Gates describes Black Chapel as a “vessel”: a site for “contemplation and convening”. Constructed with black-stained plywood, its silo shape was inspired by the pottery kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, and traditional African structures, like the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon. “I wanted to contribute to architecture while acknowledging that I was a builder more than a trained architect,” he explains. “So the contribution I thought I could make was a simple vessel. That felt honest but also, in some way, enigmatic.”

On one side of Black Chapel hangs seven of Gates’ tar paintings, made with a tar kettle left to him by his late father, who was a roofer. Outside sits a bronze bell, acquired from Saint Laurence, a Catholic Church that once served Chicago’s South Side, where Gates was born and raised. Before it was demolished, Gates bought as much as he could from the old church, with the intention to give the materials a second life through his art.

In 2017, Gates was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to build what would become the blueprint for Black Chapel. “Black Vessel for a Saint” was installed as a permanent structure in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It was silo-shaped like Black Chapel would later be, but built with black brick instead of plywood. Notably, it was also constructed with the materials Gates salvaged from Saint Laurence, including the bell and a six-foot-tall concrete statue of the deacon. In many ways, “Black Vessel for a Saint” was a predecessor for Black Chapel. “I think, in essence, I was trying to refine a public-facing performance venue that didn’t shy away from a kind of ascetic, ascendant, people gathering space,” says Gates.

Initially, Gates had hoped to bring more materials and objects from Chicago to build Black Chapel, but he changed tack upon realising that the ecological footprint would have been too costly. “I had to think, OK, how can I make a vessel with materials already here,” he says. “That in its emptiness feels great, but it’s also a space where you could imagine it with others. That it holds people well was what was on my mind.”

“I’m curious about how architecture helps people smile at each other. It’s an art to help people feel, where they look at each other and go, ‘are you experiencing that?’” – Theaster Gates

His thinking took him back to his grandmother’s house in Mississippi. As he describes it, a simple pinewood, shotgun house with exposed walls and clapboard on the outside. “There is something that speaks to both the restraint of poverty but also the restraint of asceticism,” he says. “Like the building doesn’t need much to house big power. It ain’t about marble – it doesn’t need that. Architects do that; I’m not that. The thing I know how to do is to create a vessel where energy can move, and where like people are in it, like, oh, this thing is alive? To see it filled with people gives me a lot of joy.”

The centrepiece of Black Chapel is a gaping oculus on its ceiling that acts as a centre of gravity, pulling the outside into the space and inviting people to take solace on a long bench that hugs the edges of Black Chapel as they stare into the light. Transfixed, like moths to a flame.

The oculus signals the presence of the sacred and the possibility of a higher power. Religion is certainly no stranger to Gates’ work, who sang in the church choir as a youth. His work often taps into the ceremonial and the transcendent, whether through space, performance, or materials. How, I ask him, does that translate to a British audience, where religion is less entwined in daily life than in Gates’ native US?

“It seems that London is a pretty agnostic place where people have deep human values, but like, the religious and the sacred is kind of a rock band in a church,” Gates jokes. “I was hoping we could build a space where even if it wasn’t about religion, it was about returning to a silence and interiority. People being silent together, strangers being silent together, a shared silence where they feel more connected to each other. A space that gives you a set of rituals, even if the ritual is nothing.”

Before Gates had this fully-formed vision and execution of Black Chapel, he had its name. There’s a lineage in his practice of prefacing the titles of his initiatives and artworks with the word ‘black’ – from “Black Vessel for a Saint” to the Black Image Corporation – but for Gates, it’s more about Black as an emotional, rather than a racialised, condition.

“In a moment where everything feels so racially galvanised – groups are becoming more absolute, things seem much less permeable – what I’m finding is that there are people who are just seeking joy. Or they’re seeking another kind of restraint, or they want community,” he says. “When you look at this Pavilion, I’m also thinking about Notting Hill Carnival, that’s not just Black people showing up, but all people showing up with a particular emotive state, openness, ready to receive – wanting joy and a kind of solidarity.”

He continues: “I think Blackness is as much an emotional condition, a declaration of one’s belief and a kind of equity and justice. It’s as much that as it is a commitment to the specificities of culture. Nothing about that Pavilion reads or registers as Blackness, architecturally. It’s just the colour of the girders, steel, wood, right?”

Gates’ all-encompassing practice and background in urban planning means he sees space and materials in ways that few artists can. There’s a bigger picture thinking to what he makes that extends far beyond his studio. When I mention that his art makes the world a better place, he’s bashful. “I don’t say it out loud,” he responds, smiling. “Even as you say it, it’s backing up in your throat. Yeah. I’m making space and I want the space to have a vibe. To be a better place. I might stop short of saying people come to the space wanting to be something, but I want the space to help them want to be their better selves.”

Ultimately, Gates says, “I’m curious about how architecture helps people smile at each other. It’s an art to help people feel, where they look at each other and go, ‘are you experiencing that? Ahh. That’s nice.’ I think that’s what the old churches did, where it was like, ‘is this what it’s like to be in the presence of God? Because this is better than my house – this is better than that cold world outside‘.”