The Chilean architect's Serpentine pavilion opens to the public this week (26 June). He told us about his plans for a fibreglass, loaf-shaped structure sitting on a stone circle
ICON: How did the commission come about?
SMILJAN RADIC: When Kazuyo Sejima invited us to do the 2010 Venice Biennale she did something really beautiful: all of the architects who worked in the Biennale were interviewed on video by Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
You would imagine that if you ask somebody to do 100 interviews, they would never know anything about some of the people they interviewed, but he knew so much. It was really impressive.
At the time, I didn't know that he worked at the Serpentine. Then late last year, Julia Peyton-Jones came here. I think she was travelling around South America looking for architects. I met her when she was here, and a few months after that they called me and asked if I wanted to do it.
ICON: Did they give you a brief or did they say just do whatever you want?
SR: At the beginning it was really abstract, but in the end they ask you because they've seen something in your work and they want that to be expressed through the pavilion. that's really important because they have to maintain the history of this commission.
I'm not a fast thinker and so I found it really difficult at first, but the curators were very clever in bringing the project about. The process was quite beautiful, really. Everyone assumes that you send them the model or the drawings and then they build it, but it's not like that at all. It's a very involved process and they help you so much. I never could have done it by myself in two months.
ICON: I read something previously in which you said that you often try to do the minimum possible – that you're interested in a kind of "invisible architecture". Maybe the radio antennas project is a good way to explain what that means?
SR: For years I wanted to design a tower – that's something I've had in my mind for a long time. The beginning of that commission [a competition to combine the many radio antennas on San Cristóbal Hill in Santiago into a single structure] was about creating an ambiance.
I wanted to do something like a ghost, something invisible. I didn't want to put a big, powerful thing in the middle of the city, because then you're only creating a monument to yourself and that's really not what I wanted to do. So, the ghostly or the invisible, those were the first images in my mind. It wasn't about a physical image, but about an ambiance and that's really important.
In 2010, for Gallery Ma in Tokyo, I made a tower with wine glasses, supported by tension lines. That model really had the sensation of the possibility of fragile construction – you could see the tension, the compression – but it is really very technical.
In the end, it's all about the structure. When the commission came in, we thought to try to make something like this wine-glass tower. The beautiful thing is that we didn't make the shape. First we made the software in the computer to solve the engineering question and that led to the shape. You can't try to design a shape around the engineering – it's a mathematical problem.
It's funny, because we made something physical, a model is after all a physical thing. But after we decided that the ambiance was the most important thing and then combining that with the engineering requirements, that was how we got the final form – not the other way around.
ICON: Chile has a complicated recent history – political turmoil and exile and immigration and figuring out its place in the world. While, at least aesthetically, modernism still carries great weight in Chile and in Santiago, there seems to be an upsurge of interest in more local concerns and narratives.
SR: I think it all comes down to possibilities, no more than this. Maybe possibility isn't the right word, maybe fortune or opportunity.
And the other thing that's particularly important when thinking about the immigrants who came to Chile, is that they came with memories of former worlds.
So they come here – to Santiago or Patagonia or the north – with these other worlds in their minds, and what's really beautiful is that, while they had to use local materials to realise their internal ideas, the ideas were nevertheless coming from outside.
This gives so much more value than when someone sets out to do something "local". I don't want to be local; I just work in Chile. It's not a position, it's just the way I have do it. It means, too, that the idea of being local doesn't close me off to inspiration from anywhere.