Serpentine Pavilion 2016 Review


7 June 2016

The English word ‘pavilion’, the outgoing Serpentine co-director Julia Peyton-Jones explains, comes from the Latin papilio, meaning butterfly. Later, in Middle English, a pavilion was a large tent whose sides fluttered in the wind like the wings of a lepidopteron.

Seldom has this etymology been more pertinent than with this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, designed by the emerging super-starchitect Bjarke Ingels and his ever-expanding practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). A towering construction formed almost entirely from pultruded fibreglass frames, its two walls billow out onto the freshly lain turf that surrounds them. It takes one of architecture’s most basic elements, the brick wall, and turns it into something unfamiliar.

Surprisingly, given Ingels’ propensity for surreal, sci-fi designs, from without his pavilion is underwhelming. Viewed from long side, it can even feel a little humdrum – a mass of hastily bolded together squares in lavatorial off blue. But as with Peter Zumthor’s superlative 2010 offering, the exterior barely prepares you for the space within. If it’s not quite “a cathedral”, as Peyton-Jones would have it, it does provoke something close to awe with its pixellated bulge of stacked frames. There’s definite echo here of that other Danish construction export, Lego – something Ingels has invoked in several of his projects, not least the Lego House in Billund. With some spare blocks lying around to be added in time for the opening tomorrow evening, it also feels a little like the world’s largest Ikea flat-pack –fitting, perhaps, given that the frames grew out of a plan for a shelving system.

“Architects almost always work in a situation that it saturated with constraints, so the project becomes a product of the environment rather than a manifestation of architectural values”: so began Ingels’ speech at the launch event. Given this apparent prioritisation of the architect-as-creator over extra-architectural concerns, it’s curious how his pavilion reacts to its own situation. The internal space leads, like a towering Richard Serra sculpture, to the Serpentine’s modest, elegant east façade. More spectacularly, the hollow frames, when glimpsed head on, render the pavilion a transparent grid, allowing gauzy views into the park beyond.

This skeletal form does posit some questions as to how well the pavilion will serve its purpose as a cafe and event space. While Zumthor, and more recently Smiljan Radic, crafted hermetic loci of calm that felt removed from the metropolis, Ingels’ effort is open; Serpentine pavilions have seldom felt so close to the smog and roar of the West Carriage Drive. A previous substructure-led offering, from Sou Fujimoto in 2013, addressed this challenge with a sense of spatial investigation absent here. There, you could find your own spot in the lattice; here, an aluminium bar precludes climbing above a certain height due to the Royal Parks' safety regulations. The rows of wooden seats installed along the walls cultivate a comparatively conventional interior space.

Ingels’ rejection of extra-architectural also jars with his pavilion’s most intriguing feature, its engagement with the currently popular idea of modularity. The fibreglass frames are mass-produced and long lasting. They are also lightweight and easy to assemble, allowing the structure to travel to future locations. This focus on reproduction and customisation, which echoes the additive architecture pioneered by Ingels’ fellow Dane Jørn Utzon, is a forward-thinking touch from an architect whose futurism can sometimes appear mere dazzle.

This year, the pavilion has been joined by four smaller summer houses, which sit on an adjacent lawn in Kensington Gardens. Although each architect was asked to draw inspiration from Queen Caroline’s Temple – a 1734 folly designed by William Kent – the results are heterogeneous in the extreme, sometimes to the point of being unrecognisable as pavilions.

Nigerian urbanist Kunlé Adeyemi provides the most direct reference, and not just because his building’s prime location immediately before the temple’s façade. From afar, his ruined archway both the folly’s form and its yellow stone; from close-up, its upholstered surfaces provide a soft-play counterpart to the temple’s shadowy interior. Berlin and New York-based practice Barkow Leibinger offer up an organically curved, blossoming plywood structure whose shaded external benches offer a panoramic view of the surrounding park. Despite Frank Barkow’s claim that this is a “prototype” for a future project, it is the most fit-for-purpose of all four, as well as the most sympathetic to the park’s verdant surroundings.

Rising London architect Asif Khan has designed a circle of timber staves that enclose a polished metal platform and roof. Perhaps the most immediately arresting of the four, it is also most oppressive, caught between the cage-like wall of the staves and the clinical coldness of the platform. Finally, Hungarian architect Yona Friedman’s work is based on his 1959 manifesto La Ville Spatiale, which posited mobile, modular, inhabitant-built housing. The result, which resembles a miniaturised cluster of modernist monuments akin to those of Bruno Taut or Vladmir Tatlin, is more a reminder of his theory than it is either a full expression of those ideas or an echo of the neighbouring temple. It's fascinating, but out of place here. In his own speech, Friedman decried modern architects who created sculptures rather than buildings - a rather odd critique given that he has effectively done just that.

This problem is one that the summer houses face in general. While the main pavilion is expansive enough to serve as the homunculus of an architect’s imprint while remaining apart from conventional architecture, the summer houses feel too constrained, especially given their proximity on the same small green patch, to be anything other more than a novelty. Ingels’ pavilion faces no much problem. Although the pavilion’s suitability as an event space remains to be seen – as does its appearance once Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec’s slatted Palissade seating for Hay are installed – as an architectural experiment it forms a solid entry in the series. It may not be as spatially exploratory as some past pavilions, but in provoking a conventional sense of wonder it is a success.