The 10th Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens opens this weekend. The annually selected temporary structure has become one of the most prized architectural commissions around and provides an innovative means of introducing celebrated foreign architects into the UK. It also marks an ingenious publicity coup for the gallery itself which, like Wimbledon, spends most of the year buried in relative obscurity before bursting onto the spotlight every summer. Previous designers have included Frank Gehry and Japanese duo SANAA but this year it is the turn of avant-garde French architect Jean Nouvel.
The pavilion houses a cafe which can also be adapted to form an auditorium for the gallery’s Park Night’s programme. Nouvel’s structure is an assortment of large steel frames arranged to form a pitched-roof marquee. The roof is comprised of a series of retractable fabric awnings which, when closed, bathe the interior in a dim, translucent glow. The walls are a mixture of polycarbonate and lightweight metal panels, the most striking of which is 12m high and leans precariously to one side of the pavilion. This is perhaps the only sign of Nouvel’s signature preoccupation with radical geometries; the rest of the building is fairly conventional in form, a disparate and rather clunky assortment of splayed angles and surly shapes.
However, its most striking feature is not its form but its colour which is a deep, blood red. Everything is red, from the steel frames and fabric awnings to the hammock and table-tennis tables dotted around the entrance lawn. Nouvel explains that the concept behind this was two-fold: to provide a striking contrast with the surrounding park landscape and to reflect the traditional colour of iconic London objects such as buses, post-boxes and phone boxes.
The first explanation carries considerably more credibility than the second. There certainly is a vivacious thrill to observing this striking red monolith marooned amidst the verdant green landscape of the surrounding parklands, particularly when first catching glimpses of it through trees and vistas. However the second justification is tenuous in the extreme and would be far easier to believe were Nouvel’s One New Change office development currently rising in the City also red – which it isn’t.
One wonders why architects insist on identifying complex conceptual validations for their design choices rather that just admitting that the overriding motivation behind their decisions is personal preference. To some degree, Rafael Vinoly is guilty of the same thing by stating that the billowing form of his 20 Fenchurch Street tower was generated by a commercial desire to align larger floor areas to more lucrative high-level rents rather than just admitting he has a penchant for bulbous, curvaceous objects. Nouvel’s additions to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid are also swathed in red so the man should just admit he likes it.
Nouvel’s pavilion will undoubtedly prove a popular place to rest and relax during the summer and will certainly do no harm to the architectural notoriety of the Serpentine’s coveted summer pavilion commission programme, an inspired venture for which the gallery should be thoroughly commended. Also, despite the shaky colour concept, the abundance of red also works, providing a clichéd yet undeniably an impressive piece of visual coordination that remains controlled without appearing overtly corporate. In fact, without the red, the pavilion would be a rather graceless piece of temporary stage-set architecture, free of the cinematic decadence and ethereal intrigue that its audacious pigment provides.
The Serpentine Pavilion was designed by Jean Nouvel with Arup and is sponsored by NG Bailey. It is open to the public from 10th July to 17th October.