Why do we all get such a buzz from the Serpentine Pavilions?

If you’re reading this article it’s more than likely you already know that young Mexican architect Frida Escobedo will design the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion. If you didn’t, you do now. Her design is a black courtyard structure with a reflective roof and water at its centre which the Serpentine Gallery describes as ‘a subtle interplay of light, water and geometry’. Said to draw upon cultural references of the UK and the architect’s native Mexico, the 2018 pavilion promises to be atmospheric and sensual with it’s sure of tactile materials such as the cement tiles which make up the lattice walls and will no doubt be form a fascinating collaboration with those moody London skies.

Serpenine Galleries 2018 Frida Escobedo

Frida Escobedo © Ana Hop

Frida Escobedo © Ana Hop

As well as finding out about what this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion holds in store, today is perhaps also a good day to stop and reflect on some of the reasons why we all get such a buzz from these little structures in Kensington Gardens.

The Serpentine Pavilion a provocateur.

Rem Koolhaas 2006

Rem Koolhaas 2006

As much as architects like to think their work speaks for itself, that’s simply not the case. What makes the annual Serpentine Pavilion so popular is in part down the architecture, the pavilion itself, but to ignore its role as a topic for discussion is miss one of the key objectives of the pavilion. The great thing about the discussion is that it begins right now; the moment images of the upcoming design are released. The imagery is scrutinised, the ambition of the structure questioned, it’s engagement with current world issues criticised. Then things go relatively quiet until the the grand opening where badly lit phone photos escape into the world via journalists’ twitter feeds and trigger the start of an architecture news takeover. The reality vs render debate surfaces among the sea of arguments for and against the new pavilion, making it hard for even the most apathetic of architects to abstain. Never one to be scared of offering his own view of things, it’s no surprise that of all the architects commissioned to design the pavilion Rem Koolhaas embraced this aspect of the project with his design which inaugurated the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Interview Marathon.

It doesn’t last long.

People live in cities their whole lives and often never make it to the biggest local attractions. I know people from Barcelona who have never been inside the Sagrada Familia and Londoners who have never been on the Eye. We get complacent in our cities and with their attractions, assume they’ll be around forever, as will we. Why go this weekend when we can go next weekend, or next year, or in 5 years? The temporary nature of the Serpentine Pavilion doesn’t allow us to fall into this trap. It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it architecture, and if you miss it how can you hold your own in the discussion, or more importantly get the obligatory Instagram shot? The ephemeral nature of the pavilion is one of its greatest strengths, and even if you can’t stand this year’s design don’t worry, it’s not the Walkie Talkie, it won’t be bothering you for long.

It’s thoroughly contemporary.

Anyone who has worked in construction or architecture will know how slow the process is. Today’s ideas will become build forms in, at best, a couple of years’ time. The Serpentine Pavilion is like Hyperloop in a world of horse drawn carriages. In under 6 months the Serpentine Gallery takes one of the world’s leading architects, squeezes an idea from their sought after minds, and constructs it among the trees on their pretty little front lawn. The result, year after year, is the most contemporary piece of full scale constructed architecture anywhere on the planet. It’s architecture that has travelled faster than the speed of architecture to offer us a glimpse of the future. Then it disappears into the internet and mythology before the world has even had chance to catch up.

It is utopian.

Sou Fujimoto 2013

Sou Fujimoto 2013

While to many people the thought of architecture from the 50s, 60s and 70s fills them with horror, to many architects these decades are nostalgically recalled as a time when they were allowed to be utopian. A time when people and state were unified in their belief in a better world and were determined to build it. If such belief still exists today it certainly isn’t manifest through architecture, with perhaps one exception. The compressed timescale, lack of programatic requirements and temporality of the pavilion, not to mention the small matter of unlimited budget make the Serpentine Pavilion the perfect playground for architects to explore their utopian ideals as a living breathing structure. The pavilions have often served architects as built manifestos of their latest thoughts and positions on architecture. Never was this more so than in 2013 with Sou Fujimotos’s steel grid cloud which proved to be a stepping stone for the architect from his earlier residential work into new territories of exploring the relationship between nature and architecture.

It’s reliable.

The Serpentine Pavilion, from it’s announcement to its opening and finally its closing, is often referred to as a highlight of the architectural calendar. I would agree, but it’s not really got much competition. Ok, the student shows are always interesting and worth a visit and there are a few self congratulatory awards and ceremonies that some architecture folk seem to enjoy, but if you’re outside that clique you’re unlikely to care. The Serpentine Pavilion is in a league of its own when it comes to year after year consistency. Every year we know more or less what we’re going to get. No matter what other nonsense the world is churning out, come June there will be a new piece of contemporary architecture to discuss, visit and compare with previous versions, and that can be comforting.

The architecture is the exhibit.

Smiljan Radic 2014

Smiljan Radic 2014

I love architecture, and there’s a good chance you do too if you’re here reading this, but sometimes exhibitions about architecture fail to evoke the same emotions and sensations that experiencing actual architecture does. Maybe it’s the ‘please don’t touch’ nature of many architecture exhibitions that makes them seem quite distant from the reality of architecture. The beauty of the Serpentine Pavilion is that the architecture itself is the exhibit. You can touch it, walk through it, climb on it, sleep in it, and if you’re Juhani Pallasmaa, probably taste it. The images and talk about Smiljan Radic’s 2014 design didn’t do a lot for me but when I set foot inside, smelled the timber of the floor and stroked the rough the translucent shell which came alive with the changing autumnal light I gained a far greater appreciation for the architecture and the rhetoric behind it. Even my Nan enjoyed it, saying it was “a very interesting place to stop for a coffee”. Which leads nicely onto…

Non ‘architecture people’ appreciate it.

Zaha Hadid 2000

Zaha Hadid 2000

It’s not just my Nan, architects and students who get a kick from the temporary architecture on exhibit, the Serpentine Pavilions attract a broad audience from many different walks of life and parts of the globe. Scrolling through TripAdvisor reveals the range of people who visit and then comment on their experience with contemporary architecture, offering some quite direct and and in-depth feedback to the architects, with some even being so kind as to suggest improvements to the designs. Since its the inauguration of the Pavilion programme in 2000 with Zaha Hadid’s angular marquee, media interest in the annual bite-size structures has grown beyond the architecture bubble. This is of course no accident, the Serpentine Gallery has always been vocal about its desire to use the Pavilions as a means to engage with people who may otherwise be uninterested in contemporary architecture. For this I and many other architecture nerds are grateful as it allows us to talk about architecture with our non-architecture friends with the hope that they might know what we’re on about.

It lets us dream.

I can be a jealous designer, and this may have led to a tendency to dislike every new design for the upcoming Pavilion when it is released. Once I’ve accepted that I will never get the commission and the bitterness has subsided I can start to appreciate architecture, revel in its suggestiveness and ambiguities, and ask myself for the thousandth time “what would I do with the Serpentine Pavilion?”. Every year I dream up something completely different to what I imagined the year before, amazed and ashamed at what I would have done just 12 months prior. I know I’m not alone in allowing the Pavilion to drag me into a world of fantasy, I doubt there’s an architect on the planet who hasn’t given the idea some thought. With so many bright minds bogged down drawing speculative investments on computer screens, the Serpentine Pavilion does well to remind each of us what it is we love about architecture. 

Words: Sam Eadington


Leave a Reply