Serpentine Pavilion, the yearly architectural celebrity showcase is invariably over-engineered, superficial and aloof, says Owen Hatherley
The annual pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park (London) is an interesting combination of celebrity and obsolescence. The list of participants since 2000 is a rolodex of the architectural Champions League, a one-site ‘1,000 Buildings to See Before You Die’ – Oscar Niemeyer, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Herzog & De Meuron (with Ai Weiwei, no less), OMA, Sanaa, Peter Zumthor and now, with a crushing inevitability, Bjarke Ingels. Each of them has to design something incredibly simple – basically a tent, with an expensive cafe inside – and because of the essential vacuity of the function, the form has to be exceptionally flamboyant. By a happy accident of history, the pavilion is placed in front of the Serpentine’s home, originally the Tea Pavilion, a prissy piece of interwar ‘Wrenaissance’, which, in every case, the pavilion firmly ignores.
An over-engineered yet disposable form, containing nothing, committed to ignoring its location, with heavy corporate sponsorship, the Serpentine Pavilion is in many ways the ultimate contemporary building – everything that is wrong with ‘high’ architecture today in one throwaway architectural blipvert. As a curatorial strategy, it is closely connected to the approach of the Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, with his ‘Marathons’ – seemingly endless spools of interviews with the great and good, all of them eventually reduced to soundbites of ‘practice’, the apotheosis of the curator’s phonebook.
Nonetheless, as the Serpentine Pavilion goes, Bjarke Ingels’s effort is a good one, doing all the right things – a lightweight appearance combined with complicated, trompe l’oeil engineering, an ‘iconic’ form that, in this case, becomes actually rather monumental. It has just one fatal flaw – because each of the cubes that make up the tent is open, it doesn’t keep the rain off. In a British summer.
In recent years, the pavilion seems to have escaped its temporary nature, in the form of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Sackler Restaurant, attached to the ‘Magazine’, a severe early 19th century former gunpowder store. Containing nothing but an extremely expensive eatery, it is essentially one of the pavilions made permanent. This ETFE bellyflop has already started to wilt and warp and, accordingly, is a good indication of why the pavilions are temporary in the first place.
What is much more alarming is the extension of the Serpentine’s project into a series of ‘summer houses’ just round the corner from the main pavilion. Placed in a tight cluster around Queen Caroline’s Temple, a neoclassical folly, rather than (as you might expect) secreted in secluded places around the expanse of Hyde Park, these are a tightly curated affair: one each by Kunle Adeyemi, Asif Khan, Barkow Leibinger and Yona Friedman, with a lonely high-vis jacketed guard making sure that they’re treated in the appropriate manner.
Here, it really is as if Obrist has just spilled a random page of his phonebook over a tiny site. Each one has a board crediting the architect and explaining what it is they’re trying to say, and that this is a new thing in architecture. Finally, architecture has reached the point contemporary art had sometime in the 1970s – where the work has to be explained by an accompanying text in order to be truly complete. Otherwise, you might ask questions. […]