Sunday, June 26th 2016
Every year since 2000, the Serpentine Gallery has commissioned a temporary summer pavilion by a leading architect. As the 2016 pavilion is now open, we went down to take a look.
The Serpentine Gallery and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery are situated in Kensington Gardens. These were once part of Hyde Park but in 1728 were divided off to make private gardens for Kensington Palace which, since 1689 had been the residence of the British monarchs. (Buckingham Palace became the royal residence with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.) In 1821, the Gardens were opened to the public and once more formed a whole with Hyde Park though divided from the latter by West Carriage Drive. The road also cuts in two the ornamental lake whose eastern, Hyde Park, section is called the Serpentine and whose western, Kensington Gardens, extent is called The Long Water. The galleries, though situated in Kensington Gardens, take the name Serpentine, perhaps because Long Water Gallery would not have quite the same resonance.
We entered the Gardens by Lancaster Gate, beside which is a pretty dwelling called Buckhill Lodge, dated 1858. Was it once the park keeper’s house? I don’t know but believe that it is inhabited these days by private tenants. It is a compact but elegant design, quite a gem, in fact.
And so to the Serpentine Pavilion 2016. This was designed and built by BIG – the Bjarke Ingels Group – and its form is predicated on the concept of an ‘unzipped wall’. Below are some photographs that I took of it, four of the exterior and one of the interior. It can be visited and there is a cafe inside. (Click to see larger versions of the pictures.)
It is perhaps the second of the above pictures that shows the ‘unzipped’ trope most clearly. You are invited to imagine a wall made out of hollow square-section tubes, laid like bricks, that is now split and peeled apart into two sections though still joined at the top.
As an imaginative creation and a novel piece of architecture, it has some merit, I suppose. As a pavilion, though, I don’t feel it is successful. To my way of thinking, a pavilion is a pleasant building where you would go to relax and take your ease, set in an environment that adds to the pleasure. In this pavilion, however, the interior is anything but pleasant and relaxing. It reminds me of an underground railway station or an air-raid shelter. The walls slope inward, giving a somewhat claustrophobic feel. That, of course, is just my personal reaction and others may feel differently.
I think that architects these days too often concentrate on being ‘clever’, designing novel structures intended to secure them a place in the record books, while paying too little attention to meeting the purposes of the building and the comfort of those who have to live or work within it.
This year’s event included an innovation: As well as the usual pavilion, four temporary summer houses were also commissioned. Designed by four different architects, the summer houses are very different from one another but, in theory, they share a common element in that they are supposed to reference one of the permanent buildings in the Gardens, the one known as Queen Caroline’s Temple. I will show a picture of this at the end. First, here are the summer houses (the names of the architects appear under each pair of pictures):
As I was fairly negative about the pavilion, I will say relatively little about the summer houses. As exercises in imagination and clever construction they no doubt earn points. However, if I were fortunate enough to own an extensive and beautiful garden and were to entertain the idea of building a summer house therein, I would not choose any of these designs. Perhaps that’s not the point of them. Perhaps we should see them as we see works of street art, as transient creations that catch our attention for a moment of reflection and then disappear again, perhaps to be remembered but more likely to be forgotten.
The temporary summer houses are supposed to reflect or refer to the neo-classical permanent building known as Queen Caroline’s Temple. Thought to have been designed by William Kent, it was built for the queen whose name it bears in 1734-5. It was intended as a summer house but no doubt also as a decorative feature of the gardens. At one time it was converted to serve as the park keeper’s lodge but was restored to its original form in 1976. As to the matter of reference supposedly embodied in the four temporary summer houses, perhaps that is best left to each person’s individual imagination.