The seed for ten years of the Serpentine Gallery’s Summer Pavilions in Hyde Park was sown by a structure created for a single night. The success of Zaha Hadid’s ephemeral folded and triangulated roof, held up by slim columns and summer breeze, transformed a party into an institution for the masses. Not always consistent, there were times when the funding just wouldn’t crystallise in time, the spectacle of the pavilions has provided a subject for discussion where contemporary architecture usually fails.
Summer is a time to be sociable - to be out on the streets in the open air, crossing paths with friends and strangers. Making friends and useful connections, and storing up funny stories to take us through the dark days of winter. Over the years, the fleeting presence of the Serpentine Pavilions has revealed some different approaches to creating sociable spaces. In 2008, American Frank Gehry (who slightly broke the first-building-in Britain rules with his Maggie’s Centre in Scotland, 2003) created a fabulous two-level cul-de-sac street out of timber and suspended glass panels, where visitors could perform or spectate from deep steps on either side. Scandinavians Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen’s small tower, with its spiralling ramp and viewing platform, gave us the queue. Glamorous Japanese duo SANAA provided a catwalk to be beautiful beneath a reflective canopy that melted into the trees. The waiting space was encapsulated in Brazilian Oscar Neimeyer’s pavilion, 2003. This was almost all lobby, decorated by line drawings of naked ladies and featuring an entertaining video of Neimeyer flying one of his own buildings around the world. The most cosy space of all was contained under the timber grid of Portuguese Alvaro Siza and Souta da Moura’s curled up woodlouse beneath the trees, 2005.
Strangely, the site for the pavilions is not surrounded by parkland, but caught between the gallery and the road on the building’s front lawn. Bounded on the other two sides by hedges, trees and paths, the pavilions become either an object within an outside room, or a room within a room, giving them a hermetic quality. The presence of some transcended these boundaries – Rem Koolhaas’s silvery dome was a magical presence above the trees when seen from Exhibition Road, 2006. That summer was dreary, and we were always waiting for the balloon to rise up in the sun, but it almost never did. Instead, like a giant stopper, it tapped the fermentation of the intense cultural programme intrinsic to the structure’s design. Hadid’s interventions were like tents in the desert – caravanaserai for the elegant traveller that captured the spirit of the pavilion as a meeting point for the flow of commerce, information and people caught in London’s local trade routes. Other pavilions, like Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s pavilion, 2002, were nonchalantly unaware of the site, treating the garden room as a white cube. Polish architect Daniel Libeskind’s Eighteen Turns, 2001, a labyrinth of aluminium-clad planes encouraged exploration and chance encounter.
French architect Jean Nouvel’s design for the 2010 pavilion comes closest to this one in spirit. Representation of the architecture of the designer’s home country is an underlying current in the pavilion programme. Nouvel’s is a French national pavilion in a ghostly, diachronic world fair. Strong formal references to Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s red follies of the Parc de la Villette, Paris, 1983 cleverly link the pavilion to an intellectual and abstract cultural heritage with a minimum of effort. French philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida are already embedded for the architectural cognescenti, while for the partygoer vampires are fashionable this year and this summer at least, the red night never ends. In a stroke of genius, the park is no longer a landscape, the city is a place of chance encounter, and architecture becomes a backdrop for spectacle and event.