Every summer for the past decade, London’s Serpentine Gallery has commissioned an adventurous architect to build a temporary pavilion alongside its neo-Georgian home in Kensington Gardens. Jean Nouvel is this year’s choice, and the Pritzker winner has created a study in scarlet that is one of the boldest and most effective in the series to date.
It’s deceptively simple: a rectilinear steel frame that supports retractable awnings and curtains, a stage canopied with tinted glass, and a tall, cantilevered wall of polycarbonate at the south end. These surfaces filter daylight and glow from within after dark. Lightweight chairs and tables are scattered across a faux grass carpet, and a semi- enclosed bench provides additional seating. Everything in and around the pavilion is a tone of red—a hue that evokes London’s buses, post boxes, and traditional telephone booths.
Nouvel chose the color to contrast with the lawns and foliage, and the lush greenery acquires a surrealistic intensity as you gaze out from openings in the fiery cocoon. Bernard Tschumi also used red to good effect in the grid of follies he constructed in the 1980s in Paris’ Parc de la Villette, but those reinforced the formality of the French garden tradition. Nouvel loves the freedom of the English park and the way it artfully re-composes the natural landscape.
His geometry contrasts with the picturesque, and it adds a playful quality, for red is an exuberant color that invites activity and celebration. To emphasize that spirit of fun, he provides Frisbees and ping-pong tables, chess boards, and mattresses for lounging on the grass. The pavilion is a work of art and a functional enclosure for movies, lectures, discussions, and drinks—a striking contrast to the sinuous, insubstantial canopy that SANAA contributed last year.
This is the tenth pavilion to be realized since Zaha Hadid did the first in the summer of 2000. Julia Peyton-Jones, who has made the 40-year-old Serpentine Gallery a hub of experimentation at the heart of a royal park, is also the capital’s most significant patron of architecture.
At the beginning of each year, she and her committee select a practitioner who has not yet built in England—Daniel Libeskind, Toyo Ito, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvaro Siza, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Gehry head the starry list. There is no budget: The architect works pro bono, Arup contributes its expertise in engineering, and this year’s sponsors include the Arts Council of Great Britain, Stanhope, and the Mace Group.
It’s a minor miracle to design, fund, and construct an innovative structure in less than six months, and only one project—MVRDV’s in 2004—has proved too ambitious to build. Architects are honored to be invited and may hope that this modest venture will give them a foothold in a notoriously insular country. Gehry has realized only one small project—Maggie’s Place in Dundee—but Nouvel will soon complete One New Change, a huge commercial block on a prominent site to the east of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s sleekly clad in brown-tinted glass to dematerialize its bulk: the polar opposite of the Serpentine Pavilion.