The Serpentine Gallery’s annual foray into temporary architecture has brought Frank Gehry’s first English building to the crowds of Kensington Gardens. The result, a tumbling composition of wood, painted steel, and glass, is the nearest the gallery has got to a pavilion, in the traditional sense, since Zaha Hadid’s take in 2000, which reinvented the marquee tent. After Hadid’s project, the pavilions have become more like buildings, losing the lightness of touch, temporality, and playfulness one might hope to find in London’s famed royal park.
The structure is more early-Gehry than his now-signature silvery, voluptuous, shape-shifting architecture, as in the renowned Guggenheim Bilbao. Here the deconstructivist-Gehry, who started chopping into his house in California in 1978, has returned. On approach, it looks like a greenhouse frozen mid-collapse, but once inside, it is a disappointingly formal and over-engineered structure. The sense of danger and energy from the flying glazed panels at perilous angles suspended above one’s head is defied by the reality of a bulky, rather flat canopy.
There are certainly references to fortifications, and elaborate catapult designs, as Gehry claims were his inspiration, with solid Douglas fir square-cut beams stacked to form the seating, and raised viewing platforms flanking the entrance, like watch towers, but the primitive is rather undermined by the incongruous matching of materials. White painted handrails, heavily etched glass panels, and the sober, gray stone floor that rolls through the center like a carpet leading to the gallery’s entrance, all make the experience feel altogether corporate, rather than providing the intended “urban street” effect. The seating area, a wide, stepped bank joining the two entrances, impressively framed by unwieldy columns set high in the air, like skewed torii gates, deviates from the amphitheater space the Serpentine Pavilion attempts to provide the public.
Nonetheless, it has been received with unabashed applause from the British national and architectural press and the general public alike. The Serpentine Gallery’s ambition “to bring architecture to a wider public” is satisfied by the countless tourists, families, picnickers, and wandering Londoners who take a moment to visit Gehry’s grotto. Officially open on July 20, the pavilion will hold weekly events from July to October. The biggest test will be when architects, academics, and philosophers take to the pavilion in October for the season’s tour de force, the annual Serpentine Marathon. The fact that the structure doesn’t perform as a shelter from the celebrated British summer rain makes it a less than convincing response to what could be an exciting addition to the gallery’s legacy of landmarks.