Once a year, London Design Festival descends on my fair city. Installations are highlighted by red markers outside the doors of tiny shops, to world-famous museums. Best of all, most of it is free! So I made a point of making time to see world-class design for nothing.
Every summer the lawn outside the famous Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is adorned by a piece of contemporary architecture known as the Serpentine Pavilion. It is described by the Serpentine Gallery as “an international site for architectural experimentation, presenting inspirational temporary structures by some of the world’s greatest architects”, and according to the website is one of the most visited architectural exhibitions worldwide. This year marks the 15th year of the Pavilion and, over the years, the lawn has been previously filled by architects such as Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. A duo called selgascano are 2015’s architects and are based in Madrid.
Every year the Pavilion brief is the same. It needs to use approximately 300 square metres of space, and should be a flexible, multi-purpose social space with a café. It also needs to be the designer’s first installation in the UK, hopefully to provide a highly-visible platform for their work.
Selgascano’s Pavilion is a series of polygonal structures encased by a translucent plastic (similar to that used at the Eden Project in Cornwall and Canary Wharf Crossrail station) and surrounded by coloured tapes. The steel structure supports the plastic which is stretched to create a series of interconnected “rooms” with a central space housing a pop-up Fortnum and Mason cafe.
There are several entrance and exit points and a corridor surrounding the central structure allows the individual to walk directly around the Pavilion and discover these windows and doors. The architects have indicated that they drew inspiration from London in their design, particularly from the Underground with its tunnels, access points and connectivity.
Across the internet it’s been described as a psychedelic cocoon, an Instagrammer’s paradise, beautifully childish, a kind of amoeba whose four blobby pseudopodia reach out across the grass, an eye-catching bauble, and a big bag of fun. Having read these reviews before visiting the Pavilion, and now having visited, I tend to agree with all of these characterisations!
The most important part of the Pavilion’s design to me seems to be the interaction between the structure and light. Clearly colour has been used liberally to create an eye catching, bright and playful landmark, and this is very obvious from the outside. The interpretation of the Pavilion from the inside however is very reliant on light conditions and the perspective of light depending on which part of the structure you’re standing in; the vibrant tapes throw different hues onto the internal plastic structure and the reflective surfaces mean that the internal colour seems to morph as you move closer or further from the walls. The Pavilion also simultaneously seems to complement, and contrast against, the surrounding green environment. It sits glowing among the green.
Internally I spotted pinks, oranges, yellows, blues, greens and purples. There are doors and windows to the structure that let natural light in, and there doesn’t appear to be any artificial light to tamper with this effect. The white floor has a reflectivity of its own (and, although it is a little battered after a whole summer of use), is a welcome canvas against the vivid walls. On the outside the plastic moves whimsically with the wind, creating a liquid, globular effect.
I actually enjoyed the exterior of the Pavilion the most. The plastic’s reflectivity is most obvious on the outside where light abounds and the contrast against the bright tapes was more striking. The whole structure also seems much larger when you walk around it in its entirety.
Dipping in and out of the corridor between outside and inside is fun too. A real childishness comes over me when I have the opportunity to play a bit of hide and seek or jump out and say boo. I think this was probably intentional by the architects as the whole structure seems to want to be utilised and explored.
The Pavilion isn’t given a budget by the Serpentine Gallery, but instead uses various sources of sponsorship and the sale of the eventual structure to fund its design and build. This year’s installation is going to become a performance space in Los Angeles and I think it really suits this function. The Pavilion is used for performance and events during the evenings in London and if I hadn’t have left it so late I would have loved to revisit and check out the effect of colour and light in the dark when the green-ness of Hyde Park isn’t all around. Its size means that any performance is going to be intimate and most likely quite organic and stripped back because there isn’t a whole load of space for props or staging. Acoustically, noise carries; the tinkles and chatter of a pop-up cafe is audible but doesn’t echo. When speaking out loud the absorption of sound makes it feel like there is a slight hush on your voice. Although part of the brief is for the Pavilion to host a cafe during the day, it does feel a little of a wasted opportunity the night-time cultural use doesn’t transcend into daylight hours.
Despite being colourful and appealing to my inner child, there isn’t anything comical about the Pavilion. It’s stylish, built at a human scale, and uplifting. It’s interesting and has a naturalness and simplicity about its design that makes the most of its surroundings using (what appear to be) cheap and accessible materials. There isn’t anything fundamentally groundbreaking or innovative about the design, and perhaps that makes it a little safe for selgascano’s first UK installation. I didn’t come away from the Pavilion feeling that I had experienced a unique and overly memorable piece of work, but it was certainly enjoyable, fun and a novel way to interact with colour, light and space as London’s autumn greyness starts to set in. I’ll be back next year.