WAF Newsletter - A problematic pavilion - June 2021

A problematic pavilion

Jeremy Melvin, 21 June 2021

Over the past 21 years the Serpentine Gallery has curated what is arguably the most significant programme of real architecture in London, if not Europe, writes Jeremy Melvin.

With annual summer pavilion commissions from architects including Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Zumthor, BIG, Sou Fujimoto and others, the Serpentine has stolen a march on other larger institutions, for whom architecture is a more integral part of their mission and has created the first works in the UK by many of those commissioned.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View © Counterspace Photo: Iwan Baan

So the unveiling of this year’s offering (supported for the seventh time by Goldman Sachs)., especially given the ongoing turmoil in arts programming, was eagerly awaited. Designed by the highly regarded South African firm Counterspace, led by Surayya Vally, this year’s design marks a move from the simple – but compelling – idea of a pavilion in the park, to a vehicle for social engagement. The pavilion is conceived as the heart of a network of activities, part of the Serpentine’s civic engagement programme, on sites with diversity significance across London.

Choosing a South African designer for this expansion of the scope of the programme is piquant. South African architecture has rarely attracted the attention once commanded by the country’s politicians, legal thinkers and paleontology. But it has moved on since the days when it seemed to hinge around the houses that Sir Herbert Baker, antagonist of Lutyens at Delhi, desecrator of Soane’s Bank of England and designer of that butt of public protest in the 1980s, South Africa House, produced for superrich ‘randlords’.

Anyone who has followed WAF for the last few years might be aware of the 2009 Building of the Year, Peter Rich’s Empangugwe Interpretation Centre, as well as more recent significant contributions from Carin Smuts and Jo Noero, who have both devoted their careers to using architecture as an ameliorative tool in that troubled land. Their pioneering efforts have helped to shape the context for Vally’s work, and it is this context that makes her appointment seem appropriate for the Serpentine’s evolving ambitions.

So far, so good, but this evolution brings several problems into focus. Sadly, though architecture is a powerful tool for addressing social and political issues, it is neither easy nor straightforward to do so successfully. This is not just because architecture has to engage with power and finance in order to come into being. Imaginatively handled, that could add powerfully to the piquancy. It is also because architecture is not putty that can be placed exactly where it’s creating genius wants it to be placed, its intentions immediately and self-evidently apparent to visitors and users. Once created, a work of architecture takes on a life of its own becoming susceptible to all sorts of intended and unintended readings.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View © Counterspace Photo: Iwan Baan

This is especially true if – as at this pavilion – there are assemblages of all manner of forms, curves, planes, lines and details. The basic parti is simple, a circle, but it is intersected and compromised by awkward juxtapositions, unusable spaces and pointless gestures that have no apparent coherence or common denominator such as would be found in that familiar architectural trope, the ‘kit of parts’. Elements collide with or just miss each other. It is as if the designer has tried to incorporate every formal device and imaginative idea she has ever had, in case she never has a similar opportunity.

The reference to ‘the architecture of markets, restaurants, places of worship, bookshops and local cultural institutions that are particularly significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities in neighbourhoods including Brixton, Hoxton, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham, Peckham and Notting Hill, among others’, as the press notice has it, are not obvious. What results is not a composition, but an assemblage of the type of spaces that Professor David Dunster used to exemplify as those found under the lowest flight of stairs in a hotel foyer, suitable only for pot plants. Overall, the effect is rather as if someone has tried to merge Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans with a worthier but less successful attempt to create public space around a lumpen Brutalist arts centre.

That does not mean it is incapable of hosting fine events. The Serpentine’s artistic director, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, famously once mounted an exhibition in his bathroom. But if the events are good, it will be despite rather than because of its architecture. And if the minds of the audience wander – as happens in even the best events – the architecture will offer little solace or respite, still less any encouragement to re-engage with the subject.

Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View © Counterspace Photo: Iwan Baan

This brings us to a second problem, which is about scope and scale. It is very tempting to think that size is necessary to address complex issues, but it is also very easy to refute. Just think of the tiny tholos at Delphi – circular because what other shape could possibly be appropriate to mark what the Greek’s thought was the centre of the world – or its different but not completely incompatible Renaissance counterpart, Bramante’s exquisite and even tinier Tempietto in Rome, similarly circular to mark the spot where St Peter was crucified. Small physical size need be no bar to conceptual greatness or enormous impact. Especially at the scale of the pavilion, bigness can quickly descend to incoherence.

Perhaps because the intentions of the commission are so challenging and worthwhile, all this leaves a slight sense of dissatisfaction. It makes one long for Sou Fujimoto’s ethereal composition of short steel bars apparently floating in defiance of gravity, or Francis Kéré’s joyous energy, or the compelling rigour of Alvaro Siza’s and Eduardo Souto de Moura’s pavilions, to name three earlier examples.

That said, the intentions behind the commission to expand the civic engagement programme, should not lightly be dismissed. What might be questioned, though, is the means for doing so. It is hard to divine what Obrist and his boss, chief executive Bettina Korek, make of the pavilion. Do their emotions echo those of Margot Metroland in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies? At one of her parties, where the American evangelist Mrs Melrose Ape is exposed as a fraud, Margot, ‘for the first time in her many parties was glad to realise that the guest of the evening was going to be a failure’. That did not stop Lady Metroland giving more (and more successful) parties. The Serpentine should take all this as a spur to continue its programme of civic engagement.

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