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The Serpentine Pavilion

A space-age dolmen (for sipping fizzy wine in) or a symbol of the future of British architecture? Both, says Rory Olcayto.
Photography by James Newton

That is the Serpentine Pavilion? A smashed up donut-egg (thing)? A papier-mâché cave? A space-age dolmen? (Neon-lithic?). An unidentified no-longer-flying object? What was it Charles Jencks said about iconic architecture? That such buildings are ‘surreal sculptures’ that ‘appeal to a diverse audience’ and can be read, or nicknamed, in a number of ways? Whatever: it’s not worth spending too much time wondering what Smiljan Radic’s freakish folly actually is. We know what it is already: it’s a Serpentine Pavilion. Simples.

Despite its apparent newness, Radic’s fibreglass rock has, of course, many ‘cousins’. Its form resembles Ushida Findlay’s concrete-built Doha Art foundation. It’s cloth-like texture recalls the matt-black scrim Peter Zumthor used to wrap his pavilion three years ago. At night, because its shell is just 12mm thick, it glows like a lantern, like Rem Koolhaas’s lopsided balloon of 2006. And, alongside this year’s British Pavilion show at the Venice Biennale (surely inspired by Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony with its man-made hillsides and dreams of a mystical Albion) the Radic pavilion is another sign that primitivist forms are oh so now.

Still, it’s worth asking: What is the Serpentine Pavilion? Not the thing itself that you see in Hyde Park, but rather the pavilion programme, overseen by Serpentine Gallery co-directors Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones. Since 2000 they have challenged architects who haven’t built in Britain before - your Niemeyers, Sizas and Zumthors - to come up with something wow-factor-ish to serve as a garden folly for the whole of London. The question is: ‘Why?’

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Why indeed, especially when its seemingly progressive concept was scuppered in 2008 when Frank Gehry’s ‘My Little De-con’ design was commissioned, because the Canadian architect had already built in Britain by that point (five years earlier in Scotland, for that other Starchitect-collecting organisation, Maggie’s Centres). And when in 2010 Jean Nouvel was given a go, the notion that it was for talent yet to build in England foundered, too, because Nouvel’s One New Change project alongside St Paul’s in London completed that same year.

Clearly the programme was not about giving chances to stars that UK construction clients chose to ignore, much as that sounded like a story worth telling. The gallery itself admitted as much when it explained that, in 2012, to coincide with the London Olympics, it had appointed the team behind the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, Herzog & de Meuron, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. It was a clever way of sidestepping the inconvenience of the Swiss duo having already built in Britain: Tate Modern in 2000 and the Stirling Prize-winning Laban Centre in 2003.

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In sum, the concept was on shaky ground - and had to be reworked to keep the programme fresh. What’s more, ‘starchitects’ - Zaha, Gehry, Nouvel - were increasingly being seen, by critics at least, as a bit passé. Still, the idea had clearly worked. Visitor numbers soared, as did the numbers finding their way into the gallery alongside it: an achievement of sorts, given the number of venues competing for attention. In the purest sense, all of the pavilions have been little more than signposts, advertisements for the gallery itself, a pilgrimage to them an established summer event: there was no longer a need to rely on stars to draw the crowds.

Enter Sou Fujimoto, a young, largely unknown architect appointed last year by the gallery. It is unlikely that Fujimoto will ever become as big as Gehry, Libeskind or Zaha, or as sought-after as Zumthor, but last year’s pavilion, with more than 200,000 visitors, was the most visited ever. Not because it was the best (it absolutely wasn’t) and not because Fujimoto is still an artist-architect, unlike his forebears, who have become more like global brands, akin to the fashion houses of Paris and Milan. It was the most visited ever because art-architectural moments like these have become a recognised form of entertainment.

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This shift in how we experience architecture, however, has little do with the architects involved - it is more the result of the tireless fundraising, promoting, touring and networking of Peyton-Jones and Obrist (jointly ranked number five in Art Review’s power 100 for 2013). Their appointment of Fujimoto was an important event not because it signaled the emergence of a new talent, but because it marked the rise of the curator in architectural culture. (Something Rem Koolhaas has played upon in this year’s Venice Biennale - which he curated and made himself the star of). Radic’s pavilion builds on this phenomenon. You might argue that this has always been the case; that the pavilion has always been more about the curator than the architect, that’s it’s just more obvious now there’s no starchitect obscuring this truth.

Incidentally, this pavilion was sold before it was built. But not, I’ll wager, because it’s an original Radic. More likely it’s because it is a Serpentine Pavilion, by Peyton-Jones and Obrist, and one part of an ongoing artwork begun 14 years ago and with no end in sight. The architect is dead. Long live the curator.

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