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Serpentine pavilion patronage: inspired or simply tired?


As a concept, the Serpentine pavilion is a stroke of genius. By inviting one of the world's most talked about architects to design the structures for its summer parties, the Serpentine Gallery has established itself as being as significant a patron to architecture as it has long since been to art.What other institution manages to deliver such a high-profile piece of architecture every year without fail? But Oscar Niemeyer - rumoured to be this year's designer - would be a curious successor to Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Toyo Ito. The appointment could only be interpreted as a nostalgic choice. Not because he is in his 90s but because unlike, say, Ralph Erskine, who demonstrates a continuing ability to develop his oeuvre, Niemeyer's reputation still rests on work which was executed decades ago.

The recent surge of interest in his work is part of a general, and rather superficial, fad for historic brutalism advocated by lifestyle gurus such as former Wallpaper keditor Tyler Brulée. It is a form of adulation which simultaneously glorifies and patronises, rather like the 'cult status'which popular entertainers such as Russ Abbott enjoy among more fashionable university crowds. In some ways, everyone's a winner - an architect who loves to design pairs up with a public which is hungry for his work.

But this kind of crowd-pleasing is entirely at odds with the Serpentine's pioneering ethos. If it is to retain its reputation as an imaginative patron, Niemeyer - along with joint designer Arup - would have to deliver a pavilion which was not only brilliant, but absolutely unexpected.Salvation for the Serpentine may lie in the fact that the mismatch between architect and commission would make it virtually impossible for Niemeyer to produce the kind of product which his fan-base would expect.How would the master of heavy organic forms embedded in the landscape tackle a project which must, by definition, be temporary, portable and lightweight? It is a challenge which would test the most chameleon-like talents. Niemeyer would have to carry it off if the Serpentine's choice of architect is to be confirmed as inspired, as opposed to simply tired.

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