Temporary structures encourage experimentation and have, over the years, resulted in both ground-breaking designs and less worthy architectural conceits. But what will the legacy be of the recently opened Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London?
Gavin Stamp, Sunday, 1st July 2012
Great architecture should be built for eternity, or at least for a long life, but there is nevertheless a place for the temporary, the ephemeral. Structures designed for a short life can allow an architect to indulge in experiments or in fantasy without having to worry about the inexorable effect of weather and time. And sometimes it is a mercy that architectural conceits are not with us for long, although it is cheering that remarkable temporary buildings can sometimes become permanent – the Cenotaph in London, for instance, was originally constructed of wood and plaster for the 1919 peace celebrations.
Temporary buildings – pavilions, kiosks, follies, and so on – have a long history. There were the classical triumphal arches erected in cities for royal processions or marriages. As the architectural historian Howard Colvin explained: ‘It was precisely the ephemeral character of festive displays of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that made them important vehicles for new architectural ideas. Being constructed only of insubstantial materials such as timber and canvas, these temporary structures could represent accurately sophisticated architectural designs that could not easily be got through to an unlettered and untravelled mason or bricklayer.’ In 1814, John Nash designed a Temple
of Concord in London’s Green Park, and a Chinese pagoda on a bridge in nearby St James’s Park, for a ‘display of joy’ to celebrate both the defeat of Napoleon and the Hanoverian dynasty. Unfortunately, the latter had an even shorter life than intended as fireworks caused it to burst into flames.
The national and international exhibitions and world fairs held periodically in more recent times encouraged interesting ephemeral architecture. The receptacle for the first and greatest of them, the Crystal Palace erected in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, was intended to be temporary, although its prefabricated iron and glass structure was subseq-uently re-erected at Sydenham. Later exhibitions – Paris in 1900, Glasgow 1901, for instance – were the setting for individual pavilions designed to express national character; these often eccentric essays in National Romanticism or in the art nouveau were frequently designed by leading architects in their own countries. Sometimes these temporary structures were experiments in a new style: the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 introduced grand Beaux-Arts Classicism to America in plaster over steel, while the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs gave the name ‘Art Deco’ to the new non-historical styles adopted for many of the pavilions.
Famously, Paris in 1925 also saw experiments in the austere modern style that would eventually triumph. There was Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, but perhaps even more remarkable was the pavilion representing Soviet Russia designed by the Constructivist Konstantin Melnikov, described by one architect visitor as expressing ‘the aspirations of the revolution in an exciting and spontaneous manner’ (Fig. 1). Then there was the international exposition held in Barcelona in 1929 at which, in retrospect, the most important building was the German pavilion. Intended to represent the progressive character of the Weimar Republic, it introduced the planar manner of Mies van der Rohe to a wider public (Fig. 2). An essay in the use of a steel frame to define and merge both exterior and interior space with planes of rich materials, it contained little but two Barcelona Chairs (for the King and Queen of Spain): the pavilion itself was the exhibit. It existed for only a few months, but its influence was so profound that it was recreated half a century later exactly where it originally stood (with a thicker and more practical roof).
London’s opportunity to suggest the future through temporary buildings came with the Festival of Britain, held on the South Bank in 1951 (Fig. 3). Some of the structures, like the gravity-defying Skylon, were there to entertain and astonish; others were intended to show what could be done with new materials and methods of construction. Hugh Casson, the Festival’s director of architecture, commented in the film Brief City (1951–52): ‘In an exhibition which is temporary and perhaps experimental...there was a blueprint for new towns, light-hearted, sensible, not too dear and never boring.’ The temporary architecture on the South Bank was torn down with indecent haste by an incoming Conservative government, denying the possibility of re-erecting some of the buildings – such as the remarkable Dome of Discovery – elsewhere, but the influence of the Festival could not be extinguished.
Half a century on, London again has an exhibition of temporary architecture – one that is continuous. Every summer, a new and different pavilion is erected in front of the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. The first, exhibited in 2000, was the work of Zaha Hadid; subsequent designers have included Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry – all architects who can be relied on to produce something unusual and irrational. The results have been very enjoyable, but it would be difficult to argue that any of these functionless conceits have advanced the art of architecture.
This year’s pavilion, which was unveiled to the public on 1 June and is open until 14 October, was designed by Herzog & de Meuron (Fig. 4). It is the least impressive of them all architecturally, although arguably the most pretentious. I am not, I confess, an admirer of this Swiss firm’s work: its alterations to Bankside Power Station to turn it into Tate Modern seem to me both arrogant and insensitive to the quality of Giles Gilbert Scott’s great brick ‘cathedral of power’ (although I do like its Central Signal Box at Basel Station). At the Serpentine, Herzog & de Meuron’s pavilion consists of a circular hole in the ground covered by a free-standing, flat circular roof; this horizontal disc holds a film of water and is supported on differently shaped piers. Underneath, there is a complex arrangement of steps and shelves, all covered in cork, created in collaboration with the artist Ai Weiwei. To make any sense of this, the visitor is obliged to read the text, for it is based on a pattern created by overlaying the shape of earlier pavilions on the site: ‘Like a team of archaeologists, we identify these physical fragments as remains of the eleven Pavilions built between 2000 and 2011...A distinctive landscape emerges which is unlike anything we could have invented...’.
Whether this is actually interesting must be a matter of opinion. The most endearing feature is the design of the movable seats made of cork, which are shaped like the stoppers of giant champagne bottles (prototypes for garden furniture?). At least the pavilion establishes a relationship with the Serpentine Gallery itself, for it is placed on its axis, and the upper part of that former tea house built in 1934 in the neo-Georgian manner of Lutyens can be seen reflected in the plane of shallow water. And here is an idea: why not ask one of our modern classical architects to design a pavilion which actually responds to that handsome, if conservative building? That, I fear, would be far too avant-garde a concept for those who give London this annual temporary experiment in architectural fancy.
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