Review: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 01.08.08

Frank Gehry’s Serpentine pavilion

words Beatrice Galilee

It’s a sunny Thursday morning in Hyde Park and the joggers are out in force. I’m just about keeping up with the pensioners, pram-pushers and rambling tourists as I make my way towards the Serpentine Gallery to visit its annual summer pavilion. In the distance a cluster of giant timber beams can be made out above the tree lines.

“Is it going to stay?” a lady loudly asks a helper as she looks up at the enormous roof of Frank Gehry’s structure. “Oh, it’s got a buyer!’ she shrieks, kindly sharing her discovery with the rest of us. “What a shame!” It’s not remotely a shame of course.

The most striking thing about Gehry’s creation is its size. Compared to last year’s effort, which was the biggest so far, this is a monster. It’s no surprise people were enquiring about its lifespan – it has got some very permanent-looking concrete paving stones leading up to the gallery, and though construction is oversized and pretty clunky it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. But, really, once you’ve come to terms with the scale of it, the concept of an open pavilion – a pathway with benches either side and a roof suspended high above – is quite simple and really quite pleasant. One of Rem Koolhaas’ early ideas for his 2006 pavilion was a single sheet of material spanning between trees to create an open but defined public space. It ended up being that rather lovely Archigram-esque balloon.

There are loads of kids here. There are some people writing postcards and eating croissants. Someone is sketching into a Moleskine notepad. I have my suspicions that the couple clad entirely in black with matching round-rimmed red glasses are architects. There is a genial atmosphere, it’s open, casual, bright. Those people that accused the design of being oversized, zealous, bombastic – the various cries of shipwreck and skip have been silenced.

It’s nowhere near as bombastic or futuristic or whatever it may seem from the outside. If anything he played it quite safe – a paved “street” with terraced seating, zig-zaggy bits of glazing and a very tall space making an eye-catching, status-affirming roof. It’s quite friendly really. Yes, of course, it’s too big and too clunky. The wood profile is massive, the big metal bolts through the glazing are ungainly and the lift and the cafe are clearly bolted-on afterthoughts, but this was never going to be a lesson in the art of making.

The water-permeable roof is nine suspended planes of glass, which explains the big intimidating white structure that cranes over the whole thing. But the fritted striped glass that hovers overhead doesn’t create any tension – there’s no suspicion that these are guillotines ready to drop or fragments of other worlds colliding above our heads in some celestial drama. No, on this sunny day they’re quite cosy really. They’re far enough away to allow in air and light, but also to provide a bit of shade.

At the press conference a few rainy weeks ago, Gehry turned addressed the waiting audience of around 40 or so architectural and national press with coffee in hand. “I have nothing to say,” he said, highly irritatingly. “My building speaks for itself.” The word is that his son, an architecture student designed most of it. He wanted the pavilion to speak for itself but really what reveals itself is the sheer ambition of the Serpentine Gallery. It continues to be London’s architectural highlight of the summer.

images John Offenbach

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Frank Gehry’s Serpentine pavilion

Frank Gehry’s Serpentine pavilion

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