Serpentine Pavilion by Jean Nouvel 07.07.10

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This year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, by French architect Jean Nouvel, was unveiled yesterday in London's Hyde Park. By now the formula should be familiar; an architect without a completed UK project builds a low-budget yet striking shelter and cafe. Previous designers have included Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, and Toyo Ito. Nouvel has squeaked in just in time: his One New Change office building, also in London, is almost complete.

The pavilion is red – very red. In keeping with Nouvel's interest in all things transparent, the surfaces of the pavilion are clad in different materials which let in varying amounts of light – glass bricks, tinted glass, polycarbonate panels, fabric shades and curtains create an effect that is a little like being inside a darkroom, while the roof can be mechanically extended and retracted like the solar panels on a satellite.

Nouvel claims that a certain French-ness is on display – the pavilion offers beanbags, ping-pong tables, Frisbees and chess tables, all of which the architect says are quintessentially French summertime activities, a claim we find a little doubtful. On a definitively French note, there is a large image on glass based on a photograph by Nouvel's late friend and collaborator, the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, and the whole structure strongly calls to mind Bernard Tschumi's follies from the Parc la Villette in Paris (1982-98).

Nouvel says that "the pavilion is not a perfect exercise in 'beautiful' architecture", and he's right – it's not tastefully pretty like SANAA's 2009 pavilion, nor is it brashly exuberant like Frank Gehry's 2008 structure. Nouvel is far more interested in people just relaxing and having a good time here, and it does look like a great place to grab an Orangina, but it still leaves you wondering: if the Serpentine Pavilion is just a large summer cafe, where does it go from here?

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Douglas Murphy

quotes story

The pavilion is red – very red

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