Recalling the Summer Commissions of the Serpentine Gallery

Every summer in London brings a surprise in the form of an architectural folly that rises amid the lush greenery of Kensington Gardens, serves as a gathering place for drinks and symposia for a few months, and is pulled down as the leaves fall. The Serpentine Gallery–a progressive art institution incongrously housed in a neo-Georgian tea house–began this program in 2000. Zaha Hadid (then at the beginning of her career) designed a shelter for the annual fundraiser: a one-night stand that was reprieved and allowed to remain for three months. Every year since, the gallery has commissioned an architect who has yet to complete a building in England, and the list is as starry as that of the Pritzker Prize. Stand-outs have included a cage of shadows by Toyo Ito and a construction of timber beams by Frank Gehry (both acquired by collectors in the south of France), plus signature works by Oscar Niemeyer, Jean Nouvel and SANAA.

This year it’s the turn of BIG, and they’ve created a towering wedge of translucent fiberglass frames, stacked and bolted together like a giant Lego set. Bjarke Ingels calls it an “unzipped wall”–two planes that rise, swirl, and part to enclose a lofty wedge of space. The frames are open to views and chilly breezes, but should provide some shelter from rain; at night they glow like a lantern. Ingels is unfailingly inventive and he’s come up with something new–in contrast to predecessors who have been content to toss off a variation on familiar forms. The BIG pavilion is half sculpture, half structure, it seems to be in motion, constantly changing its shape as you walk around. It sits lightly on the ground, was quickly craned together, and is sure to find a new owner when its term is up.

In addition, the Serpentine has commissioned four smaller structures from less familiar names, and these are clustered together–too tightly for comfort–beside Queen Charlotte’s Temple, a classical stone pavilion of 1734. There’s a lot of invention here, but they compete with each other for attention and feel like art works that have strayed out of the gallery and huddled together for mutual support.

  • 2002 Serpentine Pavilion by Toyo Ito
  • 2008 Serpentine Pavilion by Frank Gehry Photo courtesy of David Hawgood
  • 2010 Serpentine Pavilion by Jean Novel
  • 2013 Serpentine Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto Photo by George Rex
  • 2012 Serpentine Pavilion by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Neuron By Groume
  • 2009 Serpentine Pavilion designed by SANAA
  • 2016 Serpentine Pavilion designed by Bjarke Ingels Group Photo by David Hawgood


By Michael Webb

In 2013, Sou Fujimoto completed the thirteenth in an annual series of temporary pavilions alongside the Serpentine Art Gallery at the heart of London’s Hyde Park. These structures have become a ritual of summer, eagerly anticipated, but the tradition began by chance. In 2000, the gallery (which was built in neo-Georgian style as a tea house) was celebrating its 30th anniversary. Director Julia Peyton-Jones commissioned Zaha Hadid (who was just beginning her career) to create a tent with chipboard furniture for a fundraiser. Designed for a one-night event, it stayed up through the summer. As Peyton-Jones remarked of that happy experiment, “it doesn’t matter if it’s for a day or 100 years, because you don’t know who is going to see it, and what impact it’s going to have on their lives.”

The next year Daniel Libeskind made his UK debut, and he was quick to echo his client: “Sometimes projects that are ephemeral have more power than large buildings that are there for 50 years. For me, the pavilion was a chance to experiment. It was about developing an architectural idea, and having the public participate in it.”

Experimentation and public participation have been the hallmarks of all the Serpentine pavilions. An architect or team that has not yet built in England is commissioned to design a gathering place for events and symposia through the summer and early fall. At a minimum, it provides shelter from chill winds and frequent showers, besides offering a good cup of tea. Private donations cover the cost of construction, which has to be completed in a few months. Last year’s pavilion, by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, excavated the site to reveal traces of previous designs and canopied the sunken, cork-lined space with a circular pool. Record downpours filled the dig in April, threatening the project with that doom-laden English phrase “rain stopped play” that punctuates most cricket matches. The builders triumphed over nature, and the pavilion opened on cue at the end of May.


The English dearly love their gardens but have rarely warmed to modern architecture. Prince Charles dismissed a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend,” a remark that was ridiculed by sophisticates and loudly cheered by the populace. On my last trip to London, the immigration officer asked me the purpose of my visit. “To explore modern buildings,” I replied. “Really?” she asked with an incredulous stare. I half-expected to be hauled off as a security suspect. Penguins in the London Zoo were the first English residents to enjoy a truly modern structure so kudos to Peyton-Jones, who has won new friends for adventurous design.

Only one design has failed to make the leap from boards to park: A 2004 earthwork by MVRDV proved too ambitious to realize. Other architects have, with varying degrees of success, created structures that are firmly anchored in the pastoral site or float gracefully above it. In 2011, Peter Zumthor built a black box that framed a lush garden by the Dutch landscape maestro Piet Oudolf. Jean Nouvel’s 2010 entry was far lighter and more open: A scarlet shelter of canvas and glass that intensified the green of the trees and grass surrounding the site. In the previous year, SANAA created a biomorphic metal canopy lofted on slender poles, which offered shade on fine days but little protection from the other elements. Fujimoto has followed their lead and it will be interesting to see how well this airy structure performs through its October 20 closing date.

Frank Gehry went to the opposite extreme in 2008, creating a cat’s cradle of massive wood beams and glass panels. It proved controversial, but is now enjoying a second life as a music pavilion at Chateau la Coste, near Aix in the south of France. A Belfast developer acquired this vineyard and added a sculpture park, a new winery by Jean Nouvel, a visitors’ center and chapel by Tadao Ando, and many other structures scattered over the hilly site. A short drive away is the reconstructed 2002 pavilion of Toyo Ito, a highly acclaimed skeleton of white steel panels. It had a brief reincarnation as an art gallery attached to a resort hotel in Beaulieu, but has now been closed to the public. An Indian steel magnate acquired last year’s pavilion for his burgeoning art collection, and this is likely to become a regular occurrence in the future.

A few temporary pavilions enjoy a long after-life and acquire an entirely new identity. The classic example is Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, a vast prefabricated exhibition hall erected for the Great Exhibition of 1851 on a site very close to the Serpentine. It was re-erected south of the Thames and became a familiar landmark that was put to varied use before it burned to the ground in 1936. The German Pavilion that Mies van der Rohe designed for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, was demolished soon after, and meticulously recreated on the same site in 1983-86. It is now one of the most admired and influential buildings of the modern movement. Though it’s unlikely that any of the Serpentine commissions will achieve that eminence, one would love to revisit the pavilions created by Oscar Niemeyer in 2003, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura in 2005, and the joint work of Snøhetta and artist Olafur Eliasson in 2007. As Snøhetta partner Kjetil Thorsen remarked, “architecture is about changing perceptions. It also has to conform to building regulations. We can challenge that by categorizing it as a work of art”.

 Republished from an article written for print publication in 2013.

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