BIG’s Serpentine Pavilion and summer houses

There is a delicate neo-classical building on a little hill in the middle of Kensington Gardens nestled in thick grass and wild flowers and with views over the Long Water. You can see Henry Moore’s Arch across the water from here. I often run in Kensington Gardens stopping briefly by this romantic summer house. There is an old tree to its right – the trunk is a good size and perfect for a hand stand. Upside-down, the summer house is even more intriguing. The light from here is very special… in all seasons.

Queen Caroline’s Temple was designed in 1735 by William Kent for Queen Caroline who was responsible for the shape of the gardens as they are now. Some of the graffiti dates back to 1821 when Hyde Park was first opened to the public. Up until this week I had no clue as to the history of this summer house and in many ways the mystique had added to the romance. Now, the building is at the heart of the annual Serpentine Pavilion project which has grown from one commissioned temporary installation to five. This summer Hyde Park has transformed into a feast of architectural dialogue. But more on the summer house later.

The star of the Serpentine Pavilion is the main structure by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) – an exciting practice with offices in Copenhagen, New York and from this week London with a strong focus on sustainability and finding new solutions for urban living. We have reported extensively on BIG in the past.

For the 2016 Serpentine project, some 1,802 modular boxes of equal proportions form both the structure and envelope creating quite a dramatic vista. ‘This is a small structure in a gigantic park,’ mused the founder Bjarke Ingels at the unveiling of the building earlier this week on an equally dramatic English summer’s day as the sky turned abruptly from bright blue to darkness and thunderstorms.

These 400 by 500mm lightweight fibreglass frames are stacked on top of one another and joined by aluminium extrusions transferring the load from box to box for what Ingels calls an ‘unzipped wall’. He explains: ‘This unzipping of the wall turns the line into a surface, transforming the wall into a space’ so the promise is for the complex three-dimensional space it reveals to be explored in new and exciting ways.

Much like the fifteen pavilions that came before, BIG’s installation will house park goers by day, and in the evenings transform into a space for talks and debates on visual culture in Park Nights. ‘It embodies multiple aspects that are often perceived as opposites,’ says the architect, ‘a structure that is free-form yet rigorous, modular yet sculptural, both transparent and opaque, both solid box and blob.’ In October, when the building is dismantled, these prefabricated modular boxes will find new lives elsewhere in different forms and shapes.

Queen Caroline’s Temple sits a stone’s throw away from BIG’s bold project, and for the second part of the Pavilion project, the organisers have tasked four architects, ranging in age from 36 to 93, to respond to the summer house with very different answers.

Kunlé Adeyemi‘s is a classic summer house – a space for shelter. The form is an inverse replica of Queen Caroline’s that plays tribute to the original building’s robust form, space and material, says the Nigerian architect.

Barkow Leibinger chose to work with a second building William Kent had designed for Queen Caroline that no longer exists. It had been erected at the top of the hill nearby and would rotate 360-degrees so viewers could survey Kensington Gardens and the lake. Here the American/German firm has created a structure made of loops with a series of undulating structural bands as a nod to this vanished second summer house.

Elsewhere, Yona Friedman’s is a maze of modular wireframes expanding on the Hungarian/French architects La Ville Spatiale 1950s project. Here, the structure is a ‘space-chain’, which constitutes a fragment of a larger grid structure.

Lastly, the youngest of the group, London-based Asif Khan’s project is a secluded courtyard that reflects sunlight. He explains: ‘Kent aligned the temple towards the direction of the rising sun on 1 March 1683, Queen Caroline’s birthday.’ And his polished metal platform and roof aim to provide an intimate experience of this moment in history.

‘There should be no end to experimentation,’ says the Serpentine Pavilion co-founder Hans Ulrich Obrist, quoting the late Zaha Hadid who was the first architect to offer her pavilion design sixteen years ago, years before she had created an actual building in the UK.

The Serpentine Pavilion scheme is hugely exciting. Since 2000, every year the team commissions an international architect to construct a temporary building in whatever material they see fit – the structure remains in the park from June to October. Past projects have seen buildings erected using plastic, stone, even cork… and it is always fascinating to see how they age, how they withstand the unpredictable English summer, how they live in Hyde Park, as well as how the public responds to them. After all, these are not decorative art installations, but buildings that are there to be experienced.

Nargess Banks

Serpentine Pavilion 2016 is at Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London from 10 June – 9 October

Read about the previous Serpentine Gallery Pavilions here.

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