Is it OK for a piece of architecture to be just fun? That would certainly seem to be a reasonable question when you are talking about a folly—a garden structure with no function other than providing a focal point and perhaps shelter in a park landscape—and to be ornamental and perhaps provocative while doing so. Yet most of the people I spoke to about the 15th annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, a public folly constructed every summer in London’s Regent Park, told me not to bother to go see it. It is a meaningless and clumsy structure the Madrid firm of SelgasCano (Jose Selgas and Lucia Cano) put down there, they said, clunky in its construction and gaudy in its appearance.
When I arrived at the public opening (these cognoscenti had visited during the preview) a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised. The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is a delight, and part of what makes it so much fun is that it meanders and moseys along, has no focus, and consists of colored plastic sheets lashed together in the simplest way possible around a metal tube skeleton. It is, in other words, the complete modern folly.
Sprawling across the lawn in front of the brick and stucco Serpentine Gallery, whose little hints at classical order and detailing provide the perfect foil, this Pavilion invites you to enter from several directions and offers views out into the park from others—my favorite moment being a distorted oculus that lets you either look into the structure’s heart, or to see the trees framed from the inside. The various arms undulate and bend, rising up to what makes for a central space that still oozes in all direction. The panels are colored in shades that range from orange and yellow to green and blue, with the best ones, in my mind, being the iridescent translucent sections that change color as both you and the sun move. SelgasCano covered several sections with colored straps to lighten up the structure even further, disintegrating the Pavilion into pure color and line.
In the past, the annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilions have ranged from the grand (Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, of OMA; Sou Fujimoto) to the intensely serious (Peter Zumthor). They have been built disquisitions on the nature of nature and our relation to its (tamed and planted) appearance in the heart of London; on the idea of a folly; or on architecture as the making of social space and the discussions or performances it might afford. I am not sure what the big idea is this time (the architects do not give us many clues, and the Serpentine curator, Julia Payton-Jones, only talks about organic forms and references to stained glass windows), but it fits with SelgasCano’s previous work, which has brought color and meandering space to work environments. These architects seem to just wanna have fun, and, what is more important, make us wanna have fun too.
What I especially enjoyed was the matter-of-fact manner in which SelgasCano detailed the Pavilion. There is no sense that this is a mini-monument meant to last for the ages, nor is there a hierarchy of structure, covering, attachment, or ornament (let alone a spatial differentiation that follows any classical rules). I suspect that by the end of the summer the Pavilion will look a bit tattered and the sheets might be discolored or streaked—but then it will be time to tear the whole thing down to hunker down for the grayness that dominates the United Kingdom, and to wait for the construction of the next Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. In the meantime, if you happen to be in or near London, go see the world through Technicolor glasses turned into sensuous bubbles for just being there.