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Zaha Hadid's Serpentine Extension exploits old and new

The Serpentine Gallery has expanded into a new home in London’s Hyde Park, with a Zaha Hadid addition to an old gunpowder store

Zaha Hadid has now created three pavilions for the Serpentine Gallery: two temporaries for the annual summer event programme (including the first one in 2000), and the permanent space recently opened on another Kensington Gardens site a few minutes’ walk away. This creates an additional venue for the Serpentine, comprising the Magazine, an 1805 brick marvel produced for gunpowder storage, and a new linked pavilion designed in inimitable Zaha fashion.

What a delightful commission this was: a parallel universe with the same essential elements as the original (historic building, contemporary addition), offering the possibility of double exhibitions, or compare-and-contrast, or just difference, plus a welcome bar/restaurant/social space in the fabric-roof addition.

The result, despite the disparaging comments of some dyspeptic London critics, is also a delight. Having a coffee with project leader Fabian Hecker, we are approached by a man who turns out to be a retired architect. ‘I came here cynical about the building, but I think it is really marvellous. Congratulations!’

Zaha's interior is n stark contrast to the old

Zaha’s interior is in stark contrast to the old

This is an unusual project which manages to exploit old and new to the advantage of both, bringing into productive life a piece of London architectural history never before opened to the public. The Magazine’s most recent use was as a store for flagpoles, and it had that typical look of unsightly accretions disguising its original form that had to be stripped out (heritage architect was Liam O’Connor).

The key question for ZHA, having added a sensible light-admitting roof to create a small but intriguing exhibition space, was how to deal with the addition in a way that portrays the contemporary spirit of the Serpentine programme while embracing a piece of heritage (which includes a colonnade which may have been designed by Decimus Burton).

The broad approach might be described as providing another side to the Magazine coin. That building, because of its formerly explosive contents, was about sealed enclosure, solidity, gravity and steady-state Newtonian physics. The Zaha tensile addition is about digital design, freeform volume, lightness and views to the outside world. The Magazine wishes to sink into the earth; the pavilion wishes to fly away. The former is a permanent building periodically adapted for temporary use; the latter is a permanent building looking for all the world as though it is temporary.


The tent structure alludes to the light touch of a temporary structure

One critic claimed the extension was ‘dark’; I can only imagine he was wearing dark glasses, since the interior is as white as can be, apart from the low-iron glass walls and fins. Sculpted columns, faintly resembling upturned Chinese soup spoons, are formed from rolled steel plate and grp, giving that super-smooth moulded look in complete contrast to the brickwork of the Magazine building.

The roof comprises a sandwich of PTFE-coated glass-fibre woven fabric membrane on the outside, a layer of multi-foil insulation, and on the inside silicone-coated glass cloth. There is a steel ladder frame around the perimeter, clad in spray-painted grp panels. The structural elements have discreet lighting which adds to the feeling that you are in a sort of spaceship about to take off …

The space fantasy is brought to earth by practical matters. The addition is not pure space and volume since it contains fixed elements in the form of a kitchen/server (nicely stand-alone) and an impressive long bar. The glass walls are relatively conventional and the doors incorporated are standard geometry: no parametric tricks. And behind the scenes/below ground, straightforward essential facilities have been added in the form of administrative offices and a support kitchen.

But it is the tent structure, 6m at its highest point, which is the show-stopper. The roof hovers over the edge of its historic neighbour, connected only by a clerestory running along one edge above the bar. At night the pavilion is even more spectacular than during the day, and is already being widely used for social events.

The £14.5 million Serpentine Sackler Gallery has been largely funded by Mortimer and Theresa Sackler’s foundation, with help from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a long-term Serpentine sponsor. They have created a marvellous additional opportunity for the architectural and artistic project directed by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The architecture has a certain purity in respect of old, new, technology, materials, function and symbol matching their ambitions. Congratulations are indeed due.

Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects
Photographer: Luke Hayes

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