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London, UK – Yawning under the awning: Nouvel’s pavilion fails to wow

Seeing rouge: Nouvel’s Serpentine Pavilion is brightly coloured but dully conceived

The annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is now a decade old. And in keeping with all 10th birthday celebrations, its designer Jean Nouvel has been keen to include game-playing. The space in Kensington Gardens has been festooned with ping-pong tables and chessboards. Or you can fly a kite or lounge on a floor cushion. It’s all rather good fun.

And yet as an architectural experience the marquee-in-the-back-garden atmosphere - so familiar from familial anniversaries throughout the British countryside - feels too provincial for a celebrated French architect completing his first project in London. Yes, there’s a bit of aspiration, but the overall impression is one of conceptual laziness.

The formal gestures - and its redness - have a touch of Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette (AR August 1989); and the moments of reflection and transparency recall artist Dan Graham. But it’s put together so haphazardly it’s like only half the circus came to town.

The decision to render everything in red - fridges, frisbees, the lot - was taken as it’s the colour-wheel opposite to the green of the park. While undeniably true, I’m not sure ‘red’ counts as an architectural idea. But it’s pretty much the only one the pavilion has, so it’s having to work well beyond its competence to unify the parts. Imagine the elements in neutral tones: is it any more than an Ibizan beach bar?

Jean Nouvel’s practice builds huge projects globally, so doubtless he’s immune to bad reviews. Maybe next year’s designer needn’t be such a safe choice. This shouldn’t be a small commission for a big architect, but the biggest in a small architect’s office.

Readers' comments (2)

  • "This shouldn’t be a small commission for a big architect, but the biggest in a small architect’s office."

    Is the Serpentine not intended for a 'big' architect in its intention and has been from the beginning. Specifically a big architect who has not built in the UK. (Nouvel is building in London, but has not finishing his first building, therefore can be included.)

    PS1 in NY city would be the US equivalent of what you are suggesting, I think London is big enough for more than one pavilion, maybe an annual pavilion created by an under 35 office would be welcomed as an alternative...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • "This shouldn’t be a small commission for a big architect, but the biggest in a small architect’s office."

    Is the Serpentine not intended for a 'big' architect in its intention and has been from the beginning. Specifically a big architect who has not built in the UK. (Nouvel is building in London, but has not finishing his first building, therefore can be included.)

    PS1 in NY city would be the US equivalent of what you are suggesting, I think London is big enough for more than one pavilion, maybe an annual pavilion created by an under 35 office would be welcomed as an alternative...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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