SANAA Pavilion at the Serpentine

The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park has officially opened its 2009 summer pavilion.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © 2009 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Photograph: Luke Hayes
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © 2009 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Photograph: Luke Hayes

Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo-based SANAA have designed a floating mirrored canopy that spills out through the trees and over the grass, undulating between waist height and two storeys and open on all sides. The Japanese duo lead a precocious firm with a growing international reputation, whose work, such as the recently completed New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, is often light and ethereal. They say they don’t think of themselves as ‘Japanese architects’, but to a western eye the Japanese sensibility is clear.

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2007 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Architect of Record: Gensler Architects © 2008 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2007 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Architect of Record: Gensler Architects © 2008 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA

Pavilion is one of those words of flexible interpretation, but in designing their contribution Sejima and Nishizawa might as well have consulted the dictionary definition: ‘A light, sometimes ornamental roofed structure, used for amusement or shelter, as at parks or fairs.’ Their effort, although highly original and unusual, perfectly fits this traditional criteria, perhaps the best of all nine Serpentine commissions so far.

Satellite image courtesy of Terraserver © Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA
Satellite image courtesy of Terraserver © Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA

From above it seems like a pool of water, from the ground the mirrored ceiling lends it a mirage quality – you can’t tell quite what you’re seeing until you get up close. The reflection makes the slender supporting poles look as though they continue into the ceiling. Everywhere you look is two sets of everything. The detailing is incredibly thoughtful and delicate, the ground plane finished as perfectly as the roof, outlined with a strip of clean white pebbles. The polished aluminium finish brings light under what might be an otherwise gloomy canopy; and they have achieved something rare – an outdoor space in England that is equally charming on a grey miserable day.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © 2009 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Photograph: Luke Hayes
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009 Designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © 2009 Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA Photograph: Luke Hayes

Indeed the opening night was rained on intermittently, with guests passing in and out from under the communal umbrella as the drizzle came and went. Its accessibility will make it a very welcome and friendly addition to park life this summer. The only dampener on the whole affair is that as per usual, the powers that be, in an effort to squeeze all possible delight out of life, dictate that you can’t climb on it – even though at points it is temptingly low enough. One adventurous ten-year-old boy was loudly reprimanded for trying.

But the pavilion concept is a genius one – Serpentine Director Julia Peyton Jones is clearly an intelligent business woman. Her curatorship has reversed the gallery’s fortunes, and the annual event of the summer pavilion has played no small part in this. Physically bringing the gallery’s work into the outside world, it draws people with any sense of curiosity just by being there. The idea – to commission the British debut of already world-famous architects – is equally exciting for archi-fans and architects alike. The project is a practitioner’s dream, unconstrained in brief, and speedy from start to finish. The whole process, commission to opening, takes six months. And it provides a generous amenity to park users. This year’s incarnation looks set to be as, and very likely more, popular than previous years’.

Jeff Koons Seal Walrus Trashcans 2003-2009 Polychromed aluminum, galvanized steel 170.2 x 76.2 x 91.4 cm © 2009 Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons Seal Walrus Trashcans 2003-2009 Polychromed aluminum, galvanized steel 170.2 x 76.2 x 91.4 cm © 2009 Jeff Koons

There is another first in the gallery itself with a solo exhibition from American artist Jeff Koons. Only after doing a little background reading did I realise the repeated ‘do not touch’ warnings were probably for once for the benefit of the viewer – it would ruin the illusion to find out the inflatables, spliced in improbable ways with heavy bits of sculptural trash, are actually made of steel. Sorry for the plot spoiler. But their incredible verisimilitude makes for interesting structural play. An inflatable is the one thing that would entirely lose its structural integrity if pierced by another object – but in Koon’s pieces this is exactly what you are apparently seeing. It’s a weirdly architectural collection. I’m sure references and theories abound – the recurring Popeye motif is allegedly because of his popularity during the last economic meltdown – but even without investigating further it’s an entertaining show.

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