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Tuesday29 July 2014

Time to rediscover the cutting edge

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The Serpentine pavilion needs to dig a bit deeper for ideas

It can’t be easy. Every year, the architects invited to design the Serpentine’s summer pavilion find their efforts being judged against the programme’s past achievements, a history that now includes the contributions of 12 of the world’s most distinguished practices.

Every one of the pavilions will have found fans among an audience that is significantly larger than that enjoyed by the Venice Architecture Biennale and this year’s design by Herzog and de Meuron and Ai Wei wei will prove no exception. And yet, whatever might be suggested by the profusion of champagne cork-shaped stools strewn around the structure, 2012 is not going to be ranked a vintage year.

The design’s central conceit is that it is the product of an excavation that has revealed the remains of the former pavilions. Both as a meditation on the history of this now very loaded site, and as a canny means of sidestepping the demand to produce yet another glorified marquee one can see the idea’s allure but it has gained nothing in translation. The fact that the “archaeology” being revealed is, actually a highly creative reconstruction has already attracted controversy but visitors are hardly going to leave feeling hoodwinked.

So abstract, hygienic and DDA-compliant is the cork-lined arena that has been cut into the Serpentine’s lawn that most will struggle to make any connection to the image of archaeology at all. Whatever trace of the former pavilions is in evidence is far from clear but history haunts the design nonetheless: one can’t help thinking that Peter Eisenman has played precisely the same cod-archaeological gambit since as far back as his Cannaregio town square scheme of 1978.

This year’s effort feels like a back-of-an-envelope sketch realised by an office junior

Above we have a wide pool of shallow water that is every bit as appealing as your local municipal boating pond. The architects have claimed it as a mirror with which to view the “infinitely varied, atmospheric skies of London” and the temptation to decant a bag of goldfish into it presses hard.
The best pavilions have been characterised by a sense of experiment and risk-taking — whether it be Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura concocting something that neither would have designed alone or Sanaa stripping its structure back to a point that must have given its engineer sleepless nights.

This year’s effort will be a nice enough place to go for coffee but it feels like a back-of-an-envelope sketch that has been realised by an office junior. One shouldn’t be surprised — it is after all a tiny project by a huge practice that has nothing to prove in London. After what has now been a run of rather underwhelming designs by former Pritzker prize winners, it is surely time for the Serpentine to get back to taking risks on younger, hungrier talents.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Getafix

    Since it began I have always felt it is a shame that the Serpentine does not promote young practices through this commission. There are few enough opportunities in the UK for new talent to break through. As the article states, many of the pavilions have also felt very lazy - as if the designers couldn't really care less. The time has come to offer those who really care a chance to show off and break through. And to revive a lacklustre concept.

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  • After all the criticism levelled at the original concept and plans, I'm pleasantly surprised by how well this has turned out.

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  • Mike Duriez

    I have always had a deep, perhaps subconcious, feeling that the space under a bird bath had a special, almost spiritual qulaity. But I was very wrong.

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  • Ana Wintours

    Let school children design the pavillion.

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