Mark Middleton excoriates architects and their clients who fail to take a commission for a bit of summer fun seriously
Longer days and increasing patches of sunshine followed by torrential rain and temperatures fluctuating between double and single digits means one thing: summer is nearly here. Architecturally, that means it’s time for the annual pavilion-fest when every public event, park and rooftop becomes a potential site for an installation or temporary building.
In theory, it’s an excellent idea and I like to stand in a park having a drink and eating canapés, as much as any other middle-aged architect looking for a free evening’s entertainment in London. In terms of archibollocks, it is obviously an opportunity to explore the liminal spaces between outside and in, provide shelter and enclosure in natural settings, or even to technically explore a particular method of construction, and of course there is the sustainability argument. Pavilions can also provide opportunities for young practices to gain some much-needed publicity. In terms of public engagement it is a practical illustration of what architects can do and potentially it even inspires young minds to study architecture and understand its possibilities.
With all that in mind, why does the thought of another summer of pavilions fill me with dread? Put simply, it is because most practices seem to grasp the publicity part firmly while retaining a kitten-like grip on the architecture. These structures routinely manifest themselves as a hotchpotch of materials and badly conceived spaces that look like something local sixth-formers have reluctantly put together as their end-of-term project, egged on by an overly enthusiastic art teacher. What some architects fail to understand when they are commissioned for a pavilion is that even though it’s temporary, it’s still architecture.
The most famous and long-running of these is the Serpentine Pavilion which I have visited every year for over a decade. The only one that has stayed in my memory for the right reasons is Peter Zumthor’s effort from 2011. It was a space that was stunning in its simplicity and succeeded because the architecture was completely in service of supporting a memorable experience; enclosure, integrated planting, shelter and open space were all perfectly balanced.
I had to look up the architects of the other pavilions from the last 10 years as I simply couldn’t remember. Looking at the list reminded me of rock bands and university. I’m sure we all had that friend who always had to be into new music, the more obscure the band the better. It didn’t seem to matter if the music was an assault on your ears, the important thing was that they knew about the band first. The list of architects chosen by the Serpentine committee seems to have that feel about it, an eclectic mix of newly noteworthy or obscure and, disappointingly, architects not based in the UK.
Most of the practices listed seem to have gained commissions or set up offices after designing the pavilion, illustrating what a useful springboard it is, no matter the quality of the actual output. The Serpentine has successfully created a world-renowned event, one that seems an ideal opportunity to export British architecture to the world. This isn’t jingoism, but while it’s admirable to showcase world architecture, I do wonder whether the Serpentine Pavilion committee should consider a rotational policy for British architects to help our industry here, where every third year a young British architect was selected instead of a global star who doesn’t need the leg up for a job or to set up an office here in London.
In terms of quality, Zumthor’s pavilion seems to be the exception to the rule, with many structures poorly sited, providing inadequate shelter and unable to perform the most lowly of functions; that of hosting corporate drinks receptions. Most architects appear to be creatively frozen when faced with the opportunity to operate with a spatial and programmatic freedom not usually afforded. I can only speculate that most architects who haven’t worked outside the strict design parameters we normally work with have forgotten; that you have to set them yourself. Maybe this is a failing by the clients in their briefing or their engagement: most should be encouraging architects to explore themes, a specific purpose, or even working exclusively in a single material. It is a shame that architects and some artists who are given the chance to work outside their usual constraints more often than not fumble their delivery.