13.07.2015 Frank Kaltenbach

Spanish verbena in the London fog: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Photograph: Frank Kaltenbach

Recently, the fifteenth version of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion opened in London’s Kensington Gardens. After Sou Fujimoto’s white latticework from two years ago and Smiljan Radic’s translucent dolmen from last summer, the Spanish architecture couple known as SelgasCano have given the meadow in front of the Serpentine Gallery the look of a colourful summer festival in Spain. Architect: selgascano, Madrid
Location: Kensington Gardens, W2 2UH London, United Kingdom
Same procedure as every year?
Since 26 June, this year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion has been open to the public in London’s Kensington Gardens. Along with the fifteenth version of the pavilion, gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones is also celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of these special commissions. Spanish architecture couple SelgasCano were clearly inspired by the decorative verbenas from their homeland: the colourful plastic bands are typical for Spanish summer festivals.

Since 2006, Hans Ulrich Obrist has been with the Serpentine team as co-director of exhibitions. He says, »London is a world-class city, which makes it even more astonishing how many great architects never built here: Mies van der Rohe, Gropius or Cedric Price. We wanted to change that, so now every year we invite a different internationally renowned architect to put up a temporary summer pavilion.«

After a successful series of the most diverse concepts possible, the break came in 2012. In the year of London’s Summer Olympics, Herzog & de Meuron worked with Ai Weiwei in a project showing the foundations of former pavilions as a sort of archaeological retrospective.
Does this mean it is becoming more and more difficult to find new ideas for the annual pavilion? Has it all been done before? Just how narrow are the boundaries? For despite a great degree of artistic freedom, a Serpentine Gallery pavilion is still subject to strict rules. In 2004, MVRDV challenged curators with a mountain covering the existing buildings. Ultimately, this project could not be realized. Julia Peyton-Jones had to announce to a disappointed public that there was no pavilion to photograph. Obrist wants to avoid such PR disasters in future. »The pavilion is not a work of art, but rather one of architecture. I had to learn what this means as much as anyone else. We can’t afford to let the architects go ahead and do whatever they like. Although there is no budget for the pavilion – all the funding comes from donations and the sale of the pavilion – we must stick to a particular cost framework and concentrate on projects that can actually be built.«
When the client knows more than the architect
For SelgasCano, the Serpentine Pavilion was a new experience. »As experienced architects, we are usually the ones who determine the guidelines for a project. In this case, we were working with a client who had already realized the project 13 times. That made us the ‘laypeople’ among a team of pavilion experts,« explains José Selgas, chuckling. »Of course we studied the pavilions designed by our colleagues very closely in order to create something that could stand on its own. Architects using thin foil as a building shell is not only an aesthetic decision, but a pragmatic one as well. It facilitates transport. After four months of exhibition at Kensington Gardens, every pavilion is sold to a sponsor, who rebuilds it at a new location.« Many pavilions in one – one pavilion from many
»We haven’t built just one pavilion, but several at once,« quips Selgas into a journalist’s microphone during an interview. He strokes his left hand over his lips, unwittingly revealing his bright-yellow watch to the many cameras. Lucía Cano holds her orange handbag made of transparent plastic in both hands. It is just as vivid and, in fact, a perfect match for her stylish summer shoes. Anywhere else, these accessories would at most be grist for the gossip mill, but here they become part of the entire work of art. The pavilion is made of a colourful shell made of translucent ETFE foil.
Good vibes and shelter from rainy summer days
With the 15th Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, SelgasCano have given Britons good summer vibrations. They have forgotten one thing- the sun. While Sou Fujimoto’s white steel latticework from 2013 glowed subtly in the characteristically cloudy London sky and seemed to merge with the clouds, the colourful ETFE foil is having a hard time asserting itself against the backdrop of the grey sky in order to display itself to the utmost. This pavilion is no manifesto of social criticism. When it rains, the pavilion seems as melancholic as plastic toys left behind after a holiday. The effect is almost pitiable. 
But SelgasCano’s pavilion has a secret: as soon as the London clouds dissipate as if wiped away by a magic hand, the structure’s outer skin begins to glow, attracting visitors like bright flowers. Inside, what happens has until now been known only to insects looking for nectar in the calices of flowers. Not only the walls and ceiling glow in vivid hues and strips, but also the concrete floor, whose white-painted surface reflects the silhouette of the structural skeleton and the membrane as areas of pure colour. When the sun shines, the sections of iridescent foil become virtually transparent, like the rainbow effect of a soap bubble.

The projection of the sunlight transforms the various contrasting sections of the pavilion into a symphony of colours comprising a single structure. The individual layers of the foil covering come together to create a multiple exposure that makes it impossible to determine whether the outer bands are being projected onto the inner layer of foil or vice versa.

»We have completed the first phase, but the project will go on,« states José Selgas. »In November, the pavilion will be moved to Los Angeles, where we will reconfigure it.« Under the California sun, the pavilion will surely glow even more vividly than here in rainy London- as long as there isn’t any smog.
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