Lasting for close to two decades now, the annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion Exhibition has become one of the most anticipated architectural events in London and for the global architecture community. With this year’s edition featuring not just one pavilion but four additional “summer houses,” the program shows no sign of slowing down. Each of the previous sixteen pavilions have been thought-provoking, leaving an indelible mark and strong message to the architectural community. And even though each of the past pavilions are removed from the site after their short summer stints to occupy far-flung private estates, they continue to be shared through photographs, and in architectural lectures. With the launch of the 16th Pavilion this month, we take a look back at all the previous pavilions and their significance to the architecturally-minded public.
The premise behind the creation of the pavilions is simple: an architect who has not built in the UK is given the opportunity to showcase their talents and hopefully gain exposure. They are invited to build a temporary pavilion on the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park London, England. Each invited architect is given six months, within receiving the commission, to construct the pavilion, then the exhibit is opened for the public’s exploration for the remainder of the summer. The program’s short timeline and limited scope creates the perfect environment for experimentation—safely distanced from pragmatic functions, this is architecture for the sake of architecture. For 17 years, the Serpentine Gallery has provided a significant platform from which to publicize architectural experimentation and avant-gardism, an arrangement from which the designers and the public benefit.
2000: Zaha Hadid
Perhaps there is no architect more perfect than the late Zaha Hadid to set the tone for the Pavilion program. Simultaneously praised and dismissed by many in her early career as a “paper architect,” Hadid is well-known for wild geometries and highly experimental designs. For her first built project in her home country, the now world-famous architect created a tent-like structure that was supported by a triangulated framework.
Entitled “Eighteen Turns,” Libeskind’s Serpentine pavilion was created from sheer metallic planes that were assembled in a dynamic sequence—the same origami-like operations and rigid metal facade that we see in a more significant project: The Berlin Jewish Museum. Having been launched within the same year, it begs to be asked whether the pavilion was simply inspired by the design of the museum, or whether the pavilion was deliberately designed to serve as a teaser for a highly-anticipated, larger and more permanent project to come.
2002: Toyo Ito with Cecil Balmond
Though it appears to comprise of random triangular and trapezoidal shapes, the facade of the Ito's Pavilion was in fact based on an algorithm derived from a cube which expands as it rotates. The interplay between light, dark, transparent, translucent and solid created an interesting spatial condition in the interior.
2003: Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer’s Pavilion took us back to the golden age of Modernism. Built in concrete, painted in white and accessed by a ramp, the designer seemingly created an exhibit of the very elements of his notable mid-century buildings. The famous Brazilian architect, whose sketches are widely published, held the principle that every project must be simple enough to be summarized in a simple illustration and that is certainly applicable in this exhibit.
2004: MVRDV (unbuilt)
Due to time and budgetary constraints, MVRDV was unable to realize their plan of building a mountainous structure.
This duo sought to pay homage to the Serpentine Gallery’s permanent neo-classical building and the hilly landscape of the site. The resulting design was achieved through a rectangular grid which has been distorted to created curvaceous forms.
2006: Rem Koolhaas
Koolhaas, in partnership with Cecil Balmond, created a single-level circular pavilion which was protected from the elements by an “ovoid-shaped” inflatable canopy that would be lowered, or floated above the pavilion as a way to temper the effects of the daily weather. With a longer run than the preceding pavilions, Koolhaas envisioned a busy program for the pavilion, including 24-hour interviews. The architect made a case for the pavilion as a venue for attraction rather than just being the attraction itself.
2007: Olaffur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen
The artist-architect collaboration between Eliasson and Thorsen of Snøhetta created another program-filled pavilion—causing the structure to be late for the Serpentine's annual Summer Party which coincides with the pavilions' launch. The timber clad multi-story pavilion, which was shaped like a spinning top, was the the most elaborate of all the pavilions up to this point and contained weekly public "experiments" lead by artists, scientists and practitioners.
2008: Frank Gehry
Though Gehry's Pavilion could easily be dismissed as just another iteration of his "wild" architecture he does find ways to challenge his work. While his pre-existing projects could be interpreted as an "explosion" of forms, Gehry's pavilion was an inversion of that idea. The glass canopies of the Pavilion seemingly "implode" within a well-articulated framework. Collaborating for the first time with his son Samuel, the resulting structure was imagined to be a hybrid between an urban street leading to the Serpentine gallery and an amphitheater hosting a suite of talks and events.
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa's design was perhaps the most straight-forward and structurally simple: a flat piece of highly-reflective aluminum supported by delicate columns. But in its simplicity their structure appears to "soar like smoke, melt like a sheet of metal, drift like a cloud, or flow like water." Seen in plan view, they also incorporated a recurring form in their work: a conglomeration of curvilinear blob-like shapes.
2010: Jean Nouvel
Striking in red is Jean Nouvel’s pavilion for 2010 which coincided with the Serpentine Gallery's 40th anniversary. The pavilion, which contained an auditorium, a cafe, and general public spaces reads the most as a "regular" building, though in the context of the Serpentine Pavilions that isn't saying much. The vividly-colored polycarbonate and fabric structure embodied a playful spirit and contrasts with the green lawn throughout Kensington Garden similar to Bernard Tschumi's Parc de la Villette.
2011: Peter Zumthor
Zumthor continued his play on solids and voids during his turn at the Serpentine Pavilion. Much like his previous work such as in the Therme Vals, the interplay became a means of creating various effects and setting contemplative or visceral moments within his buildings. Zumthor ultimately set out to realize a hortus conclusus: an enclosed garden meant to act as an intimate space that was designed by Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudolf.
Given the huge success of the previous collaboration between the Chinese artist and the Swiss architects during the Beijing Olympic Games, the launch of their first collaborative work in the UK was much-anticipated, as it also coincided with the London 2012 Games. With more than 10 predecessors on the Pavilion Program, the team took an archaeological approach. Digging a little over 5-feet below grade, a reflective floating platform was erected over 12 uniquely designed columns that pay homage to the 11 previous pavilions at Serpentine and one to represent itself. The pavilion read as an archaeological dig-site, encouraging the spectators to reflect about the Serpentine's past.
2013: Sou Fujimoto
Aptly nicknamed “the cloud,” Fujimoto’s Pavilion was an irregularly-shaped semi-transparent blob composed of light grid modules. The design built on a common theme of the architect’s work which often interrogates the relationship of architecture and nature. In other ways, the pavilion was strongly reminiscent of his most recent successful project at the time: House NA.
2014: Smiljan Radic
Of all the chosen architects, Chilean Smiljan Radic was the least-known before receiving the Serpentine commission, and from the least-known came arguably the most out-of-this-world. In an article by The Guardian, Radic’s design was likened to “a bulbous white cocoon, still sticky with the excretions of whatever creature made it,” but the "weird” structure had more thoughtful underpinnings. Responding to the thick and layered assemblies of buildings in the UK, Radic wanted to create an extremely thin building envelope. With a fiberglass skin of just 10 mm thick, the donut-shaped structure was juxtaposed with boulders scattered throughout the site.
Following the weirdest but most critically-acclaimed pavilion was perhaps the most critiqued. José Selgas and Lucía Cano of the Spain-based studio SelgasCano were commissioned for the Pavilion Program's crystal anniversary. The pair envisioned a polyamorphous polygonal structure consisting of panels of woven translucent or multi-colored ETFE. Like a human-sized cat's tube toy, the structure had multiple points of entry and exit and consisted of a number of different corridors. Hinging on the concept of pure visitor experience, the duo set out to build the structure in the most simple and elemental of manners: structure, light, transparency, shadows, change, and surprise.
2016: Bjarke Ingels
BIG's 2016 commission plays with space and dimension, transforming from a single line of tubular "bricks" at its top to an expansive space containing a cafe and public space below. The pavilion is also accompanied by four "summer houses" that have each been designed by an architect who has yet to build a permanent building in England, respectively being Kunlé Adeyemi, Barkow Leibinger, Yona Friedman, and Asif Khan.