Ahead of the curve: the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003

[The following article originally appeared on the Electric Review website.]

How often does it happen that London’s summer weather outshines its art? June 2003 started out by giving us plenty of brilliant sun — plus the hyper-depressive ‘realism’ of Tate Modern’s Cruel and Tender, some predictably boring snaps by Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Britain, and possibly the most flaccidly aimless Royal Academy summer exhibition in recent memory. So does this mean that we should all stick to slapping on the Factor 18 and concentrating on those tan-lines, at least until Bridget Riley’s dated but now weirdly retro-chic 1960s stuff starts to work its undemanding magic at Tate Britain next week?

Well, no. Help is at hand, or rather, at the Serpentine. For several years now, the presiding forces there have commissioned a temporary summer pavilion from a well-known architect. This time they have chosen Oscar Niemeyer, the 95-year old seminal modernist and the man who brought us Brasilia, as well as plenty of other concrete wonders drooled over extensively by the photographers at Wallpaper*, among others. And this, like the Riley show, was an inspired choice. Now that even postmodernism has been reduced to being an ironic and quotable tic of the long-ago 1980s, and now that we don’t have to take modernism’s endless vaingloriousness seriously any more, there is something adorable and soothing and innocent about it all — like watching the television sitcoms of one’s own childhood or laughing at photos of one’s parents’ fashion mistakes circa 1973.

So it is no wonder that everyone has, entirely correctly, embraced Niemeyer’s pavilion as a marvellous success. It is a success. Made — inevitably — of concrete, aluminium and steel, and with a great sheet of brilliant red down one side of it, the structure looks rather like a large white curving ‘M’ drawn rather casually across the green landscape of Hyde Park. Indeed, if one goes down into the lower level of the pavilion — sunk a few feet below the level of the lawns beyond it — one can watch a small film in which the Modernist Master himself casually draws the ‘M’ and speaking meaningfully about the need to ‘explore the meaning of the curve’ or something like that — presumably leaving his collaborator José Sussekind and the capable people at Arup to sort out the details. From the inside, this lower level produces interesting worms’-eye views of the undulating lawns beyond. The real point, though, is the upper level. Above, the roof of the pavilion swoops with the illusory lightness of a tent or marquee, letting in great vistas of blue sky and green park on either side; a circular window at one end frames the pastoral scene beyond, while a ledge on the aspect facing the Serpentine Gallery itself provides what must be one of London’s greatest, if most evanescent, lounging and looking opportunities. Inside there are low tables and rounded benches of the sort that one might find in any improvised metropolitan bar, except that the dusty concrete floor, the rush of open air and changing light effects keep insisting that this is something different. The fact that it won’t be there forever probably helps, too. Over the summer the pavilion will serve as a sort of improvised cafe, and then as the leaves start to fall it will vanish as suddenly as it appeared. Unlike so much modern art and architecture, this is a pavilion that has enough sense not to hang around once it ceases to please and amuse.

In the meantime, it looks marvellous. From the outside, its simple white-and-red formula is set off brilliantly by the midsummer greens and blues of the park beyond. On the inside, it forms a sexy, light-hearted space that makes its inhabitants look sophisticated and sleek. It shows no signs of taking itself too seriously. It shows every sign of making lots of people — modernist groupies, middle-brow dating couples, simple thirsty wanderers — very happy indeed. In this way it seems to have much more of a ‘point’ than many things inflicted upon us in the name of art.

Of course one can go too far in insisting on the ironies inherent in, err, a glorified tea-room. But those ironies are there all the same, as obvious as Niemeyer’s apparently effortless skill in using glass, concrete and colour, and most of them connect directly to Niemeyer’s stature as a hero of modernism.

Take the simple matter of function. On one hand, despite a parallel emphasis on form (that curve again) it is a central feature of modernist self-understanding that architecture not only can but in fact must have a political, even a moral impact. The concrete (as it were) proof of this can be seen everywhere from the anti-fascist posture of the Barcelona Pavilion to the slightly anxious New-World boosterism of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square to Brasilia itself. Needless to say, to believe this is to accord architects an awful lot of power — far more, obviously, than one should entrust to anything as vulgar as, say, a patron.

And yet when it comes right down to it, modernism does not have a brilliant track-record at producing things that actually do what they are meant to do. Some of modernism’s most stunning offspring — one thinks of Mies van der Rohe’s prism-like skyscrapers of the early 1920s — remained stillborn on the drawing-table, either because they could not yet be built or — more likely — because they worked better as dreams than as buildings. With its opulent materials and self-conscious lack of functionality, the Barcelona Pavilion may in fact have had more in common with sculpture than with architecture. Can there be a single modernist architect who never built an art gallery that won prizes for its good looks while remaining stubbornly resistant to the showing of art within its often glassy, often sloping walls? As for Brasilia, half its Wallpaper* charm lies in the aestheticism of its empty corridors and onward-rushing ruin, as poignant as anything etched by Piranesi. (Rio, meanwhile, scruffy and demotic, thrives apace.) Modernism was supposed to elevate mankind, but we never really rose to its challenge. This is why, today, it is the ultimate in irresponsible luxury styles, suitable only for those sophisticated enough to appreciate its rebarbative simplicity, intelligent enough to be able to separate it from its bad historical memories, and rich enough to work around its practical defects and demands.

Hence, perhaps, the 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. Given a light-hearted commission, Niemeyer has created a light-hearted structure. It will not have to look very good for very long. It will not have to achieve a high moral purpose. The beers and glasses of wine it sells will not have to transform their recipients into newer, better men. Instead — and despite the insistent modernist allusion both of its form and of its creator’s name — it appeals to another tradition altogether — a frankly pastoral one. Giorgione, I suppose, started off on this path, later explored so magically and hauntingly by Titian, Claude, Boucher and others, ending up — with only the faintest haze of irony starting to draw in — on the plein air scenes of Manet and the Impressionists. Et in arcadia ego … Such art, and the architecture that referred back to it, were ways of framing and regularising the relationship between man and nature, seen most obviously in those moments when man was sufficiently removed from the realities of the natural world that he began to miss what had previously been an integral if often burdensome bond. So forget modernism. If this pavilion is about anything, it is about a pleasure-dome built in the wilderness where those who no longer need to labour on the land can enjoy the fresh air, the open vistas, the glint of light on water. All of which is some long way from the aspirations behind, say, Brasilia, or the various communist party headquarters built by Niemeyer, or the aspirations of modernism, full stop.

I first saw the 2003 Serpentine Pavilion on a beautiful summer evening. Gradually, twilight started to fall. Shadows lengthened and the sky darkened from indigo into lingering violet. Green treetops turned first gold and then ultramarine. A private view was taking place. Across the lawns strolled elegant old men in immaculately-cut suits, effervescent 30-somethings flirting over their glasses of wine, the odd barefooted middle-class infant running delightedly wild under the blessing of a hundred tolerant grownup smiles. Like the nymphs and shepherds in a painting by Giorgione, couples lounged on the grass, while the odd celebrity passed amongst us like classical gods in a renaissance conceit: supermodel Liberty Ross, a kindly-looking Lord Rothschild, tiny elfin Tracey Emin who alighted briefly amongst the mortals and then was gone. This was, perhaps, as close as I shall ever come to living out a life familiar only from Boucher’s paintings — beauty for pleasure’s sake, a gilded twilight anticipating a long green dusk — and none of it would have been possible without the pavilion, conferring, however inadvertently, its elegance and nostalgia on all of us. So as long as the good weather holds, I’d very much recommend making your way to the Serpentine Gallery and experiencing one of the most real if fleeting delights of this London summer.

Bunny Smedley is ERO’s arts editor.

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