There are days in life in which you feel very lucky and like all your hard work has paid off. For me, this day came last week when I was invited to the press launch of this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens. In London's architecture and design world, the arrival of the Pavilion outside the Serpentine Gallery marks the beginning of summer, and this year’s was extra special as it included four stunning summer houses just a few steps away at the gallery's neighbouring Queen Caroline’s Temple.
Before I launch into the meaning of this year’s buildings, I wanted to take a step back and look at the entire history of Serpentine Gallery and Queen Caroline’s Temple, and share a bit more information about the Serpentine Architecture Programme.
Kensington Gardens was originally part of Hyde Park, and was used by King Henry VIII as a hunting ground. However, in 1728, Queen Caroline, wife to George II, wanted a serene outdoor space and landscaped the ground next to Kensington Palace. This landscaping project was overseen by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman and embraced the classical style in fashion at the time. The Round Pond, sunken Dutch Gardens, The Italian Gardens, The Long Water lake, better known as the Serpentine, and William Kent’s Queen Caroline’s Temple were all created as a part of Queen Caroline's project.
Like all gardens, Queen Caroline’s original design has continued to grow and change over the years. The gardens became open to the public in 1821 and a refreshment house was built where the current Serpentine Gallery now sits to accommodate the people visiting the grounds. The refreshment house was replaced with a Tea Pavilion designed by J. Grey Westin 1933 and in 1970 the building was purchased by the Art Council and turned into the Serpentine Gallery as we know it today.
In the year 2000, Zaha Hadid was invited to create a temporary structure at the gallery for a fundraiser. This structure was so popular that the license for it was extended, marking the birth of the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. With each summer pavilion that’s erected, the aim is to create a structure that can be used as a cafe and family space during the day, and then house the Park Nights programme in the evenings. The Serpentine Architecture Programme invites internationally renowned architects to create the pavilions, which is a call every architect dreams of getting. This year the honour fell to Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect who heads up Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a man just as beautiful as the buildings he creates. Ingels' pavilion is based on an unzipped wall and is build of hallow fibreglass bricks stacked into a frame. It’s simple but it's also oh so beautiful!
As you can tell from the photos, this year's pavilion is very angular, but has a curve and flow that makes the building feel almost as if it’s breathing. As you travel around or through the building, it’s almost as if it changes shape, appearing solid from one angle or almost invisible if you look at it straight-on, the structure allows you to take in the sweeping landscape of Kensington Gardens through it’s hallow bricks. This building is designed to be enjoyed from every angle both inside and out; if you visit, make sure to walk through the pavilion and to look up. From the inside, the entrance frames the view of the gallery and I’m sure this vantage point will be one of the most iconic instagram shots of the summer.
If you’re anything like me, when you’re looking at the pavilion, you may feel an overwhelming urge to climb it, and the good news is Bjarke designed it with this intention in mind. A very sensible hand rail runs along the building and acts as a measure for how far up health and safety will allow you to climb.
For those who feel that erecting a building that will last for only five months is a bit wasteful, rest assured that this structure can be easily dissembled and re-built. Once the summer ends in London, it will be shipped off to winter in New York, and I’m sure it will be very well travelled by the time it finds a final resting place.
But the Serpentine Pavilion isn’t the only architectural draw to the park this summer! Four more architects from around the globe were invited to design summer houses located just a few steps away from the Serpentine Gallery near the iconic Queen Caroline’s Temple. Nigerian architect, Kunle Adeyemi, worked with stone and leather to create a relaxing structure that frames Queen Caroline’s Temple. Barkow Leibinger, an American and German architecture practise, designed a curvaceous plywood summer house that pays homage to the park’s lost second pavilion by creating a structure in the ground with 360 views all around. This building also feels like your sheltering under a tree. Yona Friedman, a Hungarian born French architect, brought us a modular structure which can be rearranged as you wish. And lastly, our very own London architect (yea!), Asif Khan, built a stunning white summer house. When working on the project, Khan learned that when building Queen Caroline’s Temple, William Kent had situated the building to face the direction of the rising sun on the Queen’s birthday, 1 March 1683. Khan’s summer house looks like it has sprung from the earth and even when cocooned inside, you still have a great view and are able to take in the park around you.
Yona Friedman passionately spoke about how architecture is sculpture that defines a landscape, but is also a space that people use. As I walked amongst the four summer houses, I watched a man and his dog merrily bounce in and out of each of the four structures and could feel Friedman’s words ringing true. The summer houses are not to be worshipped, but to be used and enjoyed. They will be a part of Kensington Garden’s landscape for a brief moment this summer and will be enjoyed by all kinds of visitors from all walks of life. Workers will sit inside the structure to enjoy their lunch, children will scamper through them and lovers will grab a moment of seclusion and share secrets within them. These buildings pay beautiful respect to Queen Caroline, the royal philanthropist, and they will imprint themselves in many of our memories from summer 2016. Please go and make your own memories there; I know I will treasure mine.
photography by Kate Sims