Thursday, 19 August 2010

Jean Nouvel and Christopher Wren

In the late 1980’s Saatchi & Saatchi devised an advertising campaign for the Victoria & Albert Museum which ran with the line “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.” It was frowned on by the cognoscenti, but worked very well as a way of drawing attention to the Museum and many new visitors followed.

This phrase came to mind when I went to look at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion: my reaction was along the lines “…a caff, with a disappointing pavilion attached”.

The Serpentine Gallery itself is small, single-storey, sitting in an elegant 1930’s tea room building, to the west side of Hyde Park and close to the Serpentine lake. For the last ten years it has commissioned a temporary summer pavilion, which has stood on the lawns directly in front of the gallery. The original objective was to create an enclosed space in which the Gallery could hold its major annual fundraising events, with some protection from summer showers. It also has to provide a small café and casual seating for the public to use during the day. As it now stands for three months, it has developed a programme of additional arts events, including evening talks and concerts.

The policy is to invite each year a world-class architect who hasn’t previously built in Britain. The chosen one is given a remarkably free hand, and an open budget, to respond to the brief. This year’s choice is Frenchman Jean Nouvel, and his response is disappointing. I found it an odd collection of structural elements, with no real logic as to their purpose other than to provide rudimentary enclosure to the spaces. It is entirely red: the structure, roof, walls, curtains, café furniture and even the waste bins. Why? What’s the ‘story’?

Nouvel said in his opening speech, "I want more disorder in this place," imagining apparently a relaxed place for people to play. Hhmm…Hyde Park has served people rather well for many years as a relaxed place to play. Need to keep the rain off? Well a marquee would have done that.

The entire design is rendered in a vivid red that, in a play of opposites, contrasts with the green of its park setting, with the colour reflecting the iconic British images of traditional telephone boxes, post boxes and London buses” said one reviewer.

This is all in marked contrast to last year’s lovely pavilion by Japanese architects SANAA which met the brief with a series of open spaces, sitting under an incredibly lightweight ‘roof’, the whole thing hardly intruding on the park at all. I wrote about it here.

Rowan Moore, writing about this years pavilion in the Observer concludes: Few architects have the ability to be as good and as bad, at the same time, as Nouvel. He shows how far a contemporary architect can go by working almost entirely in the realm of image. He also shows that other things, like detail, and the shaping of rooms and sequences of spaces – the things he doesn't bother with all that much – do still matter.

Well yes, it certainly contrasts with the green of its park setting. And it may reflect the traditional telephone boxes and buses, although I’m not convinced it’s the correct shade of red. But that’s not the real issue: I just think it is a very dull idea, poorly executed. The shape and form of the ‘building’ might work better in another setting: perhaps as a landmark chain of service-station restaurants, along the major French auto-routes. But for me it doesn’t work as a summer pavilion.

The red hammock is very popular.
Perhaps better suited to a French auto-route

Meanwhile Jean Nouvel now has another project under construction in London, his first permanent building, and it’s a very big building. It occupies a whole city block, fronting onto four streets, the major one of which is called New Change. The developer has named this project One New Change (after it’s postal address).

They had to struggle to get planning permission, given its size, 560,000 square feet of space, and it’s extremely sensitive location, right across the road from St Paul’s Cathedral. Construction is almost completed and it is due to open this autumn, with a mix of vast offices for 3,000 workers, and a vast collection of upmarket shops and restaurants.

It is another disappointment, a great brute of a building, and I’m also afraid it is going to give real ammunition to those who oppose modern architecture in the sensitive areas of our cities. The recent strife over the Prince of Wales involvement in the Chelsea Barracks scheme shows how powerful this lobby can be. Nouvel’s building gives them all they need to justify future campaigns.

The entire façade is glazed, and has outward sloping upper walls with strange changes in the vertical planes. The glass appears to be fritted, in brown and dark red, giving off a strange ‘fuzzy’ effect.

The developer’s website tells us “Nouvel’s projects transform the landscapes in which they are built yet his vision places enormous importance on designing buildings that are harmonious with their surroundings”.

Indeed. It certainly transforms the landscape, and not for the better.

The Serpentine pavilion is temporary, and will be gone by October. Sadly, One New Change is very permanent.

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