In the history of architecture the pavilion – for an exhibition, in a garden, often temporary – has a special power. It can launch a movement, declare a manifesto in three dimensions, crystallise an idea, offer a vision of the future. Le Corbusier and Konstantin Melnikov did this at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1925, Mies van der Rohe in Barcelona in 1929. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of the geodesic dome was launched with the help of international exhibitions in New York and Montreal. In the 18th century, the follies and temples of gardens such as Stowe and Stourhead helped to create English Palladian architecture.
Of five temporary structures now on show around the Serpentine Gallery, the one that comes closest to this tradition is by the Hungarian-born French architect Yona Friedman, born two years before Corbusier and Melnikov did their thing in Paris. A series of wire circles is arranged into dice-like six-sided forms and stacked up to form a light, three-dimensional grid, off which images of Friedman’s projects are hung. It represents his Ville Spatiale, whereby great structures would hover over cities such as New York and Paris, within which people would be free to make their own spaces, to use the architecture in the way that they like.
This is not a new idea, but one conceived in the late 1950s. It has been influential, infiltrating the projects of other visionaries and thence the built work of architects including Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture, but it has not itself come to pass, nor seems likely to do so. It is therefore a message from a somewhat remote past to a somewhat remote future, pausing in the present to suggest a poignant dream of what might be, rather than an urgent call to action.
Friedman’s work is one of four scattered around Queen Caroline’s Temple (1730s, attributed to William Kent and itself a style-making pavilion of its time), the others being by the Nigerian Kunlé Adeyemi, the American-German partnership Barkow Leibinger and the Londoner Asif Khan. They constitute an innovation by the Serpentine, which is to accompany its annual temporary pavilion, now in its 16th edition, with this additional gathering of (smaller, slighter) “summer houses”. The Serpentine is keen to credit the sponsors or “supporters” without whom these projects would not happen – in the case of the summer houses, the residential property company Northacre.
The pavilion itself stands, as usual, next to the Serpentine Gallery’s building, a brief walk through Kensington Gardens from the summer houses. It is made of hollow rectangular tubes, open at the ends, made of thin fibreglass sheets, which are then stacked up into a twisting shape that is at different times tent-like, mountainous, anatomical and churchy. It revels in inversion and surprise: its components are brick-like but light; they are straight-lined and right-angled, but generate curves in their stacking. A one-dimensional vertical line at each end grows from a 2D plane into a 3D swelling. From some positions, you can look straight through the boxes to the greenery beyond, such that they almost disappear. From others, they present blank flanks and the building becomes solid. It is mechanical and organic, filtering and editing the surroundings as if through the leaves of a pixellated tree.
It is designed by BIG, or Bjarke Ingels Group, a name that cleverly combines the initials of its 41-year-old founder and leader with the alternative custom of choosing names that carry some sort of meaning (OMA, the late lamented FAT, muf, Assemble). The latter is supposed to deflect attention away from individuals towards something more general: “BIG” is universal and personal at once, none too subtle in its meaning and statement of ambition and has the added attraction that the original Danish practice can call its website big.dk.
The name encapsulates Ingels’s genius, which is to combine the avant-garde trappings of an OMA with a happy-to-be-trashy flagrancy, an embrace of the values of marketing, a celebration of ego. “What I like about architecture,” he says, “is that it is literally the science of turning your fantasy into reality.” His approach has earned BIG the mistrust, awe and envy of fellow professionals, the adulation of many students and a 300-strong practice with offices in Copenhagen, New York and, as revealed in an announcement coinciding with the Serpentine launch, London.
A BIG project is a calculated cocktail of flair, mischief, arrogance and the inventive solving of whatever problems the brief might offer wrapped up into a media-friendly concept, usually reducible to a simple graphic device. BIG’s buildings include a lopsided pyramid of an apartment building in West 57th Street, New York, and the forthcoming power plant in Copenhagen that will have a ski slope wrapped around its exterior and blow smoke rings from its chimney.
With BIG’s pavilion, there’s a paradox. If for other architects a temporary work would be an opportunity to push the boundaries of the conceivable, to dare to try ideas that might then be applied to larger projects, in Ingels’s case he is already daring as much as he likes with his multistorey emoticons. His Serpentine piece ends up being one of his more subtle creations. It has a deceptive structural simplicity, achieved with the help of the engineers AKT II, whereby different thicknesses of fibreglass are used in response to varying structural loads.
It is one of the most enjoyable and successful Serpentine pavilions, which seems surprising, as other architects with greater artistic credentials have done less well. But its success reveals a hidden truth, which is that the series, with the panoply of sponsorship and socialising that goes with it, has in fact little in common with the ideological manifestos of bygone modernists. Where more craftsmanly architects have sometimes struggled to make sense of the Serpentine commission, the gallery’s inner bling this year meets BIG’s not-so-secret showmanship.
The BIG structure is also a million miles in spirit from Friedman’s, despite apparent similarities. Both pile up repetitive elements to achieve something complex, look in some way visionary and show a certain chutzpah. But where one proposes an unspecified future, the other encapsulates a present that is already happening. Ingels avoids the word “visionary” and prefers to quote William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
• The Summer Pavilions can be visited at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens in London, England until October 9, 2016.
View the full article and gallery online at the Guardian.