Serpentine Pavilion

The annual Summer Pavilion program at the Serpentine Gallery in London is unique. Acting as a global platform for experimental projects, it showcases the work of an international architect or design practice in the form of a contemporary pavilion built in Hyde Park. Since its first edition in 2000 with the project of the late Zaha Hadid, the Serpentine Pavilions have always been expression of innovative and much celebrated architectural episodes ‒ despite being temporary structures. The term “pavilion” itself, from the French word papillon (“butterfly”), offers clues to the nature of this building typology as something ephemeral. Part of the appeal of such structures lies in the fact that their fleeting characteristics somehow put the general public in closer touch with architecture and the art world. Unlike traditional museums, the Serpentine Pavilion offers an excellent example of such immediacy of interaction and accessibility: there are no doors, no thresholds, no cultural boundaries.

“In a society of increasing inequality, everyone can experience architecture first hand. This is one of the main reasons for the Pavilion’s success.” -Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine’s Artistic Director

Architects are given six months from invitation to completion. A close collaboration with engineers and consultants is thus crucial for the successful realization of the project. Besides structural analysis and virtual simulations, developing full-scale mock-ups and prototypes is an essential part of the design process for testing the structure’s durability, weather-tightness, strength, fire resistance and appearance. The construction period is usually limited to just seven weeks, dealing with the delivery and logistical restrictions in place to ensure public safety. In this short timeframe, a strategic construction phasing plan allows for the multiple construction processes to be undertaken in parallel and erect the structure with the quality it deserves.

Architects of these structures are invited to use materials in innovative ways, experiment with engineering or construction solutions and, increasingly, address the more social impact of architecture ‒ such as global ecology and sustainability, the relationship between architecture and food, the future of work, as well as smart technologies or artificial intelligence.

Typically, there is no budget for the Serpentine Pavilion. It is paid for by sponsorship, in-kind support and the sale of the finished structure, which does not cover more than 40% of the project cost. After their summer in Kensington Gardens, the pavilions are in fact dismantled, transported and reassembled for public institutions, private collections, or touristic enclaves. Emphasizing a growing attention toward sustainability, the aim is then to reuse all the materials in the new incarnation of the pavilions. Oscillating between ephemerality and permanence, the Serpentine Pavilions will continue in the future to transition from a carefully designed and yet short existence in London, to an unpredictable afterlife adapting and in some cases camouflaging ‒ just like butterflies ‒ in their new environment.

Read more on Domus.

Typology: Research article
Location: London, UK
Year: 2019
Client: Domus
Research, text and drawings: Stefano Andreani
Status: Published on Domus N. 1036


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