I arrived early. Temperature wavering between warm and cool, while the cloud-shrouded sun promised heat later. Watercolour sky. The diffused sunlight washing the colour out of the trees, the tarmac, the grass.
I arrived early because I wanted to beat the throng; the Serpentine Pavilion always draws a crowd. Each year, the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park commissions an international architect or design team (who has not completed a building in England at the time of the Gallery’s invitation) to install a temporary structure on its lawn. They are completed in six months, and stay for three months, before being re-sited.
This year, the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo won the commission. With the momentum of #metoo and a feeling of gender politics having its day in the sun, it is particularly pleasing to have a woman (only the second in the 19 year history of the Pavilion) at the helm of such an important event in the architecture and design calendar.
I like this pavilion. Escobedo has created a courtyard from two overlapping rectangles, one aligned with the host Gallery and one with the Greenwich meridian, containing some of the space offered up by the lawn. The walls and roofed portion of the pavilion offer shade and, as has become habitual, house a small, smart cafe counter. Viewed from the front, a portion of the wall appears to have swung open, permitting entry. At the rear, a break in the long flank provides a glimpse of the original 1930s Serpentine Pavilion.
Closer inspection reveals the fabric of the woven walls - graphite-grey concrete roof tiles, with their distinctive "s" shaped wave, threaded onto steel rods. The “weave” cleverly maintains the shady interior, but allows air to move through the structure.
There is an angular pool of water in the floor. I wanted to kick off my flip-flops and cool my toes in it, but the austere space was a little forbidding, so my temptation did not turn into interaction. The presence of water has spawned several canary yellow hazard floor signs which rather disrupt the monochrome. The watery surface creates interesting reflections and casts light at the shiny, black ceiling which, in turn, bounces the rays around the pavilion. It is a dark space, but not a drab one.
The intersection between ceiling, wall, sky and ground forms irregular shapes and triangles. This pavilion is best viewed in parts rather than as a whole.
By now, the mounting heat of the sun had evaporated the morning's hazy shroud of cloud. I left the lawn of the Gallery and made my way towards another of its installations - The London Mastaba by Christo. I passed a row of horse chestnut trees, laden with candelabras of orchid-like blossom, flecked with flashes of custard and coral. Crows stepped carefully on the shady lawns, peering beyond their beaks, waiting for something. Cobalt dragon and damsel flies zinged in my peripheral vision. And then I caught sight of something monolithic.
The Mastaba (named after the flat-roofed ancient Egyptian tombs) is constructed from 7,506 coloured barrels. Seen side on, the striped red and white of the barrels' circumferences lends the structure the aesthetics of an out-size buoy. End on, the effect is more pleasing, with the red, mauve and blue barrel ends creating a mosaic, the shadowy gaps between the circles suggesting hexagonal tesserae where there are none. The striking colour scheme was presumably chosen for its interaction with the greens and blues of the park.
The Mastaba is better glimpsed, than seen in its entirety. While its floating bulk is undeniably impressive, the Lido cafe, pedalos and duos and trios of deck chairs on the far bank create interference, diluting the impact of the structure. The Long Water (the western half of the Serpentine), is less populated, more lush and wild and I think the contrast, the exciting cognitive dissonance, might have been even more striking had the Mastaba been sited there.
Still. I was impressed.
I circled the water, drinking in the sun, the tended beds and the curated wild spaces. Green parrots swooped, noisily, from tree to tree, gnawing at early berries and fruits. An American woman startled her husband, calling out “A ladybug!” before dropping on to her haunches to allow the tiny beast to crawl on her fingernail. I emerged onto West Carriage Drive. Flash cars painted in neon, or wrapped in metallic vinyl thrummed, waiting to pour out onto Kensington Gore on the green light. The loops and beats of Arabic pop spilled out through their open windows and onto the hot pavements. I saw the flagpoles, lined up like minimalist Lombardy poplars, drawing the eye down towards the museums, holding their treasures in rooms of light and dark. I walked towards them and left London’s green heart behind me.
Want to read more? Last year's Serpentine Pavilion was good, too.