The Guardian JULY 3, 2006 - by Steve Rose


A helium roof that rises and falls with the weather? Rem Koolhaas's Serpentine Pavilion is a joyous extravagance, says Steve Rose...

Musicians can jam, artists can doodle, actors can improvise, but when architects try to loosen up, they usually end up getting sued. Architecture cannot afford to be vague. Grey areas, margins of error, middle ground - these ambiguous spaces are enemy territory to a discipline that demands precision and certainty. But there is, at least, a little patch of parkland in London where some lucky architects can go to play. This is the lawn of the Serpentine Gallery, in Kensington Gardens, where every summer a new pavilion more outlandish than the last briefly blossoms. It started as a delightful seasonal diversion, but after six years the Serpentine's pavilion programme has become one of the best ideas in the art world. That little patch of lawn is now an architectural test site of global significance.

A pavilion is already an inbetween concept. It is more than an idea, but less than a permanent structure. It has to serve some function, but none in particular. It might be there one day and gone the next. There is no solid definition of what a pavilion should be or do or look like, and their containable nature makes them perfect for experimentation. Modern architecture would not be the same without them - Mies Van Der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, Le Corbusier and Yannis Xenakis' 1958 Philips Pavilion, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome at Expo 67, and so on. Under the auspices of its pavilion programme, the Serpentine has been smuggling some radical architecture into the country, introducing architects whose work had never been realised here before: Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Oscar Niemeyer, Toyo Ito and, last year, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura.

Nobody can go to a public or private space and see their work, and yet they're the seminal practitioners of today, says Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. It's a very, very simple brief that's the same for every architect, and it's up to them to do whatever they will. However, it has a very clear public use: it is a way for the public to experience architecture.

The architects commissioned so far have taken the idea and run with it, invariably assisted by the structural know-how of Cecil Balmond, co-chairman of Arup. But even by the Serpentine's standards, this year's design should be something else. It is the brainchild of Dutch visionary and long-time Londoner Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas is an architect who does not so much provide answers as rephrase questions. His Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture has become a think-tank not just for architecture, but for civilisation as a whole. When asked to design a new public library for Seattle, he instead dismantled the institution and put it back together in a better order, storing the books in one continuous spiral according to the Dewey decimal system. His headquarters for China's Central Television Station, which will open in 2008, turns a skyscraper in on itself to form a continuous loop of connected activities; it will look like a wonky picture frame fifty storeys high. So, when presented with the chance to design this year's pavilion, Koolhaas naturally went ahead and reprogrammed the whole gallery.

Rem has always said he's not interested in meaningless shapes, says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine's co-director, who has collaborated with Koolhaas several times before. For him, architecture without content is not interesting. He doesn't want the two to be dissociated, he wants a pavilion that goes alongside the content. From the beginning, he wanted it to be programmed - not only with evening lectures and readings, but in a very dense way. The exhibition taking place in the main gallery, by Thomas Demand, will seep into the pavilion, creating a natural flow between the two like yin and yang. There will be video displays, discussions, events and activities, the highlights of which will be two twenty-four-hour interview marathons convened by Koolhaas and Obrist. Guests will include Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Brian Eno, plus assorted politicians, thinkers and luminaries. You will still be able to just wander in and buy a cup of tea there, too.

Koolhaas's rhetoric suggests he has side-stepped, if not transcended, the one-upmanship that the Serpentine's successive triumphs have inevitably fostered. Yet his pavilion is bigger, bolder and more expensive than any of its predecessors. It sits in direct, axial relation to the gallery building, and its no-nonsense circular plan mirrors the gallery's central space. Its roof is a giant, helium-filled, translucent canopy, which will rise and fall depending on weather conditions. When it is cold and windy, it will lie low; but on fine days, the cables holding it down will be loosened, and its bulbous form will rise like a balloon, higher than the gallery itself. There are some climactic justifications for this bizarre structure - Koolhaas wants it to stay in the park until October this year, when the second twenty-four-hour interview will take place during the Frieze art fair - but it is essentially a joyous extravagance that stretches the definition of built form a little further.

Inspired in part by Koolhaas's re-definitions, the Serpentine has rethought its own position in the creative universe. A new project that ties neatly into the pavilion programme is the gallery's Agency for Unrealised Projects: an initiative that aims to document and display the dreams of artists, architects and designers that have not yet made flesh. The pavilion programme has its own unrealised project in the missing 2004 pavilion dreamt up by the Dutch practice MVRDV, which never materialised. To Peyton-Jones, this unrealised project is no less valid than the built ones - but MVRDV's case underlines the fact that there are financial, if not physical, realities to contend with. Even Koolhaas and Balmond's current flight of fancy is tethered by cost, sponsorship deals and fund-raising activities - as well as an eye on its resale value. According to the Serpentine's sales agents, Knight Frank, the previous pavilions have sold for between £250,000 and £500,000, plus a £150,000 dismantling fee. This year's asking price is £750,000, for which you could buy an apartment on the nearby millionaire's row of Kensington Palace Gardens, or perhaps commission Koolhaas yourself.

But in the meantime, these pavilions are here to sample for free, safe glimpses of the future and calling cards for the architecture we might one day treat as normal.

Where Did All The Previous Pavilions Go?

1 Zaha Hadid (2000)

Visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 2001 might have spotted Hadid's triangulated marquee in a more theatrical guise. It was bought by the Royal Shakespeare Company and reassembled in the car park in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was the perfect space, says the RSC's Dean Asker. We had a cafe in the lower end of the structure and a performance space at the other. You could have seen anything from Jenny Eclair doing stand-up to Tom Robinson singing. It attracted a lot of passers-by who probably wouldn't have been interested in the theatre otherwise, which is exactly what we wanted. After one summer, though, the structure was apparently given to a local farmer. Sorry Zaha, your first British commission is now a makeshift cowshed.

2 Daniel Libeskind (2001)

Libeskind's jagged steel spiral, entitled 18 Turns, re-emerged last year outside Fota House in Cork, as part of its European City of Culture programme. Its owner remains anonymous. He's a private individual, says Irish architect John Keogan, who was instrumental to the pavilion's Irish excursion. When I heard that Cork had got the capital of culture designation, I was interested in whether there was anything I could do. I knew that he had this piece in storage in the UK, so I persuaded him to loan it to the city. Keogan then brought together all the original stake-holders in the project and took them around Cork to choose a new site. It was used for readings and experimental sound and video events, and Libeskind himself came and gave a free lecture, Keogan continues, but to be honest, eighty percent of the interest was in the pavilion itself.

3 Toyo Ito (2002)

The only pavilion still on public view, Ito's crazed geometric box now sits outside the redeveloping Battersea Power Station. Our president, Victor Hwang, was bowled over by the building, says Ian Rumgay of Parkview International, the power station's developers. He liked it so much, he bought it. It wasn't easy to put back together. There was a bit of head-scratching when we first got it. It didn't come with a full set of instructions. It now serves as our visitor's centre and reception area for events. Right now, it's housing a gallery of paintings, drawings and photographs of the power station, which is part of a competition we organised locally. Sooner or later, he says, it will move again. The thinking is, we may take it down to the riverside where it can function more as a pavilion again.

4 & 6 Oscar Niemeyer (2003) and Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura (2005)

Both Niemeyer's slice of Brazilian cool, and Siza and de Moura's sensual timber grid are in the hands of another anonymous buyer. The good news is, this mystery art-lover intends to put them back in the public realm - eventually.

5 MVRDV (2004)

Had it been built, this would have been the boldest of the lot. Dutch team MVRDV proposed covering the entire gallery building with an artificial mountain. A vast steel structure, covered in artificial turf, would have been erected, upon which visitors could climb, play and enjoy a new view of London. A giant metallic reflector was designed for the underside of the mountain to bring light into the space beneath, which would have been big enough to accommodate an auditorium as well as the gallery itself. The scheme was defeated by outstanding technical and financial issues.

Rem Koolhaas's pavilion will be at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075), from July 13 to October 15.