Jean Nouvel’s Serpentine Pavilion

A lot has of course already been written on the significance of the use of red in the 2010 Serpentine Pavilion – its reference to the red of London buses and England’s postboxes, for example. There are a myriad other things that spring to mind, rather more inappropriately: Christmas, prostitution, Communism, blood, danger, to name just a few. But what is it like to be immersed so completely in red? Red everything: a red spongy floor, red plastic chairs, red hammocks, red bean bags, red benches and red tables, a red ceiling and a red transparent wall… With the word “SKY” etched out of the red, letting the blue of the sky or the grey of the clouds penetrate this particular shade of orange-red… The word is just above the tree line, so no green comes through, only sky colours, but down at park level is the word “GREEN” – suddenly I suspect foul play. Everything coming through the word “GREEN” is indeed green, but I realise that some of it should be brown – a tree trunk for instance. But then it occurs to me, is this actually a double bluff, am I just reading all the colours coming through as more green because the etched word in capital letters tells me they should be so? And because green is the complementary opposite to red, vibrating more vividly in contrast to the epic redness of the surroundings?

So this is the world I have entered, this the effect of immersion in a single colour – it forces you to question everything else outside of it, and everything in relation to it. I ponder this as I sit on my red plastic stool, waiting for the arrival of the man himself, French architect Jean Nouvel. It just so happens that I’ve stumbled upon the jackpot – the architect is here to tell me (well, me and quite a few others who are rapidly closing in all around me) about his pavilion, in the flesh, just as I had decided to pay it a visit. Serendipitous indeed.

But he’s not here yet, and the Serpentine staff are getting a little edgy, the red closing oppressively in like a David Lynch film set. “Does anyone know where he is?” asks someone anxiously. A very dapper Frenchman in a sharp suit replies: “He is in London, we know that.” “Oh good, well at least he’s in London,” says another, still looking twitchy. It’s clearly a very important moment and he seems to be rather spoiling it by not being here.

I have the feeling this red could be quite good at echoing moods – as the late afternoon rays of warm July sun seep through the many openings in the pavilion’s structure, the red takes on a warm womblike glow (or is that just because I’m pregnant?). As clouds pass over the sun and the wind picks up, the ominous air returns – the red gets colder and sharper. Thin red fabric billows dramatically across the empty stage area – cue a reassuring staff member on the mic: “I’d just like to say that the talk will be happening. There’s just a short delay, 15 minutes we hope, but it will be happening.” I wonder whether I can risk losing my front row stool to go and look at the red ping pong tables or get a drink from the red bar. Oh, here are Serpentine directors Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. “The idea of play is central to this year’s concept,” says Julia. Now she’s broken into French, uttering words like “magnifique!” and “extraordinaire!”, and it somehow manages to feel a bit like the Eurovision song contest. Hans Ulrich jumps in – he’s better at French than Julia and gabbles away happily until, finally, here he is – the arrival of Jean Nouvel himself, looking ever the Bond villain, in the best possible way.

“I try to be a contextual architect,” he says. “I want to make sense of this epoch, the start of the 21st century, and the summer, and to make sense of this place… as a Frenchman I am seduced by English gardens and parks, the freedom… everybody seems to be at home… they sleep, they play with little balls. I wanted only to add something in the same way… to celebrate the sun.” Sadly the sun has all but disappeared now, but that does nothing to diminish Nouvel’s clear enthusiasm for his Serpentine project. “I wanted to make a little gift to everyone here,” he tells us, going on to list a whole load more associations with red that are much more positive and joyful than the ones that sprung to my mind earlier: love, desire, energy, sensation, the theatre, ceremony, red velvet, flowers in the summer, English roses, “a little explosion”. He also links the pavilion to the red brick of the adjacent Serpentine gallery, likening the transparent red wall of the pavilion to stained glass and the view of the park through it to Jean Baudrillard’s photography of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. As he speaks, the sun reappears just for a moment, a ray dramatically bouncing off his white bald head as the mechanical awnings simultaneously come down to shade us and him, the dynamism of the structure coming into play.

“Come at different hours and on different days, and probably you will have very different feelings,” says Nouvel. I’m sure he’s right.

This article was published in Domus magazine, 20 July 2010. To view it in context, visit http://www.domusweb.it/architecture/article.cfm?id=261511