Serpentine Pavilion: SANAA

Serpentine Gallery, London
12 July-18 October

This year’s Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Japanese architecture duo SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa), is the most open structure so far, a delicate undulating form supported by 99 thin columns. “It’s really a room that at the beginning is a table, so it’s not very high, it starts off at the height of a table and then swings into a room size,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine’s co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects, told The Art Newspaper. The reflective canopy’s height starts at 1 metre and reaches up to 3.5 metres at its highest point, so the idea is that it can be used from the inside and out, with people eating off its surface at the lowest point and sheltering beneath it as its height increases.

The Serpentine Pavilion is a yearly commission for architects who have never completed a building in England. “The decision of the architect is a curatorial decision, it’s not a competition,” Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones told TAN. “There are no runners up, there is always only one choice.” Although SANAA is not a familiar name to the general public in the same way as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid (two of the nine previous commissions for the pavilion), they have a strong connection to the museum world, having designed the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, the New Museum in New York, the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion in Ohio, and the Louvre satellite museum in Lens, France.

The pavilion is not just an architectural experiment—it also plays host to a series of events throughout its three-month residency in Hyde Park. “We are going to particularly have links to the Japanese context of SANAA,” said Mr Obrist. “There is going to be a Japanese music night, for example, with Japanese composers using the pavilion.” The Park Nights series culminates for the fourth time in the 24-hour “Marathon” event during Frieze week in October, and this year it is dedicated to poetry, with contributions from 50 poets and visual artists who have written poetry. The area of SANAA’s pavilion where these events take place is more enclosed than the rest of the structure, but most of it is completely open to the elements, which may prove bracing if the British summer is anything like last year.

As an experimental project, the construction of the pavilion has often thrown up unexpected challenges (MVRDV’s plans for 2004 were never realised, for example). “It’s true to say that the best-laid plans are sometimes laid to waste,” Ms Peyton-Jones told TAN. “It’s what we know and experience on a yearly basis when we come to design the pavilion. It’s all going according to plan, because the plan is that plans change.” The temporary structure is always sold off at the end of its three-month life in the park. “The concept is that it should have this other life,” said Ms Peyton-Jones. “For example the Toyo Ito pavilion [in 2002] was bought and transferred to Battersea Power Station. It was then sold as part of Battersea Power Station to the new owners, and then bought back by the old owner, and is now being installed in the south of France.” “Everything we do at the Serpentine in the 21st century aims to be about sustainability and legacy,” added Mr Obrist.

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, July-August 2009