The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and the Smile


What is Architecture’s role beyond just adding stuff to the built environment? Sometimes it’s to delight the eye and inspire our imagination. 

Two buildings I remember from last year did this very well. The first was Bjarke Ingels Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and the second was Alison Brooks Smile, seen in the courtyard of the Chelsea College of Art. Both were temporary buildings. Both were works of art placed, by some God like hand, into the centre of London. 

Every year The Serpentine Gallery invites an architect to create a temporary structure in Kensington gardens. It will be the architect’s first UK commission. He or she will then have six months to design, construct and deliver their concept. Experimentation is encouraged. Spectacle is good. The results are always fascinating - a potent mix of materials, space, light and imagination. 

In response to last year’s invitation, Ingels devised a wall of translucent fibreglass bricks that appeared to unzip. If you walked through the zip a curving, cavernous interior was revealed. Like a drawing by M.C. Escher the structure played with the eye. From one angle it was rectangular. From another it was a gorgeous sweeping curve. The clever people at AKTII helped with the design and structural engineering.

Around the same time, over in Pimlico, Alison Brooks was creating a Smile for the London Design festival. Situated in the forecourt of the Chelsea College of Arts this was a 34m beam that curved at both ends. Made from cross laminated Tulipwood – a material usually used for home furniture – this massive mega tube allowed a constant stream of visitors to walk up and down it’s sloping curved interior. Built in collaboration with Arup, there was a brilliant, surreal simplicity to it. 

Both buildings were visually striking. Works of art that defied the stripped back austerity of Post Brexit Britain and reveled in shape, texture and scale. Inevitably, and rather poignantly, neither one was allowed to take up a permanent residence. 

But there are things I remember about them that go beyond the visual and are more about the experience of them. The echo of voices, laughter and feet as people walked, or ran, along the length of the Smile. People climbing upwards, trailing their fingers along the surface of the walls. I remember running my hand over the wooden rails at each end. They were so beautiful and smooth. I also remember sitting inside Ingels Pavilion, enjoying a coffee and admiring the view. It was lovely to just sit, unwind and reflect on the beautiful geometry of the bricks stacked one on top of the other. It was meditative, spiritual. The building had a quiet dignity and authority. A minecraft cathedral in the middle of Kensington gardens.

These considerations, of course, are at the heart of a more people centred design approach. An awareness of acoustics, ventilation, ergonomics, lighting, materials, sustainability and other aspects that put the emphasis on health, wellbeing, comfort and how a building makes you feel. 

This years Serpentine pavilion architect looks set to continue this laudable tradition. Diébédo Francis Kéré is the first African architect to be chosen for the annual Serpentine gallery pavilion. The protective canopy of a tree inspires his design.

In conversation with the Guardians Oliver Wainwright Kere says “The tree was always the most important place in my village. It is where people come together under the shade of its branches to discuss, a place to decide matters, about love, about life. I want the pavilion to serve the same function: a simple open shelter to create a sense of freedom and community.”

To me a beautiful building often feels protective, organic and alive. Good buildings young or old can have the same benign presence as a canopy of trees standing proud within the hustle and bustle of our cities.