The BIG idea: this year’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion and four summer houses


The Serpentine Galleries has expanded its summer architectural programme this year with not just one but five pavilions in Kensington Gardens. Danish practice BIG celebrates a new outpost in London with a vast, pixelated, cathedral-like structure, while Kunlé Adeyemi, Yona Friedman, Asif Khan and Barkow Leibinger have each created a summer house responding to William Kent’s 18th-century folly for Queen Caroline



Photography Johnny Tucker

Soaring up to the height of the Serpentine Galleries’ thimble-like spire, Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) Serpentine Pavilion, temporarily installed in Kensington Gardens for the summer, is a big, pixelated, cathedral-like structure made up of 1,800 giant, fibreglass bricks stacked on top of each other.

The cathedral-like structure comprises 1,800 fibreglass bricks
The cathedral-like structure comprises 1,800 fibreglass bricks

Described by its young, energetic Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels - a starchitect with swagger if you like, who gesticulates his maverick schemes in TED Talks on subjects such as ‘hedonistic sustainability’ and publishes manifestos in the form of comic books - as an ‘unzipped’ wall, which gently peels open to reveal a sculptural centre, it puts the spectacle back on the Serpentine lawn after a couple of dud years of average editions.

Viewed from the sides, the pavilion appears transparent, with views through to the trees
Viewed from the sides, the pavilion appears transparent, with views through to the trees

For Ingels, this is a pavilion where opposites attract: it’s modular yet sculptural, transparent and opaque, a wall that becomes a hole, ‘both solid box and blob’. ‘Often interesting things happen when you take seemingly mutually incompatible elements and combine them into a new hybrid,’ he says.

Bjarke Ingels, founder of Danish architecture practice BIG
Bjarke Ingels, founder of Danish architecture practice BIG

‘We like to call it bigamy - that you can have both.’ Viewed from its gateway-like entrance the pavilion appears opaque, solid and impenetrable, step around it and the heaviness fades away and the hollow boxes form a transparent lattice with views through to the trees beyond.

Bricks were still being placed on opening day, with the top row yet to be added to reach the height of the Serpentine Gallery’s spire
Bricks were still being placed on opening day, with the top row yet to be added to reach the height of the Serpentine Gallery’s spire

Again, walking through the pavilion from either of its two entrances, the structure feels dense, as if it’s made up of hundreds of solid pixels blocking out the sky, but then turn to face the wall and the structure feels light and open. The pavilion is actually a development of a shelving system made of extruded fibreglass elements that BIG is creating with Danish company Fibreline. ‘Essentially a pavilion is this hybrid between a building and a piece of furniture, so we thought what if the walls are a giant shelf, which we pull apart to create this interior space,’ says Ingels.

Inside, the cave-like space, home to a cafe by day and a venue for talks and performances by night, opens up to form a complex three-dimensional cavity of glacial proportions.

The fibreglass bricks, held together with metal brackets, are a development of a shelving system BIG is designing
The fibreglass bricks, held together with metal brackets, are a development of a shelving system BIG is designing

From the outside, it looks like one of those pin-impression toys, as if someone has pushed the wall out at its base with the palm of their hand to make a space inside. It was originally meant to be climbable, but the Royal Parks put a stop to that with an aluminium safety line around its perimeter.

The ‘bricks’, made of glued fibre sheets, are joined and held in place by cross-profile aluminium extrusions that transfer the load from box to box. The prefabricated, mass-produced elements also mean the structure (the sale of which helps fund the pavilion) is incredibly light and can be easily dissembled and put back together again for its ‘afterlife in Asia and America’.

The structure was initially designed to be climbable, but a discreet wire was put in place for safety
The structure was initially designed to be climbable, but a discreet wire was put in place for safety

From a power plant with a ski slope on its roof to a vast figure-of-eight housing complex, whose stacked elements are connected by a cycle path that weaves its way up to the 10th floor, BIG’s buildings are pragmatic solutions with genius twists that transform the everyday into the unexpected. With a ‘Yes is More’ attitude, the practice has some big ideas, viewing modern problems as challenges that can inspire instead of limit.

Following Hurricane Sandy, its Big U project plans to wrap 10 miles of landscaping around the tip of Manhattan, to protect the city from storm surges while providing public spaces and viewpoints, not dissimilar in approach to New York’s High Line. Precedents to the Serpentine Pavilion can be found in its visitor centre for toy giant Lego in Billund, Denmark, a playful montage of Lego-like bricks, and Urban Rigger, a project that stacks shipping containers to create floating housing for students and refugees.The bricks are extruded to create a sculptural space inside the pavilion
The bricks are extruded to create a sculptural space inside the pavilion

BIG’s design process starts by analysing the existing constraints of a place. ‘We work with this idea of pragmatic utopia, to turn the idea of making the world into a better place, into a practical objective, but also creating little moments of pure imagination out of everyday elements, programmes and materials,’ says Ingels. ‘This idea of creating something as conventional as a brick wall or giant shelf, pulled apart to make something inside that has a cathedral-esque feeling — it’s making something extraordinary out of the ordinary.’

Wooden benches line the inside of the space for talks and performances
Wooden benches line the inside of the space for talks and performances

‘I think as an architect we almost always work in a situation that is so saturated with existing constraints that the project becomes very much about the place we’re working in, and maybe less about the true manifestation of architecture,’ he adds, describing this most recent project as an opportunity to ‘play’ in a Royal Park. ‘With the Serpentine Pavilion, architects have a lot of freedom to focus on the manifestation of their work. I think we quite quickly decided to take it as lightly as we possibly could, because the pavilions I’ve liked the most in the past are the ones that have been the most true to the nature and values of that architect.’


Looking up from inside the pavilion, the structure transforms into an extraordinary opaque cavity

The Serpentine Pavilion offers architects the chance to try their hand at their first structure in England, but it won’t be long before we see more BIG buildings in London; it has just opened a new office of 20 people in the capital, adding to its Copenhagen and New York outposts employing more than 300 architects between them. ‘I really couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate this than to build a pavilion and throw a party in the middle of a Royal Park,’ enthuses Ingels. Upcoming projects include Google’s HQ in King’s Cross with Heatherwick Studio, and a sweeping new public square with sculptural walkways at the heart of Rafael Viñoly’s masterplan for Battersea Power Station. Watch this space London: BIG’s here to stay.

Summer houses

After 15 years of summer pavilions gracing the lawn of the Serpentine Galleries, in addition to BIG’s ‘unzipped wall’ structure, four architects ranging in age from their 30s to their 90s were invited to design four additional summer houses nearby. Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, New York-based Barkow Leibinger, Hungarian-born French architect Yona Friedman and Britain’s Asif Khan, all yet to build a permanent building in England, were each asked to respond to Queen Caroline’s Temple - an 18th-century classical folly designed by William Kent overlooking the Long Water in Kensington Gardens

Asif Khan

One of the most beautifully finished of the four summer houses, Asif Khan’s pavilion takes the form of a peeled-open, skeleton-like circular structure that marks out the direction of the sunrise and directs views. After some digging, Khan found that William Kent’s temple for Queen Caroline (consort of George II) was aligned exactly toward the direction of the rising sun on her birthday in 1683 to reflect light from the Serpentine lake.

Says Khan: ‘I think all of us were going through a process trying to understand this temple, which when you first arrive at it doesn’t give you much information about why it’s there or what it could be. Part of the joy of the project was an archaeological process. Queen Caroline gathered around her a coterie of new-age thinkers and crafted this picturesque experiment. I took this as the departure point for my project, plugging in sun-path calculations to the existing temple.’

Asif Khan’s pavilion

In homage, his summer house comprises 100 vertical white timber slats, inside which are two polished aluminium plates to provide a concealed resting point. The white gravel floor gives the pavilion an otherworldly effect, as if the vertical fins might have gradually grown out of the ground.

‘I wanted to create a pavilion that reimagines what Kent would do now; he’d respond to many directions and points of interest,’ says Khan. ‘I used to walk through this park as a child every week with my grandfather, so seeing it in a new light and having the opportunity to rethink this place and change my memories, and the memories of other Londoners, is a great opportunity.’

Yona Friedman

The ad-hoc welded circles of Yona Friedman’s pavilion build on his pioneering project La Ville Spatiale (Spatial City) developed in the late Fifties.

First published in 1959, his manifesto imagined a lightweight mobile framework elevated over a cityscape that could enable the growth of cities while restraining the use of land and allow people to insert their own architectural modules into the system.

Yona Friedman’s pavilion

For the Serpentine, Friedman has recreated a modular ‘space-chain’ structure, originally conceived as a fragment of the larger grid structure for La Ville Spatiale. Delicate and transparent against the landscape of the park, colourful concept drawings by Friedman populate the circular shapes.

Empowering people to use architecture the way they want, the summer house can be disassembled and reassembled in endless formations and compositions. ‘I never made plans, it was improvised,’ explains the 93-year-old Friedman, who won last year’s Blueprint Award for Critical Thinking.

Yona Friedman’s pavilion

'For me, the most important thing is that a child could build this structure. I think that architecture should be given back to the user, who is the most important person. For this, one has to use very simple techniques. Building something out of nothing is great, and for me the principal architectural solution is that it has to be manageable by anybody. Anybody can plan if you think that the interior of a flat is made by the inhabitant themselves.

Barkow Leibinger

The inspiration for American/German architecture practice Barkow Leibinger was another pavilion designed by William Kent for Kensington Gardens that once stood on a neighbouring manmade hillock. Sat atop the mound, constructed from the dredging of the artificial Long Water opposite, this eccentric small pavilion mechanically rotated 360 degrees to offer panoramic views across the park.

Barkow Leibinger Pavilion

‘With William Kent, here was an architect 300 years ago who was working in an extremely experimental way. Our summer house is both a phenomenon and an object in the park that you occupy and experience, and in a sense you take it over. For us it is a prototype, which means it will have another life and a resonance beyond its four months here,’ says Frank Barkow, one half of the practice along with partner Regine Leibinger.

Barkow Leibinger Pavilion

Sited next to Adeyemi’s void, Barkow Leibinger’s interpretation is a curvaceous wooden structure comprising a series of undulating bands manipulated and looped into shape. Coiled layers provide resting places to sit and view the landscape, while at the same time sheltering intrigued passers-by with a circling canopy overhead. The twists and turns of the wooden material cast intriguing shadows that animate the rough, exposed, yet rather unfinished, panels.

Kunlé Adeyemi

A mirror image of Queen Caroline’s Temple, framing the romantic folly behind it, Kunlé Adeyemi’s summer house is an inverse replica of its classical proportions cleverly reimagined as a new sculptural object.

Made of chunky prefabricated building blocks clad in a similar sandstone to the temple, the structure fragments into the space around it - a modern-day ruin in the landscape.

Kunlé Adeyemi’s summer house

Softened by padded leather, basic elements - a doorway, carved-out window and partially enclosed seat - create a sheltered spot that looks back on to the temple and frames views towards the lake.

Kunlé Adeyemi’s summer house

‘The more we studied the temple, the more we became almost obsessed with the form. We realised that its internal void was a really great quality to reveal,’ says Adeyemi, founder of Amsterdam and Lagos-based practice NLÉ, which a week before this opening picked up the Silver Lion award for promising young participant at the biennale in Venice.

‘In a way it’s a rotated form of the building, which highlights or heightens the interior space to create a place for shade and relaxation,’ he says.





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