A marathon weekend of 'manifestos for the 21st century' curated by the ubiquitous Hans Ulrich Obrist closes this year's Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London. Of the participating artists and architects there is one unsurprising omission: the pavilion's taciturn designer, Los Angeles-based Frank Gehry. While the curmudgeonly 79 year-old 'icon-maker' may well be credited in the Top Trumps of architectural superheroes with special powers to regenerate cities ('that's bullshit' Gehry informs each new pack of mild-mannered reporters), those powers have proved ill-equipped for battling punctilious planners in the bureaucratic labyrinth of local building regulations - as illustrated by his beleaguered King Alfred project in Hove. While the pavilion rapidly took shape on the lawn in London, Gehry finally left the fate of his seaside 'Noddyland' to be decided by the pantomime plotting and internecine squabbling of various sectarian interests in Sussex. Consequently, as specified in the Serpentine's minimal brief, the pavilion is Gehry's first completed building in England. To paraphrase an architect of an earlier pavilion (an architect unsurprisingly scheduled to attend the marathon event), if the fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence, perhaps the physical presence of Gehry's pavilion will act as a silent rejoinder to the more metaphysical projections and speculations being voiced. But what kind of rejoinder does the structure make?
The pavilion sustains the annual event's trend for what used to be called 'bigness'. Like a vast Rorschach inkblot, the temporary structure stirs up an architectural stew of mixed metaphors. Maybe you're in sync with official sources and see the timber-and-glass panels above the seating area as the wings of giant butterflies poised to escape the picturesque canopy of the park. Or maybe the two-tone strips of glazing evoke languorous visions of Edwardian garden parties - neatly striped lawns dotted with doomed youth in striped blazers ambling towards the striped canvas of a far pavilion fading in the last rays of a golden summer. Under the roof, nautical shapes navigate their way into consciousness: the glass sails attached to wooden struts hint at Gehry's beloved yachts while the timber-clad uprights of the steel frame became notably mast-like. Back outside, these masts assume the imposing character of a Japanese gate (or from a worm's eye view against the papery grey-blue sky they take on the calligraphic quality of Japanese written characters). Regarding these forms, Gehry himself alluded to a giant military catapult designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. Ultimately, whatever images this framed explosion of intersecting geometries conjures up, I kept thinking of an unfinished greenhouse that I recalled my brother-in-law constructing from scavenged pieces of glass and wood throughout my teenage years in Cornwall. It is this provisional aspect that also makes the pavilion superficially reminiscent of Gehry's spectacular renovation of his own home in Santa Monica - both a laboratory for future developments and a landmark in his career (neatly summarized by Beatriz Colomina as 'The House that Built Gehry'). Surely a hybrid of post-landmark Frank Gehry and improvisational Tommy Holland (during his Lanner phase) will be the kind of architecture branded for sale in future garden centres. And yet for all the sound and fury of its connotative richness, the Serpentine Gallery pavilion seems constantly in danger of signifying nothing.
As a typology, pavilions have a complex architectural history that drifts from the periphery of the design of parks and gardens into a pivotal role within the development of urban modernity (particularly as schizoid icons of Expos and Biennales where they double as exhibit and exhibition space). Their open structure enables them to mediate between such well-worn oppositional relationships as interior and exterior, building and landscape, ornament and function, even past and present. More promenade than pavilion, Gehry has designed the space as an urban street paved with granite blocks set between elongated stoops on an axis that connects the Serpentine Gallery with the adjacent pathway through the park. Part of the brief involves the use of the space as a venue. To this end, the pavilion's theatricality readily reveals itself: it's an updated amphitheatre with its own private boxes in pods accessed either by external stairs or by a lift (on my first visit the latter was being unnervingly used as a makeshift playground by a trio of tweenies waiting for their beard-and-glasses father to finish his cappuccino).
As one of the most eagerly anticipated erections of the London summer, it's worth recapping that in recent years the final products have often been deflated by various technical and financial problems. In 2005, MVRDV's scheme to bury the gallery inside a grass-coated mini-mountain proved too ambitious to implement. The Dutch architects were eventually replaced by Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura. Although MVRDV's scheme was scheduled to surface at a later date, by the start of 2006 Rem Koolhaas had already been selected to design that year's pavilion. A similar pattern of selection, rescheduling and replacement emerged last year. Frei Otto's pavilion was postponed after being deemed unfeasible to complete given the necessary time limit. A collaboration between artist Olafur Eliasson and award-winning architect Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta was due to replace Otto's project, but, somewhat embarrassingly, the replacement design also needed a replacement 'pre-pavilion' pavilion to act as a stopgap because it too would not be ready in time for the gallery's renowned fundraising event: The Summer Party. The replacement's replacement was speedily provided by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher in the form of three overlapping sculptural parasols entitled 'Lilas'. As Hadid designed the first Serpentine pavilion back in 2000, it was a move that almost gives the sequence of false starts and delays a neat circularity. But it also threatens to undermine the pavilion's usual selection criteria: that the architect or artist should not have completed a project in England. Presumably, by dubbing 'Lilas' an 'installation' rather than a pavilion, the Serpentine Gallery sought to counteract (rather than exacerbate) such pedantry. For Gehry, after suffering so many setbacks in Hove, the construction of the pavilion must have felt like a fairly smooth process. The chaos that ensued at the rain-lashed celebrity-laced Summer Party that marked its opening is another story. Hopefully, the manifestos scheduled to mark its close will spark more radical openings into the future.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London