Located in those grassy borderlands where genteel Kensington Gardens becomes brash Hyde Park (in the manner that Dr Jekyll mutates into the randomly wild Mr Hyde - is that how London's largest green lung got its name?) the Serpentine Gallery is one of London's major spaces for the exhibition of contemporary art and for the obligatory stroking of beards and scratching of heads and arses. Frustratingly, given the historical context, gallery-goers have been denied access to a proper caf?© in which to placate their thirst while debating taste and sabotaging reputations since the building's 1970s conversion from its original use as a teahouse. But the bright folks at the Serpentine Gallery have recently started to plug this beverage gap with a series of temporary pavilions erected annually on the surrounding lawn. The design rules are minimal. Each pavilion is intended to promote the discussion of contemporary architecture. Each high profile architectural practice is invited on the basis that the pavilion will be their first completed work in Britain. Each pavilion incorporates a caf?©.
A brief history: Zaha Hadid inaugurated proceedings in the summer of 2000 with an under-funded tent. The following summer Daniel Libeskind rejigged his familiar formulae. In 2002 the importance of the project as an architectural event was confirmed when Toyo Ito built the third pavilion. Like Libeskind, Ito relied on the engineering wizardry of Cecil Balmond, head of Arup's Advanced Geometry Unit, to conjure up the deconstructed money shot that sold the project and satisfied consumers. The resulting punctured grid, folded into a green and white cube, revealed the elegant beauty of a universe where the seemingly rigid laws of mathematics merged with the forces of chaos - if only to shelter certain atrophied performances of London tea rituals and the occasional lecture or film. (I attended the premiere of 'London Orbital' by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair in Ito's pavilion, as the daylight died thousands of the park's winged bloodsucking bugs flew through the open slots of the illuminated cube and landed on Sinclair's head). In 2003 Oscar Niemeyer designed a remote control experience of his own vitality. But while the 96 year-old Niemeyer stayed in Brazil, Brazil resolutely refused to come to London in the form of his disappointing pavilion. The following summer the punters went thirsty as Dutch architects MDRDV opted for a winter build in the form of an artificial hill that would entomb the entire gallery building. By Christmas the punters were still waiting for their caffeine fix as the MDRDV proposal was postponed.
At the opening party for this year's pavilion the publicists proved wise to the fact that a gathering of architects does little to promote architecture to any broader audience. Instead, Rod Stewart and a swarm of minor celebrities posed for the paparazzi while Paris Hilton danced dangerously over the delicate brickwork of the pavilion's floor in a low-cut yellow dress. The pavilion harks back to the glory days of Ito. Co-designed by the celebrated Portuguese architects ?Ålvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, Balmond's magic Arup wand has clearly been waved over the construction process, manipulating the rectangular wooden grid into something closer to the curving biomorphic inspiration of the eminent architects. It took me a long time to adjust to the complicated rhythms of what initially seemed like a simple structure. But then it took me a long time to get served at the caf?© counter. Without waiting for a cappuccino would I have stayed so long? Maybe not, but I would have returned. Because the best time to see this pavilion is at night when the individual solar panels attached to the polycarbonate glazing of the grid's shell light up one by one and the winged bloodsucking bugs around the park assume attack formations knowing it's their turn to drink.
The history of the Serpentine Pavilion is littered with as many setbacks as successes, so the minor chorus of approval (even in as conservative an enclave as the goddamn Daily Telegraph) for this year's pavilion should prove useful in, er, preparing the ground for the potential return of MDRDV's burial mound. But in this patch of London the iron and glass ghost of another temporary structure inevitably rises through the soil. In 1851 Hyde Park was home to the mother of all modern malls: the Crystal Palace. While this year's pavilion was taking shape in central London, a few miles south of the river in Sydenham the Rebuild the Crystal Palace Group secured private funding from an anonymous benefactor to construct a third-of-the-size replica of Joseph Paxton's engineering marvel in Crystal Palace Park near the site where the reconstructed original was destroyed by fire in 1936. Setbacks and successes come in all shapes and sizes, even in the ephemeral world of pavilions.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London