NOUVEL VAGUE  -  Tuesday September 21st, 2010

The trending sentiment is that Jean is fading to grey.
Nouvel’s Serpentine pavilion, the tenth annual structure built by the gallery, has inspired in critics what can only be described as a vicious irritability – the few authors that bothered to deviate from the press release invariably did so in order to spout insults.
Further, these writers really explored the full spectrum of insults at their disposal – ranging from professional distain to theoretical belittling, most ultimately indulging in some sort of physical ridicule:
“I smell Jean Nouvel before I see him,” writes the Sunday Times, “At 64, he resembles an ageing bouncer, a mean old baddie from a Luc Besson thriller or a long-retired prop from the French rugby team.”
The FT chipped in “When asked what it is all about, Nouvel is vague. He mumbles about red being complementary to the green of the park, about creating a ludic space, about simulacra and simulation – but frankly, he doesn’t sound too convinced,” The Telegraph was perfunctory in its dismissal: “A one idea building by a once extraordinary architect. Rating: * *”

Ouch.

Perhaps I will come to regret my decision, but I have to say I actually don’t mind the pavilion. This decision is based on two criteria…
Firstly, lets just ignore all this guff about the red being inspired by the reds of London – its telephone cabins, buses, royal guards, etc. I overheard a prominent architectural journalist at the opening surmise: “I’m sorry, but red just isn’t a concept.” Too right. Me neither, I’m not buying the bus angle.
The press picked up on the obvious nod to Tschumi – I would remind the reader that Nouvel is also designing the Paris Philharmonie at the Parc de la Villette … I sincerely wonder whether he didn’t make some proposal for another folie at one point, and subsequently decided to recycle the scheme…
The main thing I like about the pavilion is its engagement with programme. Unlike any other Serpentine pavilion I’ve seen (and that is almost all of them) this is the first to actually provide public activities (other than the ubiquitous coffee bar) – further, Nouvel has been quite generous: there are red pingpong tables, chess boards, frisbees and kites. Say what you will, the opportunities to fly free red kites in central London remain otherwise limited. What is important about this is that it is the first pavilion to meaningfully engage with the project as a place for non-commercial activity, in a world where public space is increasingly thought of only in consumerist terms.

The second criterion by which I judge this pavilion is precisely the same reason everyone else hates it: its formlessness. Rather than being an elegant object-building, a type of temporarily inhabitable sculpture like so many of the other pavilions Nouvel’s structure is difficult to describe in formal terms. As a student of the AA I am tired of being presented with meaningless swirls, curves and triangulated surfaces. There is something delicately simple about the roller canopy system that stands in for a real roof (when the canopies are retracted the pavilion becomes basically a series of red arches). From every angle it appears different, to the extent that it becomes near impossible to accurately get a handle on its shape or style. The only thing grouping the fragmentary components together as a coherent structure is… the most brilliant red you are likely to ever see, which saturates everything beneath it.

See also: One of MP’s first ever posts – the SANAA pavilion of 2009.

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