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In the past I have loved to complain about the Serpentine Pavilion not so much about particular design reasons but rather because of what it generally represents: the architectural elite. Without researching much this year’s design (I had basically only heard that it was one of critics’ favourites) I went to Kensington Gardens.

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Initially this folly seems almost basic in shape. There is something ancient about it which I guess has to do with the organic-ness of its form and with the fact that its columns are sunk into really large stones placed on the lawn. Hence an illusion is created and the structure seems to be hovering over the ground. The most important reason for me liking this doughnut of a hut is that it is an introvert structure compared to most of its show-off-predecessors. And like most introverts, especially the shy and artistic types, it is full of surprises. Another reason is that it was clear to me that it was not designed for people only to come and look at it in awe. On the contrary it was made for people’s comfort, cosiness and intellectual stimulation. I run into all sorts of visitors, those who just came there to have a coffee and a chat, the ones that took hundreds of photos, studied and drew it like myself and those who just came in to take shelter from the rain.

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Whatever the reason everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy and study it. I have the impression that this is one of those truly inspirational buildings that make people who are not already involved in architecture, want to take an interest in it. And I believe that this is achieved through innovation. Like it or not this sort of building is not something that people bring to mind when they think of architecture.

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Of course as the saying has it, everything in the arts has been done before and as architects and critics of architecture would attest, many references to other designers can be spotted in this pavilion like for example Archigram or Future Systems. Regardless of how intriguing and stimulating this style of architecture is, it is at times too progressive for its own good because it makes it hard for people to identify with it. Not to mention that architecture that has little to no references to classical forms unfortunately often ends up looking rather tacky. I believe it is extremely difficult for architects to come up with forms that are truly innovative and still manage to attract the mainstream. Probably this is because most people crave for the new but are afraid of it as well hence they gravitate towards the old and familiar.

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Smiljan Radić seems very nice in the interviews I watched. He sounds very calm and collected and really involved in his art, in a non self absorbed way. Looking into his body of work I was happy to read that he hates signature buildings and that other than very few elements he has used before in other buildings most of his projects do not seem at all aesthetically related. That is of course because they have different programs and are made for various users and climates.

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His Serpentine pavilion’s recipe of success is that it looks like something that has landed here from outer space but also somehow looks like an ancient relic, a massive rock of Cyclopean mythic architecture. It is both old and new and it brought to my mind a sort of aesthetic that I find truly appealing: retrofuturism. Above all though it is an inviting shelter for the visitor and regardless of its weirdness it manages to keep a certain degree of humility. Its interior spaces on both ground and café level were packed with people who were not admiring it, they were just living! This is what I liked about it. My stay there was a half hour exposure to utopian futurism, but hey, forgive me for being a huge science fiction fan.

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Find the Serpentine Pavilion website here

Find more Smiljan Radic projects in Archdaily here

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The House of Muses is an interesting little installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London and is placed under its entrance canopy. Swiss architecture/design collective GRUPPE won the competition held for it and the structure is shown as part of London Architecture Festival 2014. It is inspired by London’s historic architecture and specifically by Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Alban’s Church, the tower of which is the only part of the building that survives. I find the pavilion rather elegant while also quite successful in its attempt to remind one of classical forms without simply reproducing them. Post-Modernism’s caricaturing of similar styles is certainly avoided here. On the contrary the references in colour and geometry are there but slightly shifted.

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The pavilion is supposed to be a fragment of classical architecture but one is unable to identify where exactly it has been taken from. It is not for example a fragment of a column because it does not have the right shape. It reminded me of learning how to draw elevations of ancient Greek plaques with decorative motifs and how difficult it was to make the lines meet using the compass. It required a very steady hand, precession and confidence.

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The one thing that I disagree with is its placement. The canopy over it is just too close to the top of the installation and the whole thing feels a bit stuck under it. Walking around it and realising that it can be entered I understood the restrictions that required for the house of muses to be protected from the rain. Still I think that another solution could have been found for this problem. I believe that cramped as it is in its current position it loses in strength and people do not pay as much attention to it as they should.

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Once inside things are totally different. Its frame is wooden and looks like scaffolding. It reminded me of a theatre’s backstage where the main goal is to support the set on stage. Things are useful but are not meant to be seen hence are not required to be beautiful. I do not mean that in a negative way. On the contrary I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the white smooth exterior, with the warm informal interior. I believe that it is a good analogy for the way that architecture works in general. Much effort is invested in the appearance of buildings while what keeps them standing, the foundations, the structural frame, the utility shafts, are usually not beautiful but still truly essential.

As far as the interactive concept I am not entirely sure. The tags have random things written on them by the children that have entered the installation. I do not really find anything wrong with that. After all this is a museum visited by many schools so if the declaration of a teenage crush is what its visitors have to say, oh well, so be it.

House of Muses will stay at the Museum of London until September 21st

Find the Museum’s page about it here

GRUPPE’s website here

London Festival of Architecture program here

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The second London Architecture Festival installation that I visited was the Rainforest Pavilion which was commissioned by the Architectural Association and designed by Gun Architects, a Chilean based practice. It is placed on Bedford Square right opposite the school’s entrance and it looks interesting but also quite contradictory from afar. Heavy metallic columns/tree trunks, support white dripping cones that resemble lightweight origami folds. The columns are rooted in axially spread metallic bases with their triangular gaps filled with white rocks, ferns in pots and a little pond.

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Approaching the structure I immediately thought I wanted to stand underneath it. The sun lit the pavilion from behind and I could clearly see the water dripping from the cones on top of it. Unfortunately it seemed rather difficult to enter because of the instability of the rocks at its base. I was disappointed to thing that this might be an object to be looked at from the outside, like an art exhibit. After all the rainforest effect could only be felt if one stood inside it. So I cautiously tried to walk on the rocks but soon enough I exited the structure because I really could not wander about freely. All of us visitors in the pavilion were looking as if we were going to lose our balance and bump into each other clumsily. I was puzzled with the architects’ choice to put those rocks in it, because the actual concept seemed brilliant.

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At the exhibition in the AA’s members’ room I found out that this project was a smaller version of another much bigger installation; the Water Cathedral, which was the winning entry for MoMa’s Young Architects Program in 2011 and was built at Santiago de Chile in 2012. The original structure had leaner columns but the stalactites were very similar to the Rainforest pavilion ones. However its floor was flat with the exception of some clusters of truncated cones that were used as seats but also visually unified the project because they reflected the geometry of the structure above them.

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

I only understood the reasons behind the alterations to the initial concept when I read Jorge Godoy’s (he and Lene Nettelbeck are Gun Architects) interview in AA Conversations. Apparently the changes were made by the engineers involved in re-designing the pavilion due to council and insurance constraints. In the same interview Godoy admits he is not too happy about people being reluctant to enter the pavilion and he also believes that it has to do with the rocks at its base.

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Gun’s architecture is largely experimental and aspires to incorporate the natural elements, which I find admirable. Apparently the Water Cathedral created a wonderfully cool micro-climate which was a refreshing surprise for the visitors, considering Santiago de Chile’s dry heat. The Rainforest Pavilion on the other hand is placed in London, a very humid city and people cannot really enter it easily. Since it does not create a dramatic climatic effect, maybe the experimentation should have extended to the collection of rainwater in the stalactites instead of connecting the structure to Thames Water mains.

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The Rainforest Pavilion is an interesting structure created by very talented young architects. Still I believe it is not as successful as the original, Water Cathedral. It is more of an advertisement, showcasing their creators’ potential as designers but does not manage to truly “stand” on its own. Projects that aspire to work with the natural elements, wind, water etc. are by definition site specific and this one was designed on a different scale and most importantly for a different climate altogether.

Rainforest Pavilion website

Gun Architects website

Jorge Godoy’s interview on AA Conversations

MoMa’s Young Architects Program Water Cathedral page

June is London Festival of Architecture month. For the architectural enthusiasts there is a vast collection of events, installations, exhibitions and talks available to choose from. I always go into a frenzy at the beginning of the festival, then take a break and finally panic towards the end of the month to catch every exhibition before it ends. The easiest and most enjoyable installations to visit are the numerous pavilions and follies that pop-up in the city, the most famous of all being naturally the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens. However there are quite a few structures of a more humble scale to be found in the city. The competitions for those ‘other’ pavilions are not entered by star-architects but mostly by small practices and are open to students as well.

Triumph Pavilion by IPT Architects

Triumph Pavilion by IPT Architects

I started my folly-quest with Triumph pavilion which is placed at Museum Gardens in Bethnal Green. The competition is organised by Archtriumph a platform that launches and publishes international architectural competitions. This year’s winner was IPT a small London-based architectural practice that has a straightforward clean aesthetic and judging from its body of work, loves timber.

This year’s theme was “Dream” but unfortunately I could not find out more information about the competition’s brief in ArchTriumph’s website (a revamp of their page is much needed if I may say so). However upon my visit to the site, I found inside the actual structure a plaque that mentions some guidelines from the brief that was given to the contestants:

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This theme invites visitors to dream about a unique space, creative place, achieving an ambition or simply being inspired by a series of thoughts, images and sensations. We hope that it encourages you to dream and realise the vision of what can be”.

The text seemed as ambitious, symbolic and vague as most architectural competition briefs are. Right underneath it though, was the architect’s response and theme interpretation which I found quite interesting and according to which:

The pavilion aims to provoke discussions about architectural aspirations and creativity through exploring geometries to create inspiring spatial forms. Although there is a prescribed circulation route through the pavilion, thresholds between inside and outside are blurred and participants can weave through the spaces towards the perimeter seats for further reflection. There can be a fine line between a dream and reality, thus the perception of the pavilion constantly shifts from solidity to transparency depending on the vantage point. The pavilion structure creates inspiring and ever-changing shadows according to the movement of the sun.

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I could not have come up with a more precise description even if I tried. So I will not try. I have to say though that the impression I got from the other visitors that I encountered was that people were generally pleased and intrigued by it. I saw children chasing each other and truly weaving their play in the structure. I saw someone sit and read a book in its fleeting shade and I also saw a couple sitting on the grass to simply enjoy looking at the pavilion while having a conversation.

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This architectural creation except for being a simple but beautiful structure, has actually achieved its goal, which is for people to enjoy and use it. Similar follies like the Serpentine pavilion, receive much more press because their creators are more often than not star-architects. Somehow the fame of those architects is reflected on their projects and make them more of a self-absorbed ode to their own talent and less about those who are supposed to enjoy their building.

I do not know if it is IPT’s ethics as a practice or if the project’s smaller scale (both spatially and as far the publicity it received) renders this work more humane and real. Either way I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch on that beautiful sunny day and that was especially because of the space and atmosphere that this little structure created.

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IPT Architects website here

ArchTriumph website here

London Festival or Architecture program here

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