Bjarke Ingels vs. Pokemon GO: the summer pavillion at the Serpentine gallery.

A regular pilgrimage for many architects in the Northern summer is to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington gardens to see the summer pavilion. This year’s pavillion is Bjarke Ingels of BIG architecture fame. It goes without saying that the summer pavilion or Serpentine folly in the park is now a regular feature on the international architectural calendar.It is just another part of the global architecture road show. Of course we have our own version in my city. 

I have seen a few other pavillions, although not all, at the Serpentine over the last few years. In 2007 I saw Olafur Eliasson with Kjetil of Snohetta strange and totemic spiral volume, in 2009 it was SANAA’s smeared reflective mirrors and last time I was here in 2011 I saw the Peter Zumthor’s enclosed contemplative garden. Last year it was selgascano which looked colorful but probably crap to be inside; because, there is nothing like the smell of  being inside a plastic tent structure when its skin heats up. This year there are also four small summer houses nearby designed by Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, Barkow Leibinger, Paris-based architect Yona Friedman and British architect Asif Khan.

One of my friends is an architect in London who has seen more pavillions than me and suggested this years is the best yet. Being cynical by nature I wasn’t sure that this could have been at all correct. Living on the periphery far from the great architectural centre’s of the world one likes nothing more than tearing down a star god architect. Especially, one that has that look that is kind of the epitome of the hero architect image. As most of us know Bjarke himself is one of the gods in the current panoply of star brand architects. One of those big name architects full of self confidence and regard. One of Denmark’s more successful exports in the global competition for architectural services. These days his firm BIG or Bjarke Ingels Group is reported to be a huge going concern of 200 or so staff with 10 or so partners. The group is currently working on the new Google HQ in California.


BIG’s pavillion is constructed from a series of rectangular boxes. The boxes are made from a kind of carbon or composite fibreglass. They are connected together with neat well detailed aluminium angles. Each box, or tube, is about 150 by 150 mm in cross-section and depending on there placement in the construction thyme vary in length. This year’s pavillion is cleverly sited, which is more than I can say about the other pavillions I have seen here. Mostly they have just been plonked in the garden with no regard to context. This one frames the lantern of the Serpentine gallery and it is has a deft relationship from the roadside entrance to the gardens.

Parametric design has been employed to good effect in this project. From one side it looks like a high wall and then from another view it appears to be a fallen down jumble of the fibreglass boxes. It appears to be both a monument or a folly in the park, as well as an object that has been deliberately and chaotically dismantled. In the interpretation notes Bjarke argues that the concept of this structure was that of a unzipped wall constructed from the bricks. As noted elsewhere it has been likened to a construction one might find in Minecraft.


Inside the pavillion one is easily engaged, if not entertained by the different and variable permutations of the fibreglass boxes. There are numerous views from the boxes to the immediate confines of the outside garden.The height of the pavilion gives the impression that one is inside a kind of mini cathedral. Somewhat dubiously Ingel’s makes a connection to the work of Utzon (star-brand appropriating hero-brand) by saying that the pavilion was in fact inspired by work of Utzon:

“had this idea that you could create any imaginable form with carefully designed, mass-produced elements, almost like creating difference out of repetition, and it’s essentially that spirit we’ve tried to bring here” 

In any case, the pavillion seem’s to confirm to me how BIG’s architecture always seems to work with a kind of constructed tectonics often working with serial elements alongside direct and uncomplicated disparities and juxtapositions of scale and form. At the pavillion the elements of its making are not hidden and are evident both at the scale of the detail as well as at the scale of the pavillion itself. There is no deliberate fuzziness, or ambiguity, between its interior and exterior planning. What you see is what you get. Any ambiguity in the work is highly controlled, logical and the result of a generative parametric system. Whilst it fits in with the existing gallery this is not an architecture of memory and place.


As with most things on the periphery there are the second order imitators. If any Australian firm comes close to the work of BIG it is probably Jackson Clement Burrows who have deservedly won a raft of awards of late. BIG’s work and the pavillion in general sits between the two dominant streams evident in Australian architecture. BIG’s (why do I keep thinking of this BIG persona?) facade of repetitive elements with their different permutations reminded me of the Design Hub at RMIT but unlike the design hub the Serpentine pavillion does more with its repeated elements. Who knows perhaps the discs on RMIT’s design hub will be replaced and live up to there initial and early promise. In general BIG’s work, and perhaps this is why Jackson Clement Burrows have been so successful, is positioned between the all singing all dancing kerraziness of ARM and Lyons and the assertive and odd agricultural minimalism (think moleskin pants and horse stables) of Sean Godsell with its overtones and nostalgia for the mannered modernism of the 1950s.

The pavillion is certainly a change from the dreary CNC plywood framing, reused milk cartons, laminated struts, and timber or laser cut timber held together with bolts and connecting fittings bought from the local hardware store. The BIG pavillion appears to establish that the tectonics of order as compared to creative disorder must count for something. This is minimalism with a tale to tell and the pavillion goes some way to drawing us back to architecture, to reminding us that tectonics, construction, siting, view lines and materiality still matter. It was as if the architect(s?) of the pavillion wanted us to be reminded of all the sane and logical things architecture can still do.

The last pavillion I went to we all sat around and contemplated the garden and the sky. In this pavillion there is nothing like that. On the afternoon I visited it was full of people looking at the boxes but mostly they were looking on their own little boxes. Their smartphones. They were taking pictures and doing whatever social media things the network would allow.

I think most of them were playing Pokemon GO in the pavillion and I wondered if BIG’s efforts to drag us back from our digital distractions were working. Somehow I doubt it until seriality and parametrics is able to engage with the memory of cities. At the moment Pokemon GO is winning against architecture.