Bricks and Brickbats

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A Folly too far

What was the Serpentine Gallery thinking of when it commissioned Chilean architect Smiljan Radic to design this summer’s pavilion? The ‘shock of the new’ has worked wonders for the Turner Prize over the years even if the poor artist whose name was hijacked to give it some cachet was, of course, never consulted. But since when was novelty enough? The answer: never!

Radic claims, among other things, that his work is a ‘folly’. Now there are two basic definitions of the term: one, an ornamental building, often a ruin, and often found in a landscaped garden as a punctuation mark that arrests and pleases the eye; and second, a demonstration of foolishness or lack of good sense. This pavilion, though unintentionally, manages to score a double whammy when one would have been enough. And I am not so sure it ‘pleases the eye’ no matter whom the beholder.

Epithets have included ‘alien’, ‘odd’ and ‘mysterious’. What a contrast it makes to last year’s sophisticated, almost sublime contribution from the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. They are as different as chalk and a beyond-ripe fromage. Indeed, at the preview last month, one could actually smell it – the resin used to manufacture the monocoque fibreglass shell, one centimetre thick, in the form of an irregular donut. It sits on carefully-placed, though ‘random’, Neolithic stones, and was fabricated, off-site, by Yorkshire boat-builders.

One of the beauties of fibreglass hulls is their oh-so-smooth finish, on the outside at least. Here one gets its rough edge both outside and in. It’s not a pretty sight and produces a strange mottled effect in the interior in daylight, even though it may act as a welcoming beacon at night, glowing in the dark. What was it G K Chesterton said? Ah, yes: ‘All architecture is great architecture after sunset’. So long as you don’t get too close. QED.

Methinks Fred Flinstone could be happy living here with his wife Wilma and neighbour, Barney Rubble. Latter-day cave paintings – by fashionable dabblers Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, perhaps – would not be out of place, with a Banksy on the outside for good measure.

Sorry, but I’m afraid it’s just not good enough, as architecture, for the Serpentine and for the 200,000 visitors or more destined to visit. (How the Serpentine count the number remains a mystery in itself).

The shell is tethered to the ground with steel stanchions, while inside two props at a jaunty angle are not structural, as in holding up the roof, but rather ties which anchor it through the floor of wooden planks so that it doesn’t fly away in a gale. On one aspect is a projecting window, rectangular in section, which seems to have been transported from another project entirely. Perhaps that should read planet. The two entrances, via timber ramps on berms of turf, seem randomly shaped. Sanity is restored inside, with a counter serving the café,  Alvar Aalto’s elegant Artek furniture and a high-level curvilinear lighting track.

Metaphors abound, as Edwin Heathcote, the architecture critic of the Financial Times, pointed out. But at the end of the day, the architecture must speak for itself and the metaphors are decidedly mixed.

Perhaps there is a clue to what is going on with the temporary installation nearby (but the other side of a fence): ‘Rock on Top of Another Rock’ by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli (born 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012). This, their first public commission in Britain, comprising two granite boulders seemingly balanced one on top of another, and standing 5.5m (18 feet) high, may not be to everyone’s taste, but one suspects it has more visual appeal to art lovers than its gargantuan architectural neighbour.

The Serpentine Pavilion, Kensington Gardens, W2 is open to the public from 10am until 6pm daily; there are private events during the evening. Until October 19. Tel 020-7402 6075. serpentinegalleries.org

 

Architects who never were

Leaving aside the great architects ‘who never were’ in fiction, Charles Dickens’ Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, and Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and the significant ones who never received a formal architectural education, such as the two giants of western architecture, Andrea Palladio and Le Corbusier – the question is, who gained most from the profession’s loss?

Let’s start at the top, with US President Thomas Jefferson, an amateur practitioner par excellence. Then author Thomas Hardy, who trained as an architect but gave it up to write his dark novels and poetry. Sculptor Lynn Chadwick was another, and his background shows in his work.

We’ll leave aside Adolf Hitler since, apart from architecture, waging war was his major passion and he was happy to deputise building his thousand-year Reich to Albert Speer.

Pop music probably gained much more from the extra-curricular activities of Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) and Art Garfunkel (Simon and Garfunkel). One of the Pet Shop Boys, too. Then there’s 1990s hip-hop artist, Ice Cube.

Add actors Trevor Eve (Shoestring, among other series) and James Mason and we have two other near misses. Courtney Cox dropped out of her architecture course in New York to become a model. Aishwarya Rai, Miss World in 1994, probably made the right choice.

Another was American cartoonist, Saul Steinberg, who studied architecture in Milan before giving it up, age 27: ‘The study of architecture is a marvellous training for anything but architecture. The frightening thought that what you draw may become a building makes for reasoned lines’.

Then there is Prince Richard, the present Duke of Gloucester, who qualified at Cambridge and went into practice before the death of his elder brother forced him, unwillingly, into the limelight of royal duties.

As for the architectural aspirations of Charles, Prince of Wales, he only went as far as to say: ‘I wish I had been Bob Geldof’. That’s another near miss for ‘Sir’ Bob, as his personal collection of architectural drawings attests.

And we mustn’t forget Tom Ford. Or ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic.

There are way too many architects anyway. We could afford to lose a few more! Nominations, please!

 

by Atrium

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