Jean Nouvel’s Serpentine pavilion

Image of Edwin Heathcote

“I like English parks,” says Jean Nouvel. “Is it necessary to add something? Perhaps not.” He pauses. “But we could add one optimistic note, one more reason to come.”

The French architect is standing in the dazzling pavilion he has designed for the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens. He is dressed head-to-toe in black; the pavilion is unremittingly red, right down to its stools and fridges. You could be forgiven for thinking he had some kind of colour-related obsessive compulsive disorder. Seen through the park’s canopy of green, the new structure sits like the most abstract of objects, more installation than building.

Newly commissioned every year, the Serpentine pavilion has grown into a keenly anticipated event. Nouvel is in illustrious company: previous designers have included Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Oscar Niemeyer. Last year’s design by the Japanese architects Sanaa, who subsequently won architecture’s biggest prize, the Pritzker, was stunning in its simplicity, a reduction of what had become a slightly overblown architectural event to the flimsiest of canopies, a continuous, reflective roof that seemed to hover over the park like a slender cloud.

Nouvel’s predecessors had all built nothing or very little in the UK: the pavilion was their first chance to impress. Nouvel, by contrast, is building an enormous shopping centre, called One New Change, beside St Paul’s Cathedral. But at his best, he is one of the most consistently inventive, daringly experimental architects on the contemporary scene. He made his name internationally with Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe on the banks of the Seine; his Torre Agbar in Barcelona is one of the few really elegant and inventive skyscrapers of recent years; and his designs for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its floating, lacy dome, look ethereal.

His pavilion is another step into something new. A series of theatrical red planes, bars and canopies, it stands somewhere between a hip Ibiza nightclub and Soviet constructivist agit-prop. A pitched, retractable canopy (which perhaps hints at a Parisian brasserie awning?) rolls from the centre on two sides to cover the main area; elsewhere, curtains flap in the wind, screens turn everything red – Nouvel calls it a “symphony of red” – and huge walls pivot to act as openings. Outside there are ping-pong tables, picnic blankets, frisbees and balloons (all red) – it is one big party space.

There is something of Bernard Tschumi’s 1980s designs for Paris’s Parc La Villette here, but also, perhaps, something of the Situationist spirit of 1968. A large reproduction of a photograph by the late philosopher Jean Baudrillard – Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg filtered through a pair of red perspex sheets that an artist has suspended from the railings – hints at as much. Both the philosopher and the architect stood on the Paris barricades of 1968. Perhaps the pavilion is a kind of taking back of the city for pleasure – though this mildly subversive idea would have worked better and looked more radical if this part of the city weren’t already a park and free public art gallery.

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. And it doesn’t particularly matter. He has created a delightful, striking space that transforms this little scrap of park as well as nearly any of the pavilions so far.

“This is not a perfect exercise about a too-beautiful architecture,” he concludes, “but it is about the little pleasures of being in the park.” Superbe., until October 17

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