The Serpentine Sackler gallery in Hyde Park
Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

When the “Magazine” was built in Hyde Park in 1805, Britain was at war with France, Nelson had yet to win the Battle of Trafalgar and the country’s debts were soaring. Despite outbursts of jingoism, there was a real fear of revolution, and the heart of London was where protest was likely to kick off. In the event, even when the Chartists used the park as their default gathering place and the riots of 1855 prompted Karl Marx to decide that London would see the world’s first proletarian uprising, the revolution never came.

Two centuries after it was built, the Magazine has re-opened as the £14.5m Serpentine Sackler gallery, an annexe to the nearby Serpentine Gallery. The architect is, unmistakably, Zaha Hadid. The undulating white roof of the new restaurant grafted on to the side of the Greek-revival portico could be by no one else.

Hadid has been a loyal friend of the Serpentine, having designed the first incarnation of the now-famous annual temporary pavilion in 2000, as well as another in 2007. Both these designs were quick, budget responses to a commission that other designers got more money and time to build. In a way, Hadid’s new building is a more refined incarnation of her 2007 pavilion, a building that is little more than the columns that support it. The most impressive building here is the Magazine itself.

Its colonnaded façade has been cleaned up (architect Liam O’Connor collaborated on the historic building work) and a diaphanous glass door has been added that parts silently to let you in. The façade was built away from the powder stores and the gap has been filled in with white gallery space, like a white cloister surrounding the old structure, so that the effect now is of a brick box within a white cube.

The two vaulted brick galleries are superb but the surprise is supplied by a roughly modelled, roughly life-size elephant seemingly struggling under the weight of a massive cornice. The elephant is part of a massive and ambitious installation by young Argentine-born artist Adrián Villar Rojas, which reimagines the earth’s artefacts as the fossils of the future. It is a fitting opening to this remarkable found space with its odd, useless history.

Villar Rojas uses the dark, slightly sinister character of the solid brick vaults to create an archive, a strange place with an unknown purpose, partly functional, partly almost religious. In smothering one of the vaults in grey clay, the space becomes a kind of contemporary Pompeii immersed in monochrome ash, while the other vault is left empty, except for a stained-glass window at its apex that makes this seem as much a chapel as a gallery. This is an immersive installation and one that revels in the architecture, but it is clear that these will remain remarkable places for the display of art, somewhere between a railway arch and a crypt.

The dark arches are surrounded by a rim of white, top-lit, neutral gallery spaces that make no waves. The waves are reserved for the restaurant next door. This is a wildly theatrical space, characteristically Hadid, but one that still looks more like a pavilion than an extension. There is a join between the old and the new but it is not one that seems to have caused any loss of sleep. Instead, the windblown skirt of the extension’s roof overlaps and overwhelms the old building. That is, of course, the point. No one commissions Hadid for a subtle intervention but, in fact, she has form with historic military buildings, with Rome’s Maxxi Museum spreading its tentacles into a 19th-century barracks.

The restaurant’s interior is geared around a series of sculptural columns that scoop down from the roof like milk pouring from a pitcher and terminate in elliptical skylights – by far the most successful and elegant element in the new building. The glass walls attempt to make the roof look as if it is floating weightlessly – in a way that would have been familiar to architects from the 1960s. This is a kind of retro-futurism, a homage to modernists from Oscar Niemeyer to Frei Otto, but its striving for that holy grail of seamlessness is let down by some clunky details and creased surfaces that remind you that this is, in effect, a tent.

Hadid’s architecture is paradoxically hyper-urban in its ambition yet anti-contextual in every other way. It creates its own context so, in one sense, a building in a park beside a self-contained classical structure suits her just fine. It is a measure, however, of how Britain has changed over the past two decades that no one has suggested that perhaps this building should have been a classical extension. Instead, Hadid has become the establishment and this, the crashing, uncommented-upon juxtaposition of old and new, is its new architecture.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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