“Architecture,” Rem Koolhaas once said, “is lethally slow.” In his latest building, just completed in London’s sylvan Kensington Gardens, Koolhaas has made an almighty effort to speed it up with an extraordinary balloon, constructed in super-quick time, tethered to the grass and sheltering a translucent structure below. This is the new Serpentine Pavilion, a temporary building to sit beside the eponymous gallery, commissioned each year by its director Julia Peyton-Jones from an important architect who has yet to build in the UK. Those featured include Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvaro Siza.
The new building evokes a thousand metaphors, from the hot air of interminable architectural theory to Chaplin’s great dictator toying with the globe, from Renaissance domes to the enduring visionary idiocy of future worlds sustained in great bubbles on alien surfaces. And they are all appropriate.
Koolhaas has made a brilliant career out of contrariness. He asks big questions then tells us why architecture can’t answer them, but at the same time he has created a series of stunning buildings, structurally daring, aesthetically challenging (often fearlessly aesthetically challenged) and, most of all, big. In fact “bigness” is one of his favourite words and one that he is helping to define with a blockbusting new skyscraper for Chinese State Television in Beijing, a looping, hulking Möbius strip that stamps all over delicacy and finesse. He has designed a concert hall in Porto that resembles a skip and a huge library in Seattle that resembles nothing you’ve ever seen. Yet here he is designing a folly in Kensington Gardens and, true to form, it is absurd and ambitious, engaging and slightly troubling.
The structure consists of a drum of cheap, corrugated polycarbonate above which sits an asymmetrical, bulging balloon kept inflated with helium. This will be allowed to rise and fall with the weather, ascending on warm days and sitting back down during cooler periods. Cecil Balmond, who engineered and co-designed the project, calls it a “cosmic egg” and, just as the domes of Rome’s churches represented the heavens and the communing of physical, ethereal and sacred space, this balloon is a succinct symbol of our contemporary, existential emptiness, lightweight and shallow yet given brilliant physical form. But I mean that in the nicest possible way. Koolhaas excels at holding up a mirror to contemporary society and, while this may be a superficial piece of circus-tent showmanship, it is everything that the Millennium Dome was not: focused, funny, temporary and purposeful. That purpose is for the space to become a forum for debate and exhibition, an extension to the tiny gallery and what Koolhaas calls a “non-pavilion”, ethereal and lightweight, deliberately insubstantial, a building more concerned with what goes on inside than with its own image. But his balloon also becomes an unforget-table marker for this most modest and domestically scaled of galleries, buried in its constricted Royal Park setting. Visible from miles around when inflated (let alone when floating on the skyline) it becomes a joyous weather balloon, a lightweight monument.
In this it has fascinating and presumably deliberate parallels with the current show at the gallery, which also extends into the pavilion. The exhibition is of the work of the German artist Thomas Demand, one of the most perceptive observers of the banality of contemporary space and one of the few artists to engage critically and influentially with architecture. Demand’s method is obsessively to re-create interiors in cardboard and coloured paper, every detail included but stripped of soul, without the patina of use. It takes some strain to begin to see the artifice but as it becomes clear the work takes on a sinister feel that leads you to believe you are not getting the whole story. In fact the places Demand re-creates tend to be sites of trauma and crime, murder scenes, bunkers: places of dark association familiar from having been reproduced in the press, half-remembered and subconsciously sinister, yet portrayed in all their anonymity and ultra-ordinariness.
The images are presented against backgrounds of ivy wallpaper, also designed by the artist and abstracted from the creepy creepers climbing the walls of one of Germany’s most notorious crime scenes, where a small boy was abducted, tortured and murdered. He uses the domesticity of the gallery and a sly reference to Morris’s Arts & Crafts utopianism to bond darkness to the walls. At the same time he portrays banal office interiors, stacks of boxes deliciously and pointlessly reproduced in cardboard, scenes so familiar we have become blind to them.
Both Demand and Koolhaas concern themselves with the insubstantial, the mundane language of the everyday, and use it to illuminate far darker questions and ideas about complicity, about observation, interpretation and the failures of the contemporary city. In Koolhaas’s seemingly serene pavilion there are always distortions: the curiously straining balloon, a roof that wants to be free of its moorings, the pressure of the helium as it strains against the ceiling of the pavilion, bulging it out of shape, the visual disconnection that allows light in but no views out. If the traditional English garden folly provided a pavilion from which to admire the artifice of the landscape, this building allows you to focus only on the content. It is a deliciously lightweight piece of work from one of architecture’s few heavyweights.
The Serpentine Pavilion opens on July 13