As I sat down at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, I overheard a curious exchange. ‘You mustn’t create art within art,’ said an invigilator frostily. He was telling off Fred Pilbrow, an architect, who had been taking in the Pavilion’s sociable atmosphere with friends and painting a watercolour of the scene. They proceeded to enter a perverse negotiation as the invigilator struggled with the theoretical parameters of his orders; apparently the watercolour may stain the furniture but dry media like pencils aren’t allowed either; actually, all art-making is not allowed in any of the exhibitions, ‘but photography is OK’.
The subject of this exchange, Fred’s contraband watercolour, depicted people in passionate conversation across a table, which ironically is what this year’s Pavilion was designed to encourage. As part of the Serpentine Gallery’s annual patronage of a prominent architect, this year they have chosen the French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh to design a temporary structure for the summer months, housing a café just outside the Gallery’s south building in Kensington Gardens. Entitled À table, after the French call to start a meal, Ghotmeh designed the Pavilion as an invitation to ‘to convene, sit down, think, share and celebrate exchanges that enable new relationships to form’, and ‘offering a moment of conviviality around a table’. While Ghotmeh’s intent seems unquestionably realised on this buzzing Sunday afternoon, for Fred this conviviality, existing only on the Gallery’s terms, fell somewhat short. Despite its social function, the Pavilion remains a precious art object that must be guarded until the end of summer; it has already been earmarked for sale to a private collector.
Pavilions often attempt to fit big ideas about a building into a small one, and it isn’t surprising that this Pavilion often feels more like a mixed bag of signals for the architect’s good intentions (and sometimes disappointments), rather than a cohesive piece of architecture.