The Serpentine Gallery and The Magazine

Star Travel Rating

4/5

Review type

Things to do

Location

The Serpentine Gallery and The Magazine

Date of travel

2013

Product name

Product country

Product city

Travelled with

Wife

Reasons for trip

For a number of years Zaha Hadid seemed to be an architect whose work would never be realised. A case in point was the Millennium Centre in Cardiff: her submission won the prize; someone else won the commission.

All appeared to change with the Olympc swimming pool: brilliant design; excellent in use. Within a year her practice was awarded the commission to add a pavilion and restaurant to The Magazine, a Napoleonic War armament store in Hyde Park. It was to be part of the Serpentine Gallery art complex.

On a visit to meet friends in London we decided to see the result. Press comment had not been very favourable. One of our friends is an architect and engineer so we had expert opinion as well as our own. We walked through Kensington Gardens and past the Serpentine to judge for ourselves.

The design is rhythmic and its relationship with the Olympic pool is noticeable, but beside the single storey cube of The Magazine it seemed diffident. The curving roof is kept low but the result suggests waves lapping ineffectually against a quay beside the lake nearby. It would have been more appropriate at ground level, but nobody could have got inside.

Having eaten we were not ready to test the restaurant so we went inside The Magazine instead. There could not be a greater contrast. Adrian Villar Rojas has created an alternative future, comprising many ways of working in clay coupled with found objects such as might occur after the end of a civilisation. Not in the least depressing, however; it is witty and encourages a strange kind of optimism.

The floor is composed of bricks from the kiln in Argentina where Rojas has his studio, laid without mortar so they rock and clink underfoot. As soon as the attendant has drawn attention to the safety aspect the eye is assaulted by the backside of a life-size clay elephant straining to hold up the roof. Is the elephant a symbol of our pachyderminous society? Or its politics?

Going round the exhibition clockwise, also perhaps symbolic, there appears a central tunnel where the view is between an even bigger elephant's back legs. On display are utilitarian shapes reduced to abstraction by incision or other intervention. Some are clay, some found objects with their previous utility subverted. It is surreal but only by extension threatening. There are clay animals like the petrified dog from Pompeii, skeletal shapes and built then broken vessels.

At the (presumably) front end of the elephant tunnel, a playful variant on the Atlas elephant, visitors are allowed to enter. Here the display begins to resemble a conventional museum, but like the radio programme 'Museum of Curiosities'. Showcases and shelves are packed with Arte Povera exhibits, broken seashells and pots, shapes of ray egg sacs, lamps and more skeletons and dogs. Curiously it is a joyful experience, in contrast to the belligerence that an armament store represents.

As the Serpentine Gallery has continued its tradition of temporary summer pavilions designed by international architects, we decided to compare both the Hadid work and the exhibition. Sou Fujimoto has created a skeletal white building of slender poles like a children's game that requires rods to be inserted into a structure without causing it to collapse. It has steps that can be followed by designated routes to reach upper levels. The view from these or the ground is equally entrancing. Discs are attached at various joints, apparently to deflect light rainfall in the way employed in some fountains. The effect is of light and air, elevated in a way the Hadid pavilion was unable to achieve.

Unfortunately the exhibition reversed the relationship. Another exponent of Arte Povera, Marisa Merz had achieved excellent results in some early work but the sculptures from recent years seemed less effective. Wire and frame constructions were interesting; one large musical instrument form was attractive but many drawings seemed vapid.

So far into the early life of The Magazine the two venues are complementary but not perhaps in the way intended. The restaurant at The Magazine faces no competition from the characteristically minimal provision in the Serpentine pavilion. Both however share one matching feature: even the donation boxes are sculptures.

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