Serpentine Pavilion: Rouge awakening

Jean Nouvel's vivid red Serpentine Pavilion promises to make a startling contrast with the green of Hyde Park. Jay Merrick charts the lure of the lurid

The Serpentine Gallery's 2010 Summer Pavilion, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, opens to the public on Saturday. Those with some understanding of his architecture and philosophical musings will see the searing red structure as his latest mysterious toying with the doors of perception. But most people's first reaction will surely be: what the hell is that wild red thing?

I've mentioned Nouvel's hyper-vivid description of the pavilion before, but let me recap his extraordinary riff, which might have been scribbled in an amphetamine haze by the great San Francisco Beat poet Robert Creeley in the City Lights bookshop, circa 1958: "DAZZLING, contrasting, complementary, RED, FLEETING SUMMER, STARE AT THE SUN, a red filter, RED SUN, a red screen, A HAZE OF RED, like closing your eyes against the sun, BLURRED, without end, see green through red, RED EXPLODING AGAINST GREEN, INCORPORATE THE MYTH OF RED, THE RED NIGHT, dense and mysterious like in a photo lab..."

But is Nouvel's incarnadine pavilion as radical as it seems? Not quite. It's the fraught relationship between architecture and the colour red through time that's more intriguing. Even in the 1930s, when the artists Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee brought colour to Modernist architecture's mecca, the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, red was used in a graphically controlled way. White, black, and grey – and especially white – have always been Modernist architecture's sacrosanct non-colours.

The stripped-down monochrome look of most early Modernist architecture reflected Adolf Loos's 1908 declaration that ornament was crime. It was the formal order and pale, marbled purity of Greek architecture, crossed with the industrial vibe of Detroit production lines, that informed the Bauhaus. The dark red columns of the Palace of Knossos in Crete came and went a millennium before the Acropolis was built in Athens. Muslims, too, avoided red in the decorative geometries of their architecture: the tiling of the legendary Ishtar Gate in Babylon, completed at about the same time as the Acropolis, was essentially blue – a protective colour as far as Islam was concerned, and regarded as quasi-mystical by Buddhists.

Red is neither protective nor mystical, least of all in architecture. It's too definite, and has no obvious sense of having evolved out of historical use; apart from its blood connotation, red doesn't feel organic, it feels sudden. It tends to make architecture seem lurid and heavily static; it derails perspectives, too – something that Nouvel particularly likes doing. Red also has cultural, religious and psychological "previous", which may have some bearing on its iffiness in architecture. In China, for example, red signifies good luck and celebration; for the Cherokee Indian nation, it means triumph.

In the 18th century, Horace Walpole and his "committee of taste", John Chute and Richard Bentley, created a faux Gothic castle in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, whose Long Gallery has a ceiling whose pale and beautifully detailed Gothic tracery looks down on densely crimson wall coverings – a cathedral-like canopy floating above a mire of red, the colour associated by Catholics with the deadly sin of wrath.

In film, one only has to watch Hitchcock's thriller, Marnie, to experience how powerfully disturbing red can be. In his hands, the red of Tippi Hedren's riding jacket, and even the red of brick terrace housing become utterly loaded with psychotic fear.

Hitch would certainly have understood the most obvious correlation between symbolic meanings of red and contemporary architecture. For Hindus, red relates to the kundalini chakra, or energy, of the genital area; and one only has to look at buildings such as Cesar Pelli's super-slick red tower at the Pacific Design Centre in Los Angeles to see not just kundalini architecture but grandiose penile dementia. The Torres Fira tower in Barcelona, designed by Toyo Ito – normally associated with exquisitely tailored buildings of modest colouration – is flagrantly rouged and ribbed; architecture as a Catalonian specialty condom.

Yet sometimes, the very starkness of red – its brusque aura of objection and otherness – has been used to great effect to accentuate difficult ideas in contemporary architecture. Exhibit A: the hotly disputed philosophy of deconstruction, which architects experimented with in the 1980s. Here's how the New York's Museum of Modern Art described the movement at its height in 1988: "A deconstructivist architect is therefore not one who dismantles buildings, but one who locates the inherent dilemmas within buildings. The deconstructivist architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture: the form is interrogated."

If you want the architectural impurity to shout, what better colour than screaming red? And what better example of deconstructivist architecture than Bernard Tschumi's discombobulated, bright red Folie structures at the Parc de la Villette in Paris in 1985, whose forms were the result of pulling apart and distorting cube shapes. Violent torture, indeed – a Platonic archetype savagely questioned and rendered impure.

The Folies were supposedly highlighting the fragmentation of culture. But it didn't need Tschumi or Jacques Derrida, the philosopher whose ideas he was investigating, to tell the world that the boundaries between mainstream culture and sub-cultures were dissolving. The Folies were therefore follies twice over, no more than crude, blood-red statements of the obvious. It might seem tempting to compare Tschumi's Villette structures with Nouvel's Serpentine Pavilion. But the Frenchman shies away from any firm connection with the once hugely fashionable Derrida mindset: Nouvel is more interested in the strangeness of the way architecture is perceived as an object in space.

Red in contemporary architecture doesn't always signal intellectual or cultural war, and in the right hands its effects can be engrossing rather than pulverising. Fourteen years after the Folies, Steven Holl's timber-clad Y House in the Catskill mountains of New York state carried the same red paint used on local dairy barns, and it exaggerated the architectural game he was playing. Here, redness emphasises the elongated, split form of the building. The result is something simultaneously strange and fleetingly familiar – a blushing, hybrid architecture.

In Britain, Tony Fretton's Red House in Chelsea, not far from Westminster Cathedral and Wren's Royal Hospital, took strangeness and familiarity to a brilliantly witty conclusion. The design of its facade drew on certain qualities of the historic houses around it, but re-expressed them surreally with a facade of red French limestone. How extraordinary, incidentally, that this marvellous and blatantly original building only got a Riba award in 2003 after a fierce, solo plea in its favour by one of the Riba London region's judging panel.

Fretton's Red House is, of course, a decorous architectural matron compared to Nouvel's Serpentine Pavilion, whose well red form awaits its tens of thousands of visitors, ready to burn its architectural image onto retinas and digital camera sensors. And as we sit in it, our skin and tea cups pinked by the ambient light, we can spare a smug thought for those wandering around under the gigantic red table that looms over part of the China Executive Leadership Academy campus in Pudong, designed by Anthony Bechu and Tom Sheehan. Even the lugubrious Hitch might have been freaked out by that.



The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London, designed by Jean Nouvel with Arup, is open from 10 July to 17th October ( www.serpentinegallery.org)



For further reading: 'Jean Nouvel by Jean Nouvel: Complete Works 1970-2008' by Philip Jodidio (Taschen, £135). Order for £121.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices