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