Angles from heaven: Frank Gehry takes on his dream project

The new Serpentine Pavilion will be Frank Gehry's first project in England. Jay Merrick explains why it's a builder's nightmare – and an architect's dream

Wednesday 09 July 2008 00:00

Alan Williams, a burly subcontractor, gazes up at the jut and splay of the giant, out-of-whack pillars and beams rising from behind the soft frieze of horse chestnut trees along the West Carriage Drive of Hyde Park, London. "Yeah! No problem!" he yells into his cellphone. "I'll get the forklift round!" Through an almost orientally delicate site fence can be glimpsed the bits and pieces – and those are entirely appropriate words – of Frank Gehry's Serpentine Pavilion, the architect's first building in England. It is an exuberantly deranged pleasure dome, yet another Gehry cavern made measureless to man. When he visits his creation today, he may well be reminded of the architectural scenes that originally convinced him to design buildings.

"Nightmare!" confides young Williams. "The logistics, just to get the glazing panels into place. Two mill out at the first joint, and you're 20mm out at the other end! Nightmare!"

The reverse, actually: a dream, a strange will to architectural joy that has occupied Gehry's emotions and mind since 1978, when he re-designed his unremarkable Santa Monica home and studio in such an extraordinarily hang-loose way that the lexicon of architecture's visual, spatial and even linguistic moves could fully admit the word that had always informed much abstract art, and was beginning to infiltrate "cool" philosophy and architecture: deconstruction.

The blunter, richer point about Gehry's pavilion is that its deconstructivist manner also makes you think about its obverse: actual physical construction and building materials, one kind of stuff jammed up against another kind of stuff; which, in turn, forces you to consider the fundamental properties and meanings of his architectural forms and spaces. There is not always an obvious form, so what are we looking at? There are no distinctly demarcated spaces and thresholds, so what are we experiencing?

Perhaps we're experiencing something of what the young Ephraim Owen Goldberg (Gehry's original name) felt when his grandmother encouraged him to create structures out of chips and curls of wood on the floor of his grandfather's carpenter's shop in Toronto. Gehry, who set the template for the phenomena known as "starchitects" when he designed the Bilbao Guggenheim museum, is ultimately a maker; a crafter who wants to release space, or deform it in ways as literally flaky as the nine huge glazing panels of the Serpentine Pavilion that slice the air above its quirkily processional volume in various angles and asymmetric overlaps. The glassy ensemble resembles nothing less than shards of parmesan strewn across a momentarily non-existent risotto.

Yet the pavilion is not an exercise in irony; nor is it gormlessly "lively". The architecture is not scenographic in any obvious way, but it is a kind of mise en scène, a stage that acts itself out. It engages us humanely, and self-critically; it invokes abstruse qualities of time and space, and expresses a morality based on a desire to absorb and re-express influences, activities, emotions – and the implicit risk of creation.

Gehry's pavilion is essentially honest architecture. The building conveys the critique and sheer fun of his personal engagement with turf in Hyde Park that becomes architecturally hallowed ground every summer: Gehry joins a roster of pavilionistas who have included Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito, and Alvaro Siza. The pavilion also reveals his obsession with drawing, model-making, art, craft, and the hand-eye coordination that he says is key to his work. The structure not only forces you to reconsider architectural form and materiality, but the reasons for architecture in the first place. As the equally great architect, and historian, Rafael Moneo puts it, Gehry's architecture has "little to do with the fractures, fissures and folds that characterise a good part of contemporary architecture. The abstraction underlying those experiences is giving way to a new organicism, a new image of architecture, an architecture more aligned with orientations in favour of life."

That last phrase, in favour of life, nails it; so, too, might another phrase: what if? For there's no doubt that the Serpentine Pavilion's angles and sliced volumes have been generated by an open hand unafraid of arbitrary, self-provoking exploratory moves designed to conjure figuration and image that produce architecture like an ambiguous stop-frame that somehow seems about to jerk brusquely into cathartic movement; jerkily at first, and then reconfiguring into another form entirely. The pavilion is a denial not only of entropy and collapse, but of contemporary notions of urban junkspace, and the psycho-physical decompositions that the science-fiction writer Philip K Dick once referred to as "kipple".

How eerie to think that the only building in Britain that might be compared with Gehry's pavilion is Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum of the North, in Manchester, itself a kind of kipple. Instead of playfully floating shards or abstracted wings, Libeskind's architecture is fixated on the vision of a shattered globe, rearranged. Where Gehry's pavilion deploys geometry and structure in a loose and absolutely revealed physical sense, Libeskind's structure is an occult, unsettling riddle, a vast ferroconcrete vault and headstone. It is probably unreasonable to compare two buildings with such different purposes and scales. Yet architecture must communicate something more than geometry or mass; and however potent its message, it must generate a sense of further possibility beyond the architect's original creative intentions.

Gehry achieves this in Hyde Park, and he does so with an architecture that is baroque in the way it interrupts and modulates volume and light. The pavilion's formal brusqueness – the structure, connections and glazing panels are deliriously crude – is a return to the wit and spatial and material overlaps of the architect's seminal Santa Monica house; and it is apt to judge the pavilion and the building site as one entity. And the activity around it, too. For this is what really attracted the young, unknown Gehry of the 1950s to architecture – the building sites of the great California modernist architects, such as Pierre Koenig and Richard Neutra; Gehry loved the way they strode around those sites barking orders, making architecture happen. Architecture as messy, shit-happens action-art, rather than the super-cool monochrome depictions of these modernist icons by, say, Julius Schulman.

For Gehry, it was never just about architecture with a capital A. When he accepted the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1989, he revealed the intent and content of his architecture. "My artist friends, people like Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, Ed Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg, were working with very inexpensive materials – broken wood and paper, and they were making beauty," he said. "These were not superficial details, they were direct, it raised the question of what was beautiful. I chose to use the craft available, and to work with the craftsmen and make a virtue out of their limitations. Painting had an immediacy which I craved for architecture. I explored the processes of raw construction materials to try giving feeling and spirit to form.

"In trying to find the essence of my own expression, I fantasised the artist standing before the white canvas deciding what was the first move. I called it the moment of truth. Architecture must solve complex problems. We must understand and use technology, we must create buildings which are safe and dry, respectful of context and neighbours, and face all the myriad of issues of social responsibility, and even please the client. But then what? The moment of truth, the composition of elements, the selection of forms, scale, materials, colour, finally, all the same issues facing the painter and the sculptor. Architecture is surely an art."

The hard-hatted Alan Williams may think otherwise. "I've heard a French hotelier's bought this," he says, gazing up at the rain-spangled structure and canopies. "He's going to put it up in the South of France. Good luck to him." Perhaps the hotelier's contractors will experience something of Claes Oldenburg's declaration: "I make my work out of my everyday experiences, which I find as perplexing and extraordinary as can be."

Frank Gehry's Serpentine Pavilion is open to the public from 20 July to 19 October. Media partner 'The Independent'

The art of success
Elisa Bray

That the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park is one of the most high-profile and successful non-commercial contemporary art galleries – and certainly one of Britain's most glamorous and glitzy galleries – is the work of Julia Peyton-Jones. Since she was appointed director in 1991, Peyton-Jones has overseen a major refurbishment of the gallery, and established its place as a favourite among the country's most fashionable art-lovers.

In June 1994 the Princess of Wales was photographed at the Serpentine Gallery's annual fund-raising gala dressed in a black chiffon dress with plunging neckline – it was the same night that Prince Charles confirmed his adultery on television. Getting Princess Diana on board as patron was a sharp move; the glamorous image stuck.

Peyton-Jones started her career in the art world as a student of painting at the Royal College of Art before becoming curator at London Southbank's Hayward Gallery in 1988. Throughout her Serpentine directorship, she has been the mastermind of several pioneering programmes. In 2000 she initiated the annual summer pavilion in Kensington Gardens, commissioning a series of works from leading architects, including Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. Last year saw a collaboration between the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and the Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen. The helter-skelter they installed had a ramped walkway leading to its peak that gave visitors impressive views of the park and gallery.

The same year, Peyton-Jones, who counts Damien Hirst as a close friend, also started up a club for affluent under-39s keen to learn about and buy contemporary artworks. For the annual sum of £1,000, members of Future Contemporaries have access to a programme of art education including personal insights from leading contemporary artists into their work. Peyton-Jones was appointed OBE in 2003.

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