Zaha Hadid’s Serpentine Sackler GalleryOne Stop Arts magazine
Zaha Hadid does not need much introduction. Such is her dominance in the slim-pickings of architectural coverage in general media (assisted by her ego and PR) that she is one of a handful of current architects that the average man on the street could name. This has potential repercussions for the general reading of and interest in the built environment, not least because her aesthetic is so dominant and divisive, but also means that the opening of her buildings attract attention. This time that attention is focussed into the centre of Hyde Park and onto a former gunpowder repository turned gardeners' store, now reinvented as a sister space to the nearby Serpentine Gallery.
This is not the first time that the two have paired up: in 2000 she designed the inaugural Serpentine Pavilion, a summer installation awarded by the gallery to an architect who has not yet built in the UK. In the intervening thirteen years the Serpentine has remained a curious place - classical pavilion externally, critically curated art internally, but Hadid has risen from acclaimed theoretical designer unable to persuade clients to adopt her concepts to become a global 'starchitect'. In that time she has applied her rippling 'parametric' principles to diverse schemes including an Austrian ski-jump, German car factory, Italian modern art museum and, eventually, British projects including a Glasgow transport museum and the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton.
This new addition to her portfolio is unapologetically two distinct parts. There is the main gallery, a conversion of the Old Magazine dating from 1805 with later Decimus Burton frontage, a listed building which has been chopped up and added to for utilitarian uses. The other part, that which will garner attention both photographically and in column inches, is the undulating deformed marquee to the side - an instantly recognisable flourish. It is this billowing form, a café and space-for-hire, which first comes into view on the approach from the original Serpentine Gallery.
Hadid is not known for understated subtlety and deft detailing, her way is with sweeping gestures and bold statement, and there is certainly no meekness in the relationship between her new structure and the historic building it pushes against and over. Imposing itself onto the classical Burton brickwork, it's more bully than gentle neighbour.
Credit to Arup, the engineers tasked with the challenge of turning Hadid's algorithmic floating surface into buildable form. The structural ribbon circumnavigating the tensile fabric roof, occasionally dropping to the ground for structural support, and the internal stem-like steel forms forcing the roof upwards while funnelling light down are intelligent. But while the engineering has lightness the overall aesthetic of Hadid's design does not.
Where a reflective floor could have doubled the perceived volume and allowed a new perspective of the roof Hadid has chosen a grid of matte grey tiles - epitomising the prosaic and sometimes crude detailing which compromises romantic intent and gives a feeling more akin to car-showroom. The tensile roof may push new membrane technologies but so much light is blocked it's heavy and compressing where it should be upliftingly poetic, and beautiful though bright white is – especially against the green foliage and amber hue of Burton's façade – rain and leaves may soon leave an unsavoury trace.
The real success or failure of the project should arguably be based upon the gallery space though, and here the contrast could not be starker. The tired and much-abused historic building has been brought back to life and its beautiful Georgian brickwork, with the narrowest and neatest joints in London, now glows. Seven classical columns draw the visitor towards the entrance and, bang, straight into art – no anteroom with desk and shop to navigate, just immediate juxtaposition from bucolic parkland to contemporary curation. This impact of crossing the threshold, currently exaggerated by the presence of a massive clay elephant as part of Adrián Villar Rojas' opening exhibition, is welcome and powerful.
The internal space provides four long white walls facing a central block - originally a free standing pavilion surrounded by open courtyard. This historic arrangement is hinted at with roof-lights to all four sides, but their narrowness and the louvres over preclude clear reading of the central volume which has its blank windows awkwardly interrupted by the new ceiling.
While the wall space and openness is perfect for the Serpentine's curation, the most valuable and beautiful element of the whole project is contained within that central block. Two identical vaulted brick gunpowder stores have been reborn as unique and compelling display spaces, gloomy and intense they provide a unique architecture for artists, curators and visitors. This space, the jewel, makes up for all the failings of the rest of the project and truly adds something to London's gallery circuit.