Serpentine Sackler Gallery
By Martin Søberg
A former gunpowder store of severe Palladianism transformed for public use and adorned with pavilion of curvy splendor. Distinction rather than architectural assimilation at Zaha Hadid Architects’ Serpentine Sackler Gallery, opening up the existing listed building towards the surrounding lushness of Kensington Gardens.
Zaha Hadid’s significant and easily recognizable architectural language may at first hand not be identified with contextualism. Her buildings don’t mirror the style or shapes of surrounding architecture. Rather, a more complex attitude towards topography and site is inherent. Likewise at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, in which the existing early 19th Century building is respectfully upgraded for its new public programs, yet contrasted by new facilities hosted under a large undulating roof.
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery is situated a short walk away from the existing Serpentine Gallery where Kensington Gardens meet Hyde Park – the green heart of the metropolis. The red brick Magazine building was constructed in 1805 for storing gunpowder during the Napoleonic wars. Behind a colonnaded façade, it consists of two barrel-vaulted spaces and a lower square-shaped structure embracing the vaults. The Magazine was used for military purposes until 1963 and since by The Royal Parks as a storage space. After its restoration, the Magazine comprises gallery spaces, a gallery shop, and offices. The internal courtyards have been covered to form top lit exhibition spaces, while terrazzo tiles provide new coherent flooring throughout the gallery.
The extension’s dramatically draped cloth roof covers an open social space and a restaurant. Its airy atmosphere is partly due to the choice of construction method and materials, applying a tensile structure of glass-fiber woven textile. A structural technique that was most famously employed for Frei Otto’s Munich 1972 Olympics Stadium. The membrane is part of the loadbearing structure and rests on five interior columns and a perimeter ring beam, the latter touching the ground at three points. Like sliced-open trunks, the columns also function as interior light wells. A curved frameless glass wall connects ground, edge beam, and fabric roof. Columns and the glass wall contribute to making the interior appear bright and accessible. A cellular Voronoi pattern is used for the layout of tables, banquets, and chairs.
A sculpture is sometimes concealed under white drapery before being revealed to the public. In this case, the shiny white veil itself becomes sculptural. The removing of the drapery is arrested in mid-air, launching the existing building whilst providing coverage under its undulating tent-like vaults. One is reminded of the pavilions designed to look like exotic Turkish tents in 18th Century English Gardens, such as those in Drottingholm Palace Garden near Stockholm.
Art in motion
Zaha Hadid Architects’ collaboration with Serpentine Gallery is the third in a row of projects of which the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first permanent structure. Hadid designed the first annual Serpentine Pavilion in 2000, a construction consisting of triangulated roofs – her first building in London. Lilas was a temporary canopy installation constructed for the Serpentine Gallery in 2007.
Converting an existing building into exhibition halls is also the program for Hadid’s celebrated MAXXI museum in Rome. Serpentine Sackler Gallery is however just as well akin to Hadid’s Ordrupgaard extension: In both cases, a Classicist building set in a lavish park is being contrasted by a wavy new edifice. But while the dark concrete at Ordrupgaaard makes the extension appear as a smooth geological phenomenon, a sort of landslide extruding from the ground, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is light as air: Recalling the transient drama of a veil-like textile in motion.