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Reflections from Dulwich

IF_DO’s temporary pavilion for Dulwich Picture Gallery promises the practice a lasting reputation

Credit: Joakim Boren

Sir John Soane is well served here, and that’s saying something, because it’s hard to imagine a more daunting context to build in than his masterly Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, a touchstone for the entire profession. But young practice IF_DO has pulled it off with the gallery’s first summer pavilion: maximum architecture, in homage to Soane, in basic materials. 

Of course it helps that this is a temporary structure – but as I muse in my column on page 55, its ideas are as strong as you’ll find in many a ‘permanent’ building. The gallery has of course noted the success of the Serpentine Gallery’s long-established annual summer pavilion project by overseas architects – this year’s is by Francis Kéré – and, in its 200th year, has started an alternative for emerging British architects, tied in with the London Festival of Architecture. The programme is much the same as the Serpentine’s – this is a place for summer-evening talks and events, plus it doubles as a bar-café. It cost £110,000, or £573 per square metre, and it can be dismantled and-re-used, in whole or in part. It is sponsored by property company Almacantar.

If you know this wonderful little art gallery-cum-mausoleum set in a large garden, you will know how busy it can get at the weekends – its very understated late 1990s L-shaped cloister extension by Rick Mather with its restaurant scarcely able to absorb everyone. The Saturday I visited was typical: the garden filled with sunbathers and picnickers, return tickets only available for the popular Vanessa Bell exhibition, the restaurant doing a roaring trade. Now it has been joined by the pavilion, there is an extra retail outlet. Don’t knock it, all galleries need sales. But the café bit is at one end, with the rest of the pavilion serving as an intriguing commentary on Soane that is sculptural as much as architectural. 

  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
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IF_DO (the practice was founded only in 2014 by Thomas Bryans, Sarah Castle and Al Scott, all Edinburgh university alumni with experience in other practices under their belts) won the competition for the project with a design that does that thing of seeming to be effortless while obviously being anything but. As the gallery’s head of audience development, Ellie Manwell, said of the design: ‘There was something elegant and poetic about it.’ 

Such refined concepts – in this case of reflectivity, veiling and the unexpected glimpsed view, all Soanian and for that matter Matherish devices, since Mather learned well from Soane – do not always translate well into low-budget reality. But here a certain magic has been done with timber, aluminium mesh, aluminium-composite panels and bog-standard grooved timber decking. The effect is of a floating, shimmering roof hovering above a low plinth. The space in between is occupied by reflections.

This was for me the most ingenious part of the building, because I couldn’t catch it out. Obviously SOMETHING had to be holding the roof up, but that something (very slender hollow square-section steels rising from ground screws, tip of the hat to engineer StructureMode and fabricator Weber Industries) was near invisible. The mirrored surfaces, some moveable, catch the reflections and reflections of reflections, dematerialise everything and make it quite hard to determine how big the whole thing is or where you are in it. Best to look up at the roof for an ­ideas, though the roof wears a veil of expanded aluminium, a deep rippling downstand that shimmers in the sun and acts as a drip detail in the rain – for there are no gutters or downpipes. 

  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
  • Credit: Joakim Boren
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Al Scott too is interested in the idea of temporary versus permanent. 

‘The power of architecture is not diminished if temporary, but the nature of that power is just different perhaps,’ he suggests. ‘The materiality and sense of presence afforded by intended longevity can be awe-inspiring in itself – monumental. Temporary architecture perhaps has “power” in the opposite way – in its nimbleness, a light touch playfulness that cannot often be so well achieved in the permanent.’

The Dulwich Pavilion has that light touch but also a sense of rightness, comfortable in its carefully-observed context without needing to be over-deferential. This must surely be the breakout project for IF_DO.