Mr Radić! – a word on your shell-like...

If Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion is raising big questions about architecture, he doesn’t seem to be answering them

To underpin this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, architect Smiljan Radić has used boulders. The man is a self-confessed rock obsessive (he remarks that his wife’s a sculptor and rocks are cheap as chips in his native Chile), so it’s no surprise that they make a showing here. But rather than running the show, they seem a little put upon – well, put upon a lot actually – by a great big hollow plastic doughnut sitting on top. Not a bad thing in principle, a torus – it’s a wonderful and slightly confounding shape, and like a Möbius strip, by its very nature, can turn the inside out. But principles are one thing and execution is another, and the sense here, for the 2014 pavilion, is that Radić fails to bridge the chasm.

  • Smiljan Radić stands outside his ‘primal’ pavilion.
    Smiljan Radić stands outside his ‘primal’ pavilion.
  • The GRP skin on top of his rough-hewn stones.
    The GRP skin on top of his rough-hewn stones.
  • A viewing window frames a view.
    A viewing window frames a view.
  • But the funnel itself is merely ‘patched’ onto the GRP skin.
    But the funnel itself is merely ‘patched’ onto the GRP skin.
  • Cut-outs seem random and wilful.
    Cut-outs seem random and wilful.
  • The form should bring intrinsic strength, but remains propped.
    The form should bring intrinsic strength, but remains propped.
  • Walkway structure sits on chunky steels atop the stones.
    Walkway structure sits on chunky steels atop the stones.
  • Detailing, what exists of it, is contingent.
    Detailing, what exists of it, is contingent.
  • Stone, paper, scissors- ‘paper’ comes out on top in this case.
    Stone, paper, scissors- ‘paper’ comes out on top in this case.

It’s not that the principles are wrong. The questions Radić is asking with his pavilion are really big ones, culturally and spatially. I’m intrigued by his play with the idea of the ‘folly’ – a highly charged notion in the English landscape tradition, and no less resonant here in the manicured naturalness of Kensington Gardens. I’m also fascinated with his concept of the ‘model’ and the issues implicit in building one at 1:1 scale.

Architectural models were a Renaissance device, a symbol of the intellectualisation of the discipline (the masons never bothered with them apparently, jumping from drawn line to reality sans the scaled 3D iteration). You sense that Radić, seeking primal responses to his architecture, wanted to play with this. Referencing artist Thomas Demand, whose photos of his life-size, life-like paper models of domestic spaces once filled the Serpentine gallery, he tells of his own pavilion sketch models kicking around the office, all charmingly fashioned from masking tape, before the final form was decided upon. Rough, ready and hands-on, a sense of them is retained in the GRP’s manual layering and the creamy yellow light that filters through the form’s hard shell – but not their intrinsic nature.

Radic’s worthy questioning of at what point a model stops being a model seems answered with something slightly specious, poorly detailed and non-biodegradable

That’s visible in the tumbled rocks below, aping Avebury’s fallen sarsen stones. But jutting out of these are thick steels holding the doughnut up, connecting to struts, which oddly brace what should be a self-supporting skin. It all begins to feel wilful and contrived. If this were about getting 21st century primal, I would imagine rocks projecting up into the form, and cables connecting from them to a walkway frame so it and the doughnut could hover above the ground, and we could all dreamily bounce our way about – more Jeremy Deller’s ‘Inflatable Stonehenge’ than Thomas Demand. As it stands, his worthy questioning of at what point a model stops being a model, and his investigation of change of scale of materials without change in nature, seem instead answered with something slightly specious, poorly detailed and non-biodegradable. Thomas Demand it ain’t.

Furthermore, if another of his preoccupations is the romantic folly in the English landscape, then the sense of decay and death that they reified, is also not evident here. The warmth and enthusiasm with which Radić spoke of his temporal masking tape and papier mâché sketch models was palpably absent in his coy defence of the starkly resilient, pungently plastic cladding we all sat in at the press view. In developing his concept and going ‘full-scale’, maybe the properties of his models’ skin should have been similarly magnified, and interrogated.

Over the course of the installation’s life, this skin might have been ‘born to die’ at the hands of the elements – a seductive, time-based erosion of inside and out. If the intent here is to be a contemporary interpretation of picturesque follies and a musing on the presence of death in paradise, perhaps all that should remain of Radić’s pavilion come September is not a non-biodegradable shell, but stones and the bare bones.