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Why the Serpentine Pavilion is a mecca for architecture junkies

Swiss, French, Chilean, Japanese, Iranian, and this year – for the first time – an African architect was chosen for what is possibly the most prestigious architectural commission in the world. The Serpentine Pavilion series' success has been quite staggering –especially considering that it only began seventeen years ago, and that today everyone who is even mildly interested in architecture is transfixed by every update pertaining to emerging pavilion designs.

Some quick facts for those who are less familiar with the pavilion theme: it's an annual architectural commission for a small-scale structure meant to live in London’s idyllic Kensington Gardens. The first pavilion was designed and built in 2000 by Zaha Hadid – the perfect architect to set the premise that this commission was meant to be a site for experimentation. Each Pavilion stands on the Serpentine Gallery’s lawn for four months and is watched – and to a degree, visited – by the entire design world.

Cover: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006 Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond, with Arup. Photograph © 2006 John Offenbach

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2000 Designed by Zaha Hadid, Photograph © 2000 Hélène Binet

Architects and their collaborators are only given a six-month period in which to design and build their temporary structure, but what they lose in time they make up for in creative freedom – they can try out ideas without the scrutiny of planners, without the boundaries of use or function, and with the cushioned security that their creation is transient.

The pavilions have to be designed by leading architects who haven't yet built anything in Britain. It's usually the big names that are chosen – especially in the earlier years of the pavilion were the list of commissionees read like a fully-loaded menu of Western starchitects. The pavilions are by nature evocative, having the unspoken task of being media-magnets and in more recent days, Instagram gems.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2010 Designed by Jean Nouvel, Photograph © 2010 John Offenbach

Serpentine Pavilion 2016 designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG); (10 June – 9 October); Photo © Iwan Baan

A glimpse of another architectural reality

Perhaps the most alluring thing about the yearly pavilion is that it represents the type of architecture that didn't entirely materialise in London over the the years. Many of the architects who were chosen to create the structures never actually built anything permanent in the city, or at least not for a while after their pavilions happened. Zaha Hadid's first London building – the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton – came six years after her pavilion commission (it won the RIBA Stirling Prize that year). And, relatively speaking, the list of Zaha Hadid buildings in London is not huge.

So despite London's reputation for being a melting pot of international design influence, it is perhaps this tiny site in the middle of a garden that offers the most immediate and untarnished opportunity to experience the influence of global design in the city. It also offers a chance for people to see what architects from every corner of the planet would do if they could work to an almost absolute blank canvas. The potential for architectural magic is alluring to say the least.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Photograph © 2003 Sylvain Deleu

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2014 designed by Smiljan Radić, Photograph © 2014 Iwan Baan

No use, no problem

The truth is the Serpentine Pavilions do have a use – they're intended to generate delight, incite mild exploration, and foster mini-communities amongst their visitors. The pavilions evade the traditional sense of architectural use – housing, schools, museums, etc – and instead become a place where people can go to do, well, whatever they want. There's no in-built reverie required, no need to remain quiet or to leave food and drink behind, no need to analysis to death whether the building's design actually works towards the activities its intended to house.

And the best part is that everyone is invited. Within the same 50 metre radius a child could be wandering, a couple picnicking, and a set of professionals meeting. Its virtually the most flexible form of design available to the public – a marvellous gift at the height of summer in London.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2011 Designed by Peter Zumthor, Photograph © 2011 Walter Herfst

It's a moment of fantasy

The Serpentine Pavilion represents a guaranteed offering of innovation. Whether or not each pavilion is to design/architecture followers' tastes is pretty much irrelevant. If anyone is searching for something new and different, the pavilions hardly ever disappoint. And if they do, it's not long before a new one is built to make up for it.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013 Designed by Sou Fujimoto, Photograph © 2013 Iwan Baan

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 by Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond - with Arup Photograph © 2002 Sylvain Deleu

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