By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
A white-winged structure swoops beside a nineteenth-century former gunpowder store in Kensington Gardens. It’s the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which opens tomorrow (a five-minute walk from the original Serpentine Gallery), and the distinctive design of the architect Zaha Hadid. She has converted the grade II listed, neoclassical brick building (“The Magazine”) into a gallery and created a membrane-roofed modern extension to be used as a restaurant and social space.
“You don’t look forward by looking backwards”, Hadid says, “you create structures that are adjacent and juxtapose with historical buildings.” (Last night, the RIBA Stirling Prize 2013 was awarded to Witherford Watson Mann Architects for Astley Castle, a modern home inserted into the walls of an ancient castle.) The extension is certainly a twenty-first-century design. But the dynamic exterior is let down by the inside which feels like an airless white tent. The ceiling stretches high in the centre; five columns, like upside-down Chinese soup spoons, support the billowing domed roof and double as sky-lights. These are inspiring shapes, but the edges of the structure claustrophobically envelop you. Where the roof curves to the ground at three points, an overhang casts shadow on the cantilevered side-windows (and one of the larger windows is mostly obstructed by the restaurant’s open kitchen). A remarkable feature of the Serpentine Gallery is its positioning in the Royal Park, yet the surrounding landscape is barely visible from inside.
The converted gallery space is sensitively designed. A light, white cube encircles the two ready-made vaulted rooms where gunpowder and munitions were kept during the Napoleonic wars. Raw brickwork and beamed ceilings are exposed here, along with two very small windows on either end of each chamber. So these rooms are dark, and perhaps less versatile as display spaces, though they will probably stimulate more site-specific work from artists.
Adrián Villar Rojas, an Argentinean artist who is the first to exhibit in the new gallery, has filled one of these vaulted “powder” rooms with an archive-like collection of clay sculptures, found objects and living plants (including sprouting phallic potatoes that nod towards Victor Grippo and the sculptural art tradition). All are carefully positioned on towering glass shelves lit with brash strip lighting, as if showcasing a fossilized history of humanity, perhaps from the past, or perhaps a preserved future age. In the other “powder” room, Rojas has put stained glass in the two windows, leaving the expansive space empty and sacred. And throughout the gallery, the floor is covered with loose red bricks (the whole space smells of damp earth) that beautifully clink underfoot, and slow your pace, encouraging reflection.
In the white outer-ring gallery, a huge clay elephant (below) carries a mock-up of the external façade of the Sackler – is the elephant holding the old building up or is the animal ramming it down? The same question can be asked of Hadid’s design interventions on the old building.
At the original Serpentine Gallery sculptures made from raw materials by the Italian artist Marisa Merz also reflect the fragility of the human condition. One installation, undated and untitled, features nine clay pin-heads with searching faces on a square paraffin tray. Without any indication of scale, they could be planets in the universe or stars in the sky. A feeling of insignificance and anonymity, yet some of the heads flash with gold leaf.
The directors and curators have thought carefully about the dialogue between Merz and Rojas’s exhibitions. And an umbilical cord (the “Bridge Commission”) will always link the two galleries. This year the focus is on literature – every month a new short story, lasting the five minutes it takes to walk from one gallery to the other, will be available as an audio download on visitors’ mobile phones. Twelve authors have been commissioned, including Ben Lerner, Adam Thirlwell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Luisa Geisler and John Jeremiah Sullivan; the first story is by Valeria Luiselli.
The Serpentine is a mushrooming campus of culture and experimentation. Earlier in the summer I wrote about Sou Fujimoto’s breath-taking Serpentine pavilion. It was a joy to walk past it again this week. I don’t think I’ll be saying the same about Hadid’s extension.