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Jean Nouvel on His Serpentine Pavilion Project

The architect Jean Nouvel says, "I have always fought against generic architecture."

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A bright red fun house has landed in London’s Kensington Gardens, complete with color-coordinated Ping-Pong tables, chess and backgammon sets, bar stools with bicycle pedals and fat cushions for lounging. It’s the work of Jean Nouvel, the latest architect to design the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer pavilion, open to the public through Oct. 17.

“This park is a space of freedom. People can act naturally, they can sleep, kick a ball and play with their kids,” says the French architect, sitting on a long, vibrant red picnic bench.

Nouvel’s stark, angular structure, which spans 2,420 square feet, is made from steel, with a canopy of retractable roller blinds and a facade fashioned from fabric, reflective mirrors and glass covered in red film. The goal is for visitors to appreciate “the intensity” of sun and light seen through the fabric and glass, and to see the pavilion’s color (a cue to traditional British phone booths, mailboxes and buses) as a complement to Kensington Gardens, which is in Hyde Park.

“From here, the green is more green,” says Nouvel. “My aim is to accentuate and accelerate the experience of being in this park.”

Nouvel — whose work includes L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, 40 Mercer Street in New York, the Ferrari factory in Modena, Italy, and the Copenhagen Concert Hall — is the 10th architect to design the Serpentine’s annual project, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. Pavilion commissions are given to those who do not have any completed work in the U.K. Past participants include Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry and Olafur Eliasson.

The architects have six months to think up and execute a pavilion, with the costs paid by sponsorship and the eventual sale of the structure. (This year, the project also received money from Arts Council England.)

Nouvel said his approach was simple: “Each architect gives a sample of his attitude, and mine is the architecture of situation and context. I have always fought against generic architecture, and I believe every client has the right to an authentic, unique answer to their request. That’s what we’ve tried to build here.”

The deadline, he says, was his biggest challenge. “The timing is crazy. There are so many details I would like to change, but you can’t do everything you want to do. But that just means this space is very much alive.”

Nouvel’s next big splash in London will be One New Change, a $760 million office and shopping complex next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The complex is due to open in December, and is so near the cathedral that visitors will be able to reach out and touch Sir Christopher Wren’s famous dome.

Although Nouvel describes his Serpentine project as “small and ephemeral” compared with One New Change, he wants it to have an equally large impact. “I hope people will think back on the 10th anniversary of the pavilion and remember a strange red structure,” he says with a smile.

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