Serpentine’s playful Summer Houses shed new light on old classics

Last summer we couldn’t wait to tell all of our friends about our adventures getting lost in the secret corridors and kaleidoscope colour of the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion. This year, i’ve had to contain my excitement since February’s announcement that the annual summer Pavilion commission for 2016 would be joined by an additional four Summer Houses, each designed by architects who’ve yet to build a permanent building here in England.

The focal point of this year’s additions was clear; each of the 25 sq m Summer Houses should be inspired by the nearby Queen Caroline’s Temple, a classical style summer house built in 1734, now taking up an enviable position a stone’s throw from the Serpentine Gallery itself. Sadly this hasn’t prevented us from repeatedly ignoring it as we’ve passed by over the years. This visit was, however to be a very different beast, and with one curious 3 year old and 4 new lively architectural companions, this beauty soon became the unintentional star of the show.

Stood stark against the backdrop of leafy Kensington Gardens, with a shape as striking as the of the Serpentine spire, the Pavilion itself seemed the most appropriate place to start our visit. As a space that is intended for use by everyone, in whichever way they choose to interact with it, I absolutely love everything that this project stands for and this year’s creation by Danish architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group was no exception. Although on the surface the structure doesn’t appear to have the same abundance of light and space as last year’s effort, as we moved through the walls of stacked fibreglass frames, they began to open out, eventually revealing the magnificent grass and sky of the gardens beyond. Sadly my little companion didn’t stick around for the big reveal, instead making it her mission to fit herself inside one of the fibreglass ‘bricks’ which doubled up as Pavilion seating.

We picnicked on the grass behind the Serpentine Gallery, shielding our feast from any unrestrained dogs, before following the path towards the site of the new Summer House commissions. We first found shade in the peaceful rooms of Barkow Leibinger’s looping plywood and timber creation, in which only the front facing room can really compete with the views of the (now extinct) rotating Pavilion on which it was based.

From here I followed my young companion as she headed through the implied ‘doorway’ into Kunlé Adeyemi’s inverse replica of Queen Caroline’s Temple. She negotiated her way speedily towards the original, through the scattered elements of the new structure on which visitors can sit (not climb) and relax into the space around them. Once inside, it then became very difficult to prise her out. Every sound echoed loud, giving her a presence far greater than her tiny size and the multiple arches and whitewash walls had created a much cooler space to run and hide.

I walked on curious to explore Asif Khan’s enclosure of timber staves, offering a surprising amount of shade for it’s seemingly open structure. This house provided a magnificent space to see and be seen – a nice synergy with the original purpose of the gardens beyond. I took a deep breath as my little companion managed to catch up with me by squeezing herself in through the gap in the slats, despite the perfectly good entry and exit at either end. Clearly the appearance of a fellow small person cracking open their lunch proved too good to miss, yet despite originally being conceived as a tea house, we’re still not completely sure that the structure in the middle is a picnic table! We stayed inside for some time, enjoying the almost cosy feel of the space which looks as if it has risen from stones below.

Confused by how close we were allowed to get to neighbouring Yona Friedman’s geometric Summer House (or indeed how its movable arrangement would ever amount to shade) we decided to get on our way.

This year’s architectural project is most certainly a triumph, expanding the idea of spacial interaction beyond the Pavilion itself and transforming other parts of the gardens in a way that everyone can enjoy. Providing an abundance of shade, the project has not only allowed the visitor to think again about the contribution that a Summer House makes to an expanse of space, but by focusing these ‘modern takes’ on an old classic, the project has given something old and precious a brand new voice, reviving its status amongst a new generation of young visitors and creating an almost unintentional centrepiece.

Serpentine Pavilion and Summer Houses will be in Kensington Gardens until 9th October 2016
Open daily, 10am to 6pm
Admission free

Until 30th September, Serpentine are also inviting 8 to 11 year olds to design and build their own Pavilion online for a chance to win an iPad

Nearby: If all that shade leaves you longing for some sun, the Serpentine Gallery is a short walk from the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the Serpentine Lido. Pack your swimmers, both are perfect for a paddle.