When Centuries Collide

When Centuries Collide

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, which opened on Saturday, September 28, 2013, is a 200+ year old masonry building.  It has just undergone a significant makeover and acquired a new extnesion, both designed by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA).  In a fascinating stylistic contrast, the added structure is made of white tensile fabric, shiny white FRP, and glass, with a concealed steel frame.

The original building, The Magazine, looks rather like what you’d expect given its origin and initial purpose: an early 19th Century gunpowder storage center.  The new addition – a restaurant and public gathering space – looks a bit like a voluptuous moth about the take flight.  And remarkably, they work well together.

The Magazine was designed in1805, and remained in military use until the 1960’s.   The Parks department then owned it but didn’t use it for much during several decades.  This is it’s debut as a public site.  The site, in Kensington Gardens, was once home to perhaps the most famous temporary building of all time, The Crystal Palace (first version, 1851.)  It stands in front of the Serpentine Bridge.  At the other end of the bridge is the Serpentine Gallery, one of the most popular in London.  Renovation of The Magazine to transform it into an addition to the Serpentine, was begun in 2009.

Tensile fabric is closely associated with temporary buildings.  This one, however, is intended as a permanent building, the first permanent tensile fabric structure in Great Britain (as well as Hadid’s first permanent building in central London).  The roof is the dominant visual feature of the structure’s exterior, defined by the soaring FRP flange around its edge that swoops down to touch the ground at three points.  This shining edge-beam – FRP cladding over a twisted-ladder of steel – seems almost to float above the curved glass walls that enclose the space underneath it.

The combination of rigid FRP and flexible fabric (although in its permanent state of tension, its flexibility I largely theoretical) is a point of interest.  Together, they create the sense that the entire roof is a) made of plastic, and b) is very lightweight, despite its massive appearance.  In fact, the edge-beam is not the only support for the roof, which is much more apparent on the structure’s interior, where five shiny, curved steel columns support the roof and act a s light-wells to wash the space with daylight.  Nonetheless, the effect of the composite roof is not one of weight resting, but of lightness hovering, or landing, or perhaps taking off.

The Architect’s Statement says of the extension:

“The extension contains a generous, open social space that we expect to enliven the Serpentine Sackler Gallery as a new cultural and culinary destination. The extension has been designed to complement the calm and solid classical building with a light, transparent, dynamic and distinctly contemporary space of the 21st century. The synthesis of old and new is thus a synthesis of contrasts. The new extension feels ephemeral, like a temporary structure, although it is a fully functional permanent building. It is our first permanent tensile structure and realisation of our current research into curvelinear structural surf surfaces. The tailored, glass-fibre woven textile membrane is an integral part of the building’s loadbearing structure. It stretches between and connects a perimeter ring beam and a set of five interior columns that articulate the roof’s highpoints. Instead of using perimeter columns, the edge beam – a twisted ladder truss supported on three points – dips down to the supporting ground in front, in the back, and on the free west side. On the east side this edge beam (and thus the roof of the extension) swings above the parapet of The Magazine. A linear strip of glazing gives the appearance that the roof is hovering above The Magazine without touching. The Magazine’s western exterior brick wall thus becomes an interior wall within the new extension without losing its original function and beauty. This detail is coherent with the overall character of the extension as a ‘light touch’ intervention. The envelope is completed by a curved, frameless glass wall that cantilevers from the ground to reach the edge beam and fabric roof. The interior of the new extension is a bright, open space with light pouring in from all sides and through the five steel columns that open up as light scoops. The anticlastic curvature of the roof animates the space with its sculptural, organic fluidity. The only fixed elements within the space are the kitchen island and a long smooth bar counter that flows along The Magazine’s brick wall. The tables, banquets and chairs are designed as a continuous Voronoi pattern, reminiscent of organic cell structures. Our aim is to create an intense aesthetic experience, an atmosphere that seems to oscillate between being an extension of the delightful beauty of the surrounding nature and of being an alluring invitation into the enigma of contemporary art.

(For another interesting exploration of structural forms based on stretched fabrics, in which the ZHA was involved, see our 2-part post from last December on the Pleated Shell Structures  http://compositesandarchitecture.com/?p=1089.)


Images by Luke hayes, courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects