The Serpentine Donut

The Serpentine Donut

Image © 2014 Iwan Baan, via


Smiljan Radic’s design for the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion is a large translucent fiberglass oblong set atop a collection of smaller, quarry stones in the middle of Kensington Park.  The Chilean architect’s creation has been compared to a shell and a mushroom. At first glance, it may seem like an enormous river-rock left exposed after the stream runs dry. It is also reminiscent of the dolmen that dot the UK, rock enclosures – believed to have been originally covered with earth-mounds – that were made as burial chambers in antiquity.

In an interview in Architectural Record, Radic links it to “the history of small romantic constructions seen in parks or large gardens, the so-called follies.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines folly as “a costly structure that is (considered) useless,” although Radic’s pavilion falls outside this definition because has several uses. It houses a café, and is scheduled to host to a series of public cultural events in part inspired by its design.

Why so many descriptions? Why is this shape evocative? Perhaps because it is an object born in the imagination, ideosyncratic and personal.  The use of fiberglass makes it possible to have an impossibly thin shell, a dreamlike irregularity, and a sense of exploration.  Radic chose fiberglass, in part, because he was unfamiliar with it, and wanted an opportunity to experience a new material. Its high strength to weight ratio was also an important factor.  He wanted it “unfinished” to convey a hand-made quality.

Viewed from ground level, the fiberglass shape appears to be a simple closed solid, “an opaque shape” as Radic says. An aerial view reveals that it is actually a torus, with parts of its skin seemingly ripped away around the donut-hole. There is a large, roofless open space in the center that is actually contiguous with the surrounding park, although concealed from it.

The skin of the torus is just 10mm – 5/16” – thick, and the fiberglass is unfinished and unevenly applied, creating a discontinuous translucency. From within, daylight glows patchily through its walls.  Engineering of the composite structure by David Kendall, Optima Projects Ltd.

At night, it emits an irregular glow of light. hovering over the quarry stones, suggesting another intriguing contrast: the largest of these dense-looking masses is actually the lightest.

The Serpentine Pavilion has become a summer favorite in London, since the first one in 2000. Last year’s was visited by over 200,000 people. Radic’s pavilion represents a rare opportunity to see his work outside of his native Chile.  It opened to the public on June 24, and will be in the park until October.

For more images and video, also visit the Serpentine Gallery website.

Images by Jim Stephenson, via, except as noted.