Architecture

Far-out pavilions

Though modest in scale – and often in budget too – the modern pavilion is big on ideas and impact, says Dominic Bradbury.

October 11 2009
Dominic Bradbury

Small buildings can be full of big ideas. It’s a theme that has been gaining increasing momentum in recent years, best expressed in a new wave of eye-catching pavilions. Standing alone, usually in a garden landscape, pavilions have become a point of fascination for both architects and those who want to commission something that is modest in scale but big on impact. These are escapist structures, often highly sculpted with a bold and arresting outline wrapped around what is often just a single, fluid space opening up to the surrounding views. This is design at its most creative, liberated by the restrained scale and the relative simplicity of needs that apply to a single room with a view.

In some ways, pavilions look back to the idea of belvederes and follies sitting in crafted but open parklands, while also echoing the garden shed at its most extreme and provocative. In other ways, the new pavilions set their own agenda, becoming artistic statements with more in common with land art and vast sculptures sitting against a vibrant green backdrop. Their cause is helped by the fact that these statement buildings can be turned from dream to reality on a modest budget, sometimes without the lengthy planning dramas that houses and bigger buildings imply.

The modern pavilion is also a highly adaptable and flexible space. Rajat Jindal commissioned architect Paul Archer to design a crafted meditation and yoga pavilion for his family home in south-west London, yet the building can also be turned to a number of other uses. It sits in the rear garden of Jindal’s turn-of-last-century house, with a crisp outline, accompanied by its own modest courtyard.

“I do love gardens and that Japanese idea of looking into a garden from a quiet, contemplative space,” says Rajat Jindal, a lawyer now specialising in recruitment. “So one element of the building was about creating this quiet space at the end of the garden that could be used for meditation. But also, on a more practical level, we wanted a spare room, so the pavilion has a guest bed that folds down from the wall. It can also be used as a study, with a folding desk. It is multifunctional.”

The Jindal pavilion was partly inspired, then, by travels in Asia, looking at Japanese tea pavilions and garden buildings, but the sleek aesthetic perhaps owes more to Mies van der Rohe and his famous Barcelona Pavilion and Farnsworth House – linear glasshouses with a powerful Modernist message. Archer’s design creates a space that is simple and clean-lined, with bed, desk and even electric sockets all hidden away, mostly within one storage wall.

The outline, says Archer, was also inspired by the large-scale Modernist sculptures of Spanish sculptor Jorge Oteiza, which used folded steel panels to create structural compositions. The small, integrated courtyard provides privacy from neighbours while simultaneously bouncing light into the pavilion itself. When the doors are opened up, the indoor and outdoor rooms become one large space.

“The idea was to create a space that you retreat to, away from the home,” says Archer. “I do like the idea of being able to go on holiday at the end of your own garden. Escapism is an important part of pavilions, and the very definition of a pavilion suggests a structure that is not crammed up next to other buildings. They are freestanding and so a sculptural treatment becomes more appropriate. They are calm spaces that give you a sense of rest rather than a dynamic spatial quality.”

The connections to the landscape and a sense of separation and calm all help make pavilions ideally suited to painting studios and places of creativity in themselves, encouraged by the artistry of the architectural design. These sculpted rooms, then, often become places of quiet artistic expression.

Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, for instance, has designed a painting pavilion for artist Elena Arevalo in the garden of her home in Girton, Cambridge. The striking building is coated in panels of recycled plastic with the look of some extraordinary marble or exotic granite. The small, low-slung structure was built under English permitted development rules, which allows for small garden structures in the right circumstances.

“Elena loves being outside and wanted this sense of being outside even when she is in the studio,” says Bowles, who has designed projects on a wide range of scales, including a seductive office pavilion for himself. “It’s a very simple timber-framed building that sits on a steel ring beam so it didn’t require any foundations There’s space enough inside for a table and plan chest for her paintings; and she also does ceramics so there’s a sink and storage.

“It’s about big ideas in small buildings. The question that I often try and tease out of people when they ring up about a job is, ‘How interesting and interested are you?’ It’s not always the people who want something big and expensive who want to do something interesting and, as architects, we want to do something intriguing rather than expected. The word ‘pavilion’ implies that there is space all around it and that it is important, even though it’s small. They are like jewellery boxes.”

Artist Judith Brenner, based in Richmond, commissioned architect Gregory Philips to design an art pavilion along with a dramatic extension to the family home. The garden studio became a mini version of the large addition to the period house – a vast, white-framed glass rectangle emerging from the outline of the original building. Brenner had decided that, after three children, she needed a dedicated space of her own beyond the house itself.

“The connection to the garden was also hugely important to me,” says Brenner, “as my painting is based on natural forms and I am inspired by the things I see in the garden. I need to see out all the time and the natural light in the pavilion is fantastic for working. I always knew that I wanted a studio, something separate to home but on the doorstep. It gives me a lot of flexibility.”

Architect Patrick Lynch returned to an earlier house project in the Norfolk country­side to create a painting pavilion with a strong sense of connection to a more open landscape. The house at Marsh View was completed six years ago, but he was asked by the new owners to return and make a series of additions to the house and garden. These included a triangular art pavilion in the grounds, coated in a layer of mirror glass with a reflecting pond alongside. Within the painting studio, a two-way section of mirror glass allows views out across the open countryside. From without, the pavilion becomes part of a series of optical effects, with the sun appearing to set within the west-facing mirrors and the water pool.

“The pavilion is very much connected to the architectural approach of the house itself,” says Lynch. “There’s an obvious familial relationship between the buildings, and we were trying to complete the original project in a way that was about creating a set of rooms in the landscape. The brief for the studio was, literally, a room with a view that could be used as a studio. We tried to make it as small as possible as you approach it, but then its triangular form explodes internally and you get these enormous open views of the marsh.

“Pavilions are quite traditional in one sense in that there has always been this need for a structure that’s halfway between nature and architecture. It’s a place for contemplating art, sculpture and nature. We have just experienced a period of affluence where people have indulged in fantasies and follies and projects without great solid purpose. But in such times you also have a need for spaces that are stress-free, where you can relax and connect to nature.”

As we move into another kind of economics, the modest scale but powerful aesthetics of the new pavilions should carry them forward. Tony and Anne Ray in Leeds added an extraordinary garden room by Bauman Lyons Architects to their Edwardian home for just over £55,000. The small pavilion respects the original house, being separate from it (but attached to the garage), while creating a contemporary canopy that connects the Rays to the garden – “a place to sit, read, watch birds, and a relaxing space to talk with friends,” says Tony.

The rise of private pavilions has, at the same time, been echoed by an explosion of interest in architecturally innovative pavilions on a broader canvas. The Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion programme at Hyde Park has been highly influential in the UK in promoting not just new architecture but the whole concept of the contemporary pavilion. Each year a world “starchitect”, who has yet to build in the UK, is invited to build a temporary and flexible structure. Past participants have included Frank Gehry and Oscar Niemeyer; this year it’s the turn of Japanese architects SANAA.

There’s also Zaha Hadid’s recent mobile art pavilion for Chanel – a futuristic, fluid caravan. Art pavilions by David Adjaye and others over recent years have also reinforced the idea of the pavilion as an experimental miniature architectural laboratory, closely linked to the art world itself. Pavilions are as closely connected to the world of creativity as the world of nature.

“In a way, it is a new building type that almost goes back to the idea of light structures such as Bedouin tents, as well as belvederes, greenhouses and conservatories,” says architect Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make, who in 2007 completed a stunning pavilion near St Paul’s to act as an Information Centre for the City of London. “They have a temporary feel to them, which is interesting, even if they are permanent. The idea that a pavilion can be built quickly is also attractive. Some of them are built very fast – our City of London pavilion was prefabricated and pretty much went up overnight. I think pavilions have a good future – there is an experimental aspect to them, and they can also be small-scale models for larger schemes and ideas.”

On the residential scale, pavilions also fit with the growth of the compound house, where homes are increasingly composed of a series of structures designed for different uses rather than one large, single building. In Suffolk, architect James Gorst dramatically extended a period house some years ago, while also converting a nearby barn as a staff cottage. Now he has returned and added a small series of crafted buildings for his client, creating a small “gardener’s world” in a paddock some distance from the main house.

Two timber-framed buildings with skylights and shingle cladding form a workshop and an office for the groundsman, with a glasshouse alongside. But these pavilions are far more than standard garden buildings. “The fact that our client commissioned us to design the buildings rather than buying off-the-peg structures meant that he knew he would end up with a piece of architecture,” says Gorst. “They have a dual function. Like a temple in an 18th-century Arcadian landscape, they are something you walk to and look at from a distance, and they serve an aesthetic purpose within the landscape. And then they have their practical purpose.

“They are sculptural and perversely complex, in a way, and work as a pair. They have strong natural light and are flexible and attractive enough to be used for other things in the future, if need be, such as studios or meditation rooms. There was more thought and attention in those two small structures than in the average industrial building of a kind scattered around towns and cities across the UK.”

The idea of the modest, escapist retreat is carried to an even greater extreme in American architect Erin Moore’s extra­ordinary pavilion designed for her mother, a nature writer, in a mesmerising open landscape in Oregon. The Watershed, designed by Moore’s practice Float Architectural Research and Design, could be described as the ultimate retreat, belvedere and pavilion. With no electricity or services, this lightweight shelter was carried into the roadless landscape and conservation area piece by piece. It’s a place for writing and drinking in the natural world, while purposefully rejecting the idea of a cabin or more permanent structure. It is very much designed to be temporary, recyclable, and with the minimum impact upon its environment.

“We only decided to build it once we were sure we could do so without making the place any more ‘civilised’ and that we could reverse the process,” says Moore. “There are people who want a way of inhabiting places while still keeping them wild, which means inhabiting them temporarily. Also, it’s easier to do a small project well. In residential construction, bigger size usually just tries to make up for bad design. In every case, I would choose something small that is well designed over something big.”

See also

Architects