Re-Design, In Design:
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Annabel Sheen



The Royal Parks’ Magazine Building, now the Serpentine Sackler Gallery Kensington Gardens, London.
Image © John Offenbach, The Royal Parks and Serpentine Gallery.

Once a storage site for gunpowder in the threat of Napoleonic warfare, the 1805 magazine building in the centre of Kensington Gardens is now a public (free entry) exhibition space for contemporary art.[1] The building is owned by the Serpentine Galleries and was remodelled and extended nine months ago by Zaha Hadid Architects.[2] Recently, it was home to some twenty Klu Klux Klan figures, vitrines of dying Nazis and bronze casts of crucified MacDonald’s figures, courtesy of The Chapmen Brothers.  Yet the architecture receives interest equal to that of its displays.[3] The building’s interior has indeed been stripped and whitened, white offices and a white shop have been installed, and a voluptuous white and glass structure projects outwards to one side.  Inside this extension is The Magazine Restaurant; the colours are lime green, grey and predominantly white. The geometric angles of the tables, hand dryers and cutlery contrast with the billowing curves of the extension’s architecture, and all aspects work to create a feeling not just of ultra-modernity, but of the future. As such, can a design conceived so assuredly in the now identify and cooperate with a governmental structure two centuries its senior?

Strangely, in some respects I think it has succeeded in doing so. The extension’s white and glass tensile front adds a third to the building’s facade, but in its total disregard for its early nineteenth century counterpart, does not detract from the symmetry that is key to the latter building’s design. It doesn’t compete with the magazine building or disguise it or change it, and in no way is it an extension that mildly reproduces the brickwork and pillars of the original architecture.

In a bold refusal to acknowledge the style of the existing building, Hadid’s sweeping white edifice obstinately demonstrates the architecture firm’s signature style.  Similar designs can be seen in their Aquatic Stadium in London, the Beko Masterplan, Serbia, the Changsha Meixihu International Arts Centre, and the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre.[4] Each of these grand public structures, seemingly built from a malleable plastic or white Plastacine, have curves that ebb and flow in whichever cityscape they have been placed, devoid of angles and filled with movement.

Original building. Image © John Offenbach,  The Royal Parks and Serpentine Gallery.

Original building. Image © John Offenbach, The Royal Parks and Serpentine Gallery.

The structure of the nineteenth century gunpowder store is an image of solidity and strength.  The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure of 1804 announced the preparations for its erection, saying it was to be ‘more extensive than the present one […] The basement will be formed of stone, and the upper parts of bricks.’[5] The English Heritage listed buildings administrators have listed the structure as Grade II; its record notes one of the reasons for this designation as the rarity of finding a purpose-built gunpowder magazine, stating that ‘this is the only one of its kind in London’.[6] The English Heritage also acknowledges the structure’s ‘sophisticated architectural treatment, which appears to have been a deliberate response to its setting’.[7] Indeed, its pillars and portico seem rooted in the garden’s earth itself; its timeless design speaks of antiquity and yet is un-aged.  The building’s 2013 counterpart, fluid and tent-like, impractically bright and white, and in materials more representative of plastic than brick or stone, is the depiction of something ephemeral. Yet Hadid’s design flows with organic water-like movements, and the interior pillars likewise spring from the ground in plant-like curves. Additionally the ceiling-high glass facade allows the surrounding gardens to fill the restaurant’s interior. Each structure has each clearly been designed in response to the surrounding gardens and in this sense their integration succeeds, despite the severe differences in the aesthetic of the building’s two halves.

Detail of Zaha Hadid's architecture, Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes, 2013.

Detail of Zaha Hadid’s architecture, Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes, 2013.

Image © Luke Hayes, 2013.

Image © Luke Hayes, 2013.

Moreover, these representations of the fixed and the temporary which should struggle against each other are united in the building’s new purpose.  The magazine, opened to the public for the first time ever last September, is a fantastic example of the popular appropriation of private, forgotten spaces for public enjoyment, and demonstrates a common architectural idea of setting art in unusual places.  Some other great examples are New York’s elevated industrial railway which, once abandoned, became the cultural hub, The High Line; Berlin’s Bunker, once an air-raid shelter and prisoner-of-war camp, is now a contemporary art exhibition space; and the power station on the bank of the Thames, now the Tate Modern. The architectural historian Miles Glendinning remarks on the ‘juxtaposed new interventions and repaired ruined fragments’ that have come to embody many museum and gallery conversions, and refers to Carlo Scarpa’s projects of the 1950s and 1970s and I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid for the Louvre among others. Glendinning attributes this integrated architecture of old and new partly to concerns about how to reconcile modern developments with an historic urban fabric.[8]

For the art historian Jesús Pedro Lorente, such collaborations are specifically well suited to the housing of contemporary art. He notes that the rejuvenation of an historic structure adheres to the aims of many art institutions to revitalise, promote and stimulate an area, and simultaneously the addition of contemporary architecture reflects the contents of the building, the new and the progressive.[9] Such regeneration programs often occur within the course of a prospering city’s urban development, and notably within areas that find themselves in ‘various degrees of squalor and gentrification’, as the sociologist Jon T. Lang has also noted.[10] Although the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is in no such location, the preservation and conversion of the 1805 magazine building is no doubt a project influenced by this urban planning mentality.

The idea of appropriating old buildings for new contrasting uses is not exclusive to recent times, but is certainly an endeavour that has been widely employed by the arts industry in the past thirty years.[11] The magazine’s current function as an art gallery and 5-star restaurant thus seems typical of our current urban make-up and the patently modern design of the building’s extension attests loudly to the building’s new use. What the fashions and recycling projects of the next two hundred years will bring for the structure is a question to be answered by posterity.



[1] [Accessed 27 April 2014] [2] It was purchased by the Serpentine Gallery in 2009, and opened as an art gallery in 2013.

[3] This information is first-hand from the Gallery Assistants at the Sackler Gallery.

[4], [Accessed 27 April 2014] [5] The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Vol. II. (London: J. Hinton, 1804), p.376.

[6], [Accessed 27 April 2014] [7] Ibid.

[8] Miles Glendinning, The Conservation Movement: A History of Architectural Preservation: Antiquity to Modernity,(Oxford: Routledge, 2013), p.434.

[9] Jesús Pedro Lorente, The Museums of Contemporary Art: Notion and Development, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp.1 and 82.

[10] Jon T. Lang, Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products, (Oxford: Routledge, 2005), p.335.

[11] Ibid; See also: Pedro, The Museums of Contemporary Art, Glendinning, The Conservation Movement.


Annabel Sheen –

Annabel is a first year Renaissance student currently studying on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course. Her undergraduate degree was in History of Art and English at the University of York. She is currently hoping to explore issues surrounding the early modern domestic space for her dissertation.


© Annabel Sheen, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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