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Painting the town red - Jean Nouvel's red pavilion

By Samira Ahmed

Updated on 06 July 2010

Renowned for his distinct buildings worldwide, the French architect Jean Nouvel has unveiled his first completed work in Britain - a pavilion in central London. As Channel 4 News's Samira Ahmed found, he's created a taste of France in the colour of some of Britain's most iconic features.

(Credit: Getty)

Anyone who has been to France on holiday will have noticed the way the French do municipal amenities. From the lidos in every small town (where teeny briefs are compulsory and baggy board shorts banned) to ping pong and tennis courts available to all.

Renowned architect Jean Nouvel, known for such major commissions as the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, has deliberately brought some of that Gallic attitude to playtime to his Red Sun Pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens.

And all in the iconic colour of the traditional double decker bus and British pillar box.

He is the tenth international architect to be commissioned to put up a temporary building in the grounds of the Serpentine Art Gallery for summer entertainment. (Previous commissions have gone to such names as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid). There is always a temptation to sneer at the efforts of elitist architects, but when you see it, you cannot but be impressed by the fun of the place and its panache.

Nouvel told me he had carefully researched how people already used the park – cycling through, vegging out on the lawns with picnics or novels – and sought to ADD something that was not already there.

At first glance a bright construction of red panels reflecting and refracting light, as you approach you soon spot and hear the pings of ping pong underway on red tables with red bats; there are big red lounging cushions on the grass, an enticing hammock strung between two shady trees, and most French of all, a covered range of chess tables with red and white pieces all lined up, just like you would find in the gravelled Jardins of Paris.

The café down the middle features Red Smeg fridges and red benches and tables. Monsieur Nouvel's genial manner was strained only once, when he politely but firmly  pointed out to the gallery staff that there were supposed to be bottles of red and green drinks filling the bar, (chartreuse, sirop de menthe, even absinthe) not the white coffee cups fuelling the arts' press pack this morning.

Mirrors reflected green grass and trees onto the red floors and tables; red flags fluttering above brought a bit of revolutionary spirit (Marianne?) and channelled the breeze through the space. Clear Letters cut out of the translucent walls revealed the grass in the letters spelling out "GREEN" and the azure blue through the letters "SKY".

Even the plants in the French potage-style garden played the game of turning from green to red (strawberries and tomatoes). Where I had thought of red being aggressive, Nouvel pointed out it was abundant in nature – in flowers in a field – and of life and passion. Ah passion. Very French.

Filming anything like this in the middle of a recession, with new public sector budget cuts announced every day, I could not resist asking if he thought he had any lessons or advice for British local authorities under pressure to slash spending on public amenities. (Though it is important to note that the Serpentine Pavilion is privately sponsored).

Nouvel reflected for a moment. "Everything should fulfil its purpose," he said. "But whatever is built must be well built."

He might have added joie de vivre, as I watched the ping pong games in progress and the suited reporters allowing themselves to swing on the hammocks.

If we think back to some of the expensive white elephants commissioned from the Millennium Lottery project fund, it is a simple, but important lesson even in an age of austerity.

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