cave man

In the hall of the mountain king: Olafur Eliasson’s Serpentine Pavilion.

Not only is the 2007 Serpentine pavilion not as awkward as I’d feared from the early publicity images – on the contrary, it is the best of these annual summer temporary structures since Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond’s back in 2002. It is also the tallest.

Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and architect Kjetil Thorsen, have made an object which contrives to combine the cave and the mountain, interior and exterior. From a distance it looks as if it is made of patinated bronze or oxidised steel: closer inspection reveals that it is clad in precisely-cut dark-stained geometric plywood panels on a concealed steel armature.

It is a tilted cone that is also a walkway. A helter-skelter with a memory of Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument to the Third International. The curving entrance ramp, open to the air but screened with clusters of rope lanyards, takes you up past the grotto – a meeting place or auditorium – which rises to an offset oculus at its peak. The ramp continues, however, round and up until you have a further choice: to dive back into the cone near its peak, where a heroic single-person balcony projects inwards; or to continue to its upper end, which looks down over the Serpentine Gallery itself. Seen from this lofty viewpoint, it is more like a doll’s house than ever.

Given the speed with which it was conceived and built, this is an astonishingly subtle and accomplished piece of work. It plays with our spatial awareness, is an instrument of observation. An objective that turns in on itself: as well as Tatlin, there is something of Wright in here. One would not be surprised to find a fire flickering at the heart of the cave, or an automobile ascending the ramp.

What is it for? Why, to be itself as an intriguing object or habitable sculpture. Also to act as a forum for events, as with all the pavilions in this series that has run since 2000. I had thought that the idea of such an ambitious annual architectural commission – the brainchild of the Serpentine Gallery’s director, Julia Peyton-Jones – was starting to run out of steam. Not a bit of it. Eliasson and Thorsen have rejuvenated the series.