In respectful silence we shuffle around the room. Lips tightly sealed, chins being stroked pensively; nobody daring to appear unaware of the importance of the artefacts on the walls and floor. We’re monks in a monastery of modernism. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch.

Chattering as she goes, my three year old daughter rattles across the floor with her toy buggy and parks herself over the sign that says please do not touch on the plinth carrying a Rietveld chair. Disapproving looks ensue and a stoney faced guard starts to stride towards us. The games commence.

The modernism exhibition at the V&A has only a few days left to run. I can’t report on the contents in much detail (too busy stopping my daughter sitting on iconic furniture) but I can tell you that the compact layout and the hushed atmosphere that everyone seems to fall into doesn’t make it easy to take kids. You win some, you lose some. It’s important though, for both us and them, to keep in the habit of going to galleries and exhibitions.

In the courtyard outside, free from the clutches of the gallery police, I’m feeling quintessentially British with my trousers rolled up to my knees paddling in the blessed relief of ten inches of cool water. Matt Webb – trousers in a similar state – confesses that he would never have thought to paddle in the V&A courtyard pool had he not seen the kids do it first. You win some, you lose some.

We talk about rabbits, neo-cons and perturbations.

Perturbation theory comprises mathematical methods that are used to find an approximate solution to a problem which cannot be solved exactly, by starting from the exact solution of a related problem. Perturbation theory is applicable if the problem at hand can be formulated by adding a ‘small’ term to the mathematical description of the exactly solvable problem.

Next stop: Hyde Park and the Serpentine Pavilion. As I’m taking some photos of the outside a passer-by notices the golden cover of the Zumbotel photography competition disposable camera in my son Josh’s hand and stops to talk for a moment.

edge light side anchor dark side

He asks about the building and I explain that it’s a temporary structure by Rem Koolhaas constructed as one of a series of pavilions that have been erected each summer over recent years. Going for bonus points, I repeat something I’d half read in the press earlier that week about how the up-lift of the inflated roof is roughly equivalent to the weight of the lower section, therefore cancelling each other out.

“So it’s a neutral building then?”

Well, yes, I say. I suppose it is. Neutral. Oh dear, this doesn’t feel like a good start. We step inside and I deploy my ‘small’ term to find an approximate solution to a problem which cannot be solved exactly.


Reconfigurable, adaptable, democratic space? Building blocks. Like any other five year old would, he’s built an island in the time it takes most adults to realise the foam chunks can even be moved.

to me, to you stepping sliding pushing

Great stuff. Meanwhile, Tom and I wander and take some more pictures. Some nice detailing, shimmering translucent surfaces everywhere and an unexpected form to the underbelly of the balloon. Having completed perturbing the space, Josh is now leaping between foam stepping stones, zig-zagging between visitors.

sliver nestle

Neutral. The idea won’t budge. If the actions that define its position are cancelled out to zero, what do you have left? Nothing. I’m feeling nothing.

Josh takes a tumble and lands in a heap on the sharp holes punched through the stainless steel floor. As I step forward to pick him up a staff member chooses that moment to move in front of me, preventing my progress, and points out that jumping on the blocks is unsafe and the floor is sharp. I thank him for the timely advice. Bloody exhibition police. Can’t we create any space today that doesn’t need policing?

An approximate solution to a problem which cannot be solved exactly … If we accept that the quest for the perfect architectural solution is a problem which cannot be solved exactly … the model or diagram or sketch is the utopian exact solution of a related problem … so perhaps the final, constructed problem at hand can be formulated by adding a ‘small’ term to the mathematical description of the exactly solvable problem or diagram … meaning that we need to admit perturbations by ‘small’ terms are necessary to move from the idealistic exact solution of a related problem to find an approximate solution to the architectural problem we wisely recognise cannot be solved exactly.

Meaning that a system which denies the possibillity for perturbation by ‘small’ terms is still just mucking about with the related problem, not the problem. The pavilion feels like the exact solution to a related problem because I can’t perturb it with a personal, subjective viewpoint given it’s neutrality.

Perturbing the foam cubes is fun though.

24 hours later I realise that the emptiness is also to do with the way I feel about actions defining character.

We head for the Diana Memorial. An Aussie in a lifeguard t-shirt gets perturbed, waves a walkie-talkie at us and tells us to stop paddling in it. Strewth.

Related entries: Tyred, Fantasy Architecture, Fantastic Architecture, Hands that do fountains.

If nothing else I can at least say that I now know how to spell pavillion pavilion correctly.

Full flickr set of photos: Serpentine 2006

Elsewhere: Dan Hill, Rod McLaren.