Big Worlds and Little Tents

It may have been possible in the not-too-distant past to dismiss the pavilion (the ‘pavilloner,’ as Le Corbusier disparagingly called it) as a minor and inconsequential type of architecture, a frivolous ornament on the landscape.

Today, one might find it harder to ignore such architectural spaces – whether they are built for official institutions and international expositions, or conceived by artists as more experimental structures that intervene within a politics of cultural representation.

Pavilions are now often front and center to what are being called the spaces of global cultures. Hence, it is time that there were more scrutiny of what they are, or what they have been in modern history. Considering the symbolic capital they afford those individuals, organizations or nations that have them constructed, but also the agency they offer those who would seek to challenge consensual culture and raise questions about the use of public space, pavilions might be recognized for what they are: architectural works that may appear trifling (especially next to grander civic monuments), but which are more often than not embattled structures, bound up with claims to power, status and identity, and thus harboring some rather big ideals or ideas about the world.

Big World of Art
Big World of Art

As a way of beginning, it might be helpful to try and visualize, for heuristic purposes, a simple genealogy of the pavilion, which would support the above hypothesis. Such a genealogy could be complicated later; this is certainly what the texts that follow this introduction will do. Beginning with the earliest examples, one might call to mind those portable foldaway structures, capable of being set up quickly in the encampments of military campaigns and diplomatic assemblies. In the ancient Roman Empire and beyond, these acquired the name ‘butterflies’ – papilio in Latin, from which the modern French pavillon derives. This was possibly on account of their fleeting appearance in the landscape, and the way that their canopies appeared to flap in the breeze.

Such structures were undoubtedly utilitarian, but they were also heraldic, stately and ornamental, in keeping with their purpose (vcu.edu). They continued to be used through the modern period, although the more purely functional tents used in warfare today hardly compare. Bringing the pavilion more squarely into the sphere of art and culture were the much more festive tents of medieval and renaissance pageantry. Here, different forms and uses were found, to the extent that the image of the pavilion now begins to divide and multiply.

As it enters palatial gardens, villa parks and country estates (Figure 0.1), however, the pavilion is still very much tied to power and wealth, as well as to land and territorial claims. This is why, in spite of appearances, it is never entirely uncoupled from its largely patrician and martial associations. It enters the world of the propertied classes with a less obvious pragmatic or diplomatic purpose, more as an embellishment or pleasant diversion.

Yet, it is no less meaningful for that. Never reducible to a frivolous addition, the construction of a pavilion usually was (and perhaps still is) motivated by self-aggrandizement, aesthetic speculation, civilizing ritual or political strife of some kind. By the eighteenth century, parks and gardens were beginning to host a broad range of structures that might (at a stretch) be referred to as pavilions.

Europeans were now aware that garden pavilions actually had a much more ancient history outside Europe and Asia Minor, extending to the Far East. Having spent some time in Canton, the architect and former employee of the Swedish East India Company William Chambers enthused: ‘No nation ever equaled the Chinese in the splendor and number of their garden structures‘. See (this article) for more on this topic.

Amidst the classical revival, many pavilions now took on the character of more permanent (or quasi-permanent) fixtures in the landscape; some became so monumental, rigid and austere that they lost the sprightliness of butterflies altogether, and transmogrified into something new, not infrequently resembling mausolea more than flamboyant marquees. See this article on our site for more.

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