Julia Peyton-Jones

The director of the Serpentine Gallery says the programme of summer pavilions by guest architects – that has seen work by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel among others – was a stroke of good fortune, reports Jamie Mitchell

Commissioning an architect for the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer pavilion sounds like a tall order. For one thing there’s no budget, and the tight deadline (the chosen architect has just a three months to come up with a design) ought to make even the most industrious designer think twice. There’s also the stricture that the chosen architect or practice must never have completed a building in the UK before (though this has been narrowed down England and even London before now).

But when I ask the gallery’s charismatic director Julia Peyton-Jones if finding a willing architect has ever been a problem her answer is an unequivocal ‘no’.

What, never? ‘Well, there was one who turned us down, but he came back and did it another year,’ she says.

‘The process is pretty simple,’ explains Peyton-Jones. ‘We approach the architect and ask them if they’d like to design our summer pavilion. Some say yes right away; others wonder why it took us so long to ask them.’

It is testament to the Serpentine Gallery’s reputation, and to that of Peyton-Jones, its director for 20 years, that high-calibre architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel practically queue up for the honour.

This year it’s the turn of Pritzker Prizewinner Peter Zumthor to design the gallery’s pavilion, the 11th. The Swiss architect has created a hortus conclusus, a walled garden inspired by the gallery’s bucolic setting in London’s Kensington Gardens. It will, says Peyton-Jones, be a place for quiet reflection and contemplation and will have a specially created garden by Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf in addition to the kind ofsumptuous materials that are a hallmark of Zumthor’s work.

Since the first summer pavilion, designed by Zaha Hadid, appeared on the gallery’s lawn in 2000, the yearly programme has become one of the best-attended exhibitions of architecture in the world, regularly drawing up to 250,000 visitors – beating the Venice Biennale hands down. Amazingly, though, it would never have happened without a touch of serendipity. The first pavilion, built to house a gala dinner for the gallery’s 30th anniversary, was only supposed to be up for 10 days but Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for culture, media and sport, was so taken with Hadid’s stylised marquee that he persuaded the Royal Parks to allow it to stay in place all summer. ‘That intervention changed everything,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘Without him [Smith], the Royal Parks would never have allowed it.’

It’s hard to imagine the Serpentine without Peyton-Jones. In 20 years as director she has transformed it from the poor sister of London’s Hayward Gallery into a worldrenowned showcase of contemporary art, design and architecture. Despite being described by gallery trustee Colin Tweedy as the Mrs Thatcher of contemporary arts (because ‘she can handbag anybody’), what’s most striking when I talk to Peyton-Jones is her passion for making the best contemporary art and design available to the public. The gallery has never charged an entrance fee, meaning that Peyton-Jones and her team, including co-director Ulrich Obrist, have the herculean talk of raising almost all of its funding through sponsorship and philanthropy.

But Peyton-Jones obviously enjoys a challenge. Her latest involved securing funding for a new sister gallery, called the Serpentine Sackler, to be located in a Grade II listed building a stone’s throw from the main gallery. With funding from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, an education charity, Peyton-Jones and her team saw off rival bids including one by Damien Hirst, who had wanted to display his collection of work by other artists there.

Zaha Hadid will totally renovate the building, built in 1805 to store munitions, into a gallery devoted to work by emerging artists. The design will include an adjoining pavilion to be used as a social space and restaurant, creating what the gallery describes as ‘a permanent architectural landmark’. It is, says Peyton-Jones, ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’.

Modern and contemporary fine art is Peyton-Jones’s first love. She studied painting at the RCA and made a career of it for almost a decade before becoming a curator at the Hayward Gallery. She doesn’t remember having a huge interest in architecture in her student days, though she has now embraced the summer pavilion programme in a way that seems almost maternal: asked to pick a favourite, she’s as diplomatic as a mother asked to choose her favourite child: ‘Each pavilion has its own character and it’s only when I begin to talk about them that I remember these little snapshots – what was difficult; what was pleasurable; how we resolved certain situations. I always feel a huge amount of affinity for the pavilion I’m working on at the time, because we all put in such a huge amount of effort.’

The Serpentine’s involvement in the design and execution of each pavilion is huge, but the gallery also has plenty of support. ‘It’s a team effort,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘All for one and one for all, and we couldn’t do that without a huge amount of goodwill from many loyal supporters.’

Engineering company Arup has been involved since the beginning, with its deputy chairman Cecil Balmond taking on the role of co-designer on many occasions. Mace, the company that built the London Eye, has been project manager each year, and Peter Rogers, founder of construction and development company Stanhope, and brother of Richard Rogers, has been invaluable in his role as ‘fixer’.

‘We’re also hugely grateful to the architects who take on the project,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘We’re all under the cosh with this, and the architects always put in an enormous amount of time and effort.’

So star architects like Hadid don’t just dash off a quick sketch and then leave the hard work to their design teams? Absolutely not, says Peyton-Jones. ‘There’s no question of them handing over to a lead designer and then we never see them again. In almost all cases designing the pavilion has become their pet project.’ The formidable Julia Peyton-Jones, I gather, wouldn’t expect anything less.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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