A nurturer of architectural vision who has made architecture available to many
Julia Peyton-Jones’ interest in architecture began when she studied at the Royal College of Art. ‘When I went to art school I was very fascinated with building sites.’ Her words are, as usual, enunciated with brisk clarity. But there’s an insistently jabbing, high-pitched sound in the background. It’s her beloved terrier, Charlie, chewing obsessively on a squeaky rubber ball. Peyton-Jones is undeflected from her recollection. ‘The grid, the scaffolding, the way buildings were protected, the form they took. I did a series of collages that explored this idea of layering grids.’
At that early artistic moment, the young student could not have imagined that she might become the co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, or that her interest in building sites would return, snapping into sharp focus as she commissioned Zaha Hadid to design the Serpentine’s first summer pavilion in 2000 – the first in a series of commissions that have made her a significant patron of architecture designed by great, and up-and-coming, architects.
Serpentine pavilions 01
Source: 2000, Helene Binet; 2001-03, Sylvain Deleu
‘I think good ideas don’t all arrive fully baked,’ she explains. ‘So when we renovated the gallery in 1998 [a £4m project by John Miller + Partners], the completion followed the end of the sponsorship of the Serpentine’s summer party by Vanity Fair. The answer was to set another question: how could we turn this disadvantage into something new; let’s start right from the beginning and imagine what we’d do with a clean sheet of paper. Hadid’s pavilion celebrated the 30th birthday of the gallery, and it was a complete counter-proposal. No marquee, no flowers. It stood resolutely. It was about now.’
At that point, the idea for a design-commissioned pavilion seemed ambiguous: radical, yet also an à-la-mode novelty – and nobody, including Peyton-Jones, knew that the summer pavilions could become a programmed annual series until 2002, when Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond’s 3D algorithm took shape and created the distinct sense of an established event.
‘Nobody, including Peyton-Jones, knew that the summer pavilions could become a programmed annual series’
Since then, a procession of the world’s most interesting architects have produced pavilions on the small plot of greensward 20 steps east of the gallery. ‘It’s unbelievably difficult choosing an architect,’ she says. ‘We talk about it through the year, we make shortlists, we refine them.’ Two of Ada Louise Huxtable’s favourite designers, Alvaro Siza and Frank Gehry, have been among the pavilionistas.
There has been an extraordinary range of architectural structures, and their temporary existences over the summer seasons have added to the brilliant potency of many of them, in a variety of ways: sensually polemical in the case of Jean Nouvel’s giant red flaps; there, but not there, as in SANAA’s and Sou Fujimoto’s ethereal structures; Peter Zumthor’s Zen enclosure – much less is more? Or more of less? And Oscar Niemeyer’s beautiful sketch, done with a felt-tip at his small stand-up drawing board in Rio, coming to exquisite life in Hyde Park.
Serpentine pavilions 02
Source: 2005, Sylvain Deleu; 2006-07, John Offenbach
Peyton-Jones loves the fact that the pavilions provoke debate, and the 15 small, necessarily lightweight designs to date have certainly exposed their architects to unusually naked examinations; a few of them have not been entirely seductive. Was Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei too bland, physically? Was Daniel Libeskind’s glinting metal crumple-zone convivial, or an outdoor geometry A-Level practical? And wasn’t Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen’s spiral simply an overwrought belvedere?
‘In the early days, from 2000 to 2006, the selections were mine,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘After that, with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, his shared fascination with architecture has been significant.’ It’s a fascination that stands apart from her primary immersions in art as events and education, a commitment to programmes of modern and contemporary artwork sits alongside a personal interest in historic art: her favourite painting is Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. ‘I’m interested in anything that makes me look at the world in a different way,’ says Peyton-Jones. Her encounter in 2006 with Oscar Niemeyer, and Brazil, was pivotal to her understanding of architectural possibilities. ‘Meeting Oscar was an immense privilege. I found Brazil entirely comfortable, and it made me see things differently.’
Serpentine pavilions 03
Source: 2008, 2011, John Offenbach; 2009, James Newton; 2010, Philippe Rualt
Her selection strategy for the pavilion architects is nominally simple: they’re picked either because their work expresses facets of the current zeitgeist, or because he or she is an established architect great whose work can be subjected to unusually compact re-examination.
‘That heightened awareness is incredibly exciting,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘And in a modest way, I hope we’ve made a contribution to the narrative of architecture.’ She admits to putting the pavilion architects under ‘unconscionable pressure’ – though not in the case of Siza. I recall watching him sketch her profile surreptitiously in Porto as she discussed aspects of the design with him and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
‘Migration, the catastrophe being played out in Europe before our very eyes: architects have opportunities to address issues like these in a more practical way than artists’
‘It’s all about how we live now,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘Migration, the catastrophe being played out in Europe before our very eyes. Architects have opportunities to address issues like these in a more practical way than artists. When push comes to shove, architects can change the world. So can art, but in a non-functional way.’
Art, of course, is non-functionally magnetic in a way that most architecture is not: the Serpentine Galleries attracted nearly a million visitors last year, though Fujimoto’s pavilion proved architecture’s potential pulling power: 300,000 people went to see it.
Peyton-Jones notes that ‘artists are making architecture, and architects are making art. This fluidity is very much of our time. The understanding of three-dimensional space is not limited to architects.’ But she insists that art and architecture are quite different.
Serpentine pavilions 04
Source: 2012, 2013, Iwan Baan; 2014, 2015, John Offenbach
Huxtable had a slightly different take. In a 1995 essay, she said the best architecture ‘engages and reveals necessity and beauty in the visual language of our time. There are architects today creating buildings on the edge of this extraordinary art. That this can happen in a culture of the transient, the shoddy and the unreal, deserves recognition and celebration.’
Ada Louise Huxtable also said this: ‘What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.’ Julia Peyton-Jones has added to this important wonderment vividly, and in a uniquely public way.
The judges praised Peyton-Jones’ incredible global impact achieved with limited resources, and as someone who has done so much to nurture architectural vision. She has made architecture available to many.
Director of the Serpentine Galleries; inaugurated the annual Serpentine Pavilions; oversaw the expansion of the Serpentine into The Sackler Gallery; AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award