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On a sunlit Friday evening in late summer, Hyde Park in London hums with history. There are cars, for sure, but it is the souls sprawled under the trees, the swans on the lake and the lonely swimmer in the lido who feel like the true residents. In the distance, tennis balls thump out a tempo for the failing light.
It takes a bold woman to mess with this centuries-old landscape. But Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, has done it not once but twice. The first time was in 2000, when she commissioned Zaha Hadid to design a pavilion in which to stage the gallery’s annual gala. Hadid’s structure proved so unexpectedly popular that it led to an annual cycle of commissioned utopian structures, each by a different architect, making the park a magnet for lovers of cutting-edge architecture every summer.
Unlike these temporary pavilions, however, Peyton-Jones’s latest gamble is irreversible. On September 27, the Serpentine will unveil a permanent new offshoot, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, in The Magazine, a former artillery store built in 1805 when Britain feared a Napoleonic invasion. Standing just a few minutes’ walk from the existing gallery, The Magazine was an unassuming neoclassical affair that was as much part of the scenery as the trees that are its backdrop.
Not any more. Soon, the presence of a veritable tsunami surfing out of the western flank of the gunpowder warehouse will ensure that those passing along West Carriage Drive will do a double-take. Those flowing waves – the roof of the new extension that will house the Serpentine’s restaurant and social space – lap over undulating glass walls and swoop down into the interior through four sinuous white chutes with glass skylights. Zaha Hadid, the mistress of the curve, is back in town and this time she has come to stay.
“We have been looking at [The Magazine] for 15 years,” says Peyton-Jones, pouring me the first of many cups of green tea in a small side room of the main building, which has also been renovated by Hadid’s practice.
“The chairman of the trustees, Lord Palumbo, set me a challenge to keep asking the Royal Parks [the building’s owners], ‘What are you doing with it?’. They kept saying that they had no plans for it and we didn’t actually hear [that it was up for tender] until quite far down the process.”
Peyton-Jones knew there was no time to waste. “To do an expansion in the Royal Parks is nearly impossible,” she says. (Later, she will tactfully describe her landlords as “exigent”.)
Few will be surprised that she pulled it off. At the helm of the Serpentine since 1991, when she left the Hayward Gallery, Peyton-Jones has presided over a success story that has encompassed a £4m renovation in 1998 and has seen visitor numbers balloon from 250,000 to 800,000.
A sculpted, blue-eyed beauty in an elegant black trouser suit set off by gold jewellery, Peyton-Jones is renowned as a networker extraordinaire. The Serpentine summer parties are famous for their A-List line-up, with this year’s event featuring Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Sarah Jessica Parker. Her greatest coup was to secure Diana, Princess of Wales, as patron in the 1990s. Asked how she did it, she giggles: “She was a neighbour, we were in her garden!”
Such illustrious connections have helped to ensure that the Serpentine, at £2.26 per visitor, has one of the lowest ratios of public subsidy for any arts organisation in England.
Yet Peyton-Jones is also a curator through and through. Trained as a painter, she moved sideways in 1988 when the Hayward offered her a position. “I asked myself, ‘What did I feel my contribution would be [to art] in 20 years’ time?’ And this felt like a wonderful opportunity.”
Behind her success in piloting the pint-sized Serpentine to become the sixth most visited public art institution in London lies a gift for conceiving exhibitions as an architectural event as much as an artistic display. Asked to describe her vision, she highlights “a sensitivity to the surroundings and the work that will be displayed” before instantly turning to the temporary pavilions.
“The whole pavilion brief comes from modelling and presenting exhibitions. It says the Serpentine’s role is to enable the architect to realise their vision and push the boundaries of their work. We want them to conceive something that will confound their expectations and ours.”
Architecture, she says, is one of the passions she shares with Hans Ulrich Obrist, her co-director. Having been introduced by the sculptor Richard Wentworth, then a Serpentine trustee, the pair “reconnected” at a lecture at the Courtauld. “After dinner, we shared a taxi. One of our great public institutions was offering the role of the director and we were giggling about it and saying who would do such an impossible job? It started a conversation that went on for more than a year about the role of the public institution, which eventually ended up with me thinking, ‘This is ridiculous. We are talking every single day; the conversation is completely fascinating; why the hell aren’t we working together?’ ”
The creation of the Sackler has channelled both her curatorial and commercial talents. Funds were assembled thanks to the largest donation in the gallery’s history from the foundation started by Mortimer Sackler, a pharmaceuticals tycoon and cultural philanthropist. A significant amount was also received from longtime Serpentine sponsor Bloomberg. The gallery won’t be drawn on the exact figures of the donations but the Sackler cost £14.5m to build.
Hadid was chosen, says Peyton-Jones, because she is “resolutely contemporary. Of the time and of the future.” Lest anyone think she plucked the most famous, British-based name available, it is worth noting that Peyton-Jones first approached Hadid in the mid-1990s to design the Serpentine’s tiny, temporary bookshop on Warren Street. Ultimately the space proved too small to negotiate but Peyton-Jones’s eye for a future star is noteworthy.
Having acquired the precious Hyde Park extension, the challenge is to use it wisely. Paradoxically, Peyton-Jones believes her institution’s greatest virtue is its diminutive proportions.
“I used to be tortured by the fact that people said the Serpentine was small,” she admits. “But now I love it. You have to use every square inch. You have to think very laterally about how to keep your programmes fresh when you don’t have space to help you.
“If we had been a larger institution, I wonder if we would ever have come up with the idea of the pavilion? Would we ever have been compelled to commission Zaha to do this new building? The scale forces invention in a way that’s very interesting.”
What is essential is that the expansion does not dilute the distilled intensity that has characterised exhibitions at the Serpentine since it opened in 1970.
For Peyton-Jones, “making a connection between the two sites” was vital. The most concrete strategy is the Bridge Commission, for which international writers pen a short story that takes exactly seven minutes, the time it takes to walk from one gallery to another. (Visitors will listen on audio-sets.) “The idea is that they will create an overview of contemporary writing so it’s similar to a group exhibition of artists.”
That multidisciplinary element will be a feature of the new enterprise. “In almost every case, the artists we are working with are exploring other forms. For Adrián Villar Rojas [the artist whose show opens the Sackler], literature is very important. For the Chapman brothers, who follow him, it’s music and writing.”
Visitors can also expect synergy between the exhibitions. The two opening shows promise a touching juxtaposition between two very different sculptors, the Italian Arte Povera exponent Marisa Merz, now in her seventies and known for delicate yet deliberate explorations of fabric and metal, and Villar Rojas, a 32-year-old Argentine whose titanic clay monuments catapulted him to fame at the Venice Biennale in 2011.
Though Peyton-Jones asked me to keep details of Villar Rojas’s project under wraps, I can say that not only has he produced one of the most moving contemporary sculptures I have seen, he has also performed a breathtaking architectural tango with the new space.
There could be no finer response to a curator who applauds artists for their capacity to “keep the wonder at the world around them. Keep the innocence.”