The 8th July 2016 will mark the end of Julia Peyton-Jones’ reign as the director of the Serpentine Galleries, a position she has held for 25 years. A keen advocate of ‘art for all’, her work has tirelessly ensured that admission to the gallery and its exhibits have remained free. But one of her strongest legacies, borne out of this endeavour to bring all forms of contemporary art within easy reach to the public, is undoubtedly the Serpentine Pavilion.
It’s become an annual event, not just in the world of art but in the cultural calendar of London, since 2000. Every year, an architect from abroad is commissioned to design a pavilion to be built and displayed on the lawn opposite the gallery between June and October. The first pavilion was designed by Dame Zaha Hadid when Peyton-Jones requested a temporary construction to honour the annual fund-raising summer party – and it’s become a regular fixture ever since.
From the futuristic to the avant-garde, the designs over the last seventeen years have comprised a diversity of artistic talents and outlooks. This year’s structure, Bjarke Ingels’ ‘unzipped wall’, transforms a straight line into a three-dimensional space. In 2013, Sou Fujimoto’s ‘cloud pavilion’, made out of thin white steel bars, attempted to blur the boundary between architecture and nature. In 2009, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa created an ephemeral metal roof sat on delicate columns to resemble a floating pool of water.
The project is underscored by two key initiatives. One is to provide the opportunity for international architects to showcase their work in London; they are only eligible to be chosen if they have never previously built in Britain. This has enabled lesser known artists and architects to build a stronger profile internationally and simultaneously enrich London’s own creative scene.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s helped make architecture a much more accessible form of art. In the form of any traditional art exhibit, the annual pavilion has brought contemporary architecture into the mainstream, helping to make it high-profile, instant, and above all, fun. Last year’s structure by Spanish architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano, a psychedelic chrysalis made out of multi-coloured polymer, was designed with photogenic purpose for the Instagram generation.
Growing each year in scope and status, the result of this pavilion programme has been to explore and assert the field of architecture within the remit of contemporary art. It’s both provoked and added to the conversation about what defines art, and this is testament to the constant reinvention of styles and evolution of ideas. ‘There should be no end to experimentation’ says Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Galleries, quoting the late Dame Zaha Hadid – and indeed there hasn’t been.
And even after the departure of Peyton-Jones, whose artistic vision will long seem inseparable from the Galleries she has nurtured for the last quarter of a century, the pavilion looks set to remain an enduring presence. This year saw the introduction of four summer houses by four different architects, each inspired by the nearby Queen Caroline’s temple, a classical style summer house built in 1734 – proof of the programme’s ever-high potential for development.
‘I hope we’ve made a contribution to the narrative of architecture,’ says Julia Peyton-Jones. With the undeniable impact the Serpentine Pavilion has had in this area of art, she’s speaking modestly. One already wonders what creative feats their predecessors will have in line for next year – and in what direction they’ll drive the next part of the narrative.
All images copyright the Serpentine Galleries