Over 1,200 employees were asked to nominate one person they thought should be recognised for his or her services to architecture - most named Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones
‘In a way we are everyman,’ says Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones. ‘We are a normal client. No more or less.’
This is not quite true. The ‘bold…networker extraordinaire’, as the Financial Times described her, has pioneered an attention-grabbing architectural programme like no other in the world.
Started in 2000, the annual commission of a Serpentine Gallery Pavilion - a trailblazing series of temporary structures, which gave English building debuts to a raft of stars from Rem Koolhaas to Peter Zumthor - has become a landmark event for the arts world, the profession and London.
The reach of the pavilion remains huge. Images of the temporary structure are even used as the backdrop on the London news.
Peyton-Jones, an art curator who studied at the RCA and lectured in fine art before joining the Kensington Gardens-based gallery in 1991, is clearly playing down her role. Commissioning architects may not be her day-to-day business, but her ‘non-professional’ team has repeatedly managed to create magical one-offs that engage everyone from London cabbies to the intelligentsia.
‘Peter Rogers (of developer Lipton Rogers) once described us as amateurs - which slightly hurt at the time,’ she says. ‘But the point is that you don’t need to be rich and very knowledgeable to commission architects and architecture.’
She adds: ‘We have a small piece of land - the grass in front of the gallery - we are not professionals and we have no budget, until fundraising starts. But if we didn’t have an annual project, something wouldn’t feel quite right.’
As well as the pavilion, Peyton-Jones has overseen the revamp of the Gallery itself and the £14.5 million conversion of the Grade II-listed Magazine store into the new Sackler Gallery - a scheme designed by long-term collaborator Zaha Hadid.
Peyton-Jones met Hadid in 1994 after inviting her to look at redesigning a small space in Warren Street. That didn’t come off, but Hadid was later brought in to design the first of the temporary pavilions. ‘Even then I was in no doubt she was of enormous significance as an architect, artist and person,’ she says.
So did she help catapult Zaha Hadid’s practice, now ranked among the top 20 largest in the UK, onto a global market? ‘It is always good to be modest in claiming these things,’ she says. ‘I’m sure Zaha would have a very strong view if I did say that.’
The pavilion programme has not all been plain sailing, though Peyton-Jones won’t point fingers at any particular spats, demands by ‘architectural titans’ or disasters.
However, the 62-year-old recalls how she was once teased by Cecil Balmond, engineer and early collaborator on the pavilions, about her annual frustrations.
‘Every year, as things got tense I’d ring him up and say: “Cecil, it really is serious this time. You’ve got to do something!” After he recounted that at [a party] I promised never to say it again.’
Despite the problems, including heavy rain, which once badly hampered building work, Peyton-Jones says she has never given up hope the structures would be built or were ultimately worth it.
‘The pavilions have been inspiring and wonderful and they have always opened when we said they would. They are really “architecture for all”, to rephrase Gilbert & George’s maxim. It is about bringing architecture to the public. People treat them as a home. They are very democratic spaces.’
According to Peyton-Jones, for three or four months the pavilion ‘is the most used structure in the city’ and is open from dawn to when the park closes.
So which of the 14 pavilions to date has been her favourite? Clearly this is not the first time she has been asked this. She sidesteps it neatly: ‘Whenever this question arises I always answer “the pavilion I am working on”. It is the most fascinating because I am completely immersed in it.
‘To do it every year is a huge effort, especially given that the team delivering it is incredibly, incredibly small.
‘Taking this giant leap of faith means the current project becomes all consuming.’
So will she ever tire of it and does the pavilion programme still have legs?
‘As long as there are interesting architects who have an interest in the scheme and are willing to accept the commission, it has longevity. The programme may change and develop and that is normal. But I can’t see why it can’t run for the foreseeable future.
‘I’m deeply committed and fascinated by it.’
Yet, despite her achievements, news of the AJ100’s Contribution to the Profession award comes as a shock. ‘I don’t think the penny has dropped yet,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘Next year is our 15th anniversary of the pavilions and to receive this is marvelous. People always say this, but it is a huge honour.’