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‘The Serpentine Pavilion is the ideal brief’

Serpentine Gallery directors Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist on this year’s pavilion

The AJ caught up with Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery and the mastermind behind the annual Serpentine Pavilion, and co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist during the build-up to the London gallery’s biggest event of the year.

On 12 July, the Serpentine Gallery will launch its ninth summer pavilion, this time designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Japanese architecture practice SANAA.

Since 2000, the gallery has commissioned an architect of international standing, one which has never completed a project in England, to design a temporary pavilion for its lawn in Kensington Gardens. The brief is to design a covered space that can be used as a café by day and a forum for learning, debate and entertainment at night. Each pavilion is sold to a private buyer at the end of the summer season.

There is no doubt that the current economic crisis has thrown such an event – which has no budget and is funded solely by sponsorship and the sale of the finished structure – into question. Yet Peyton-Jones is justifiably proud of her creation and remains adamant that a place exists for the Serpentine Pavilion.

‘Even in times of recession, the strength of the programme continues with same ambition. At a time when architects’ projects are being delayed and cancelled, I am delighted we are approaching this scheme with the same passion,’ she says.

‘We are very prudent, but we are continually optimistic. If we are able to put on SANAA’s pavilion in 2009, we remain happy for the future,’ adds Peyton-Jones.

SANAA was established in 1995 and the firm’s previous projects include a satellite gallery for the Louvre in Lens, France, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Early in her career, Sejima worked with Toyo Ito, the revered Japanese architect who designed the Serpentine Pavilion in 2002.

In contrast to previous pavilions, such as Rem Koolhaas’ inflatable dome in 2006 or Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen’s pointed structure in 2007, this year’s pavilion is barely enclosed. Sejima and Nishizawa’s design comprises an undulating aluminium sheet, which looks like a reflective cloud or a ‘floating pool of water’, suspended on top of 99 stainless steel columns.

According to Peyton-Jones, the architects’ respect for nature and their willingness to invite it into the design was key to their selection. ‘Very few galleries globally occupy this position of being located within a park,’ she says. ‘Both for the architect and the artist it is a very particular location, which we felt resonates with their specific language.

‘There is something about the use of aluminium and its shimmering presence that makes [this pavilion] appear
as if it’s hovering above the ground. Its reflective qualities, which reflect the sky, are very poetic and graphic,’ adds Peyton-Jones.

Describing their design, the architects say: ‘The reflective canopy undulates across the site, expanding the park and sky. Its appearance changes according to the weather, allowing it to melt into the surroundings. It works as a
field of activity with no walls, allowing uninterrupted views across the park and encouraging access from all sides.’

‘We don’t know how people will react, from the joggers in the morning to those looking for coffee or lunch,’ admits Obrist. ‘But the design encourages that sort of access.’

Peyton-Jones says that the shift to a more open design embracing the park was not a conscious decision. ‘The brief in principle is straightforward. Architects don’t have to worry about services, utilities, and so you could say it is almost the ideal brief. They are encouraged to carry out their own interpretation on the lawn of the Serpentine Gallery.

‘[Sejima and Nishizawa] chose to adopt an open design, which snakes across the lawn and is very much their vision,’ adds Peyton-Jones.

Obrist continues: ‘Each year provides different approaches in how to deal with the complexities of the park. Obviously they are aware of what has come before, but they have their own singularity. This year came up with a seamless movement.’

On the subject of a possible architect for next year’s pavilion, Peyton-Jones says they will need their ‘minds to clear’ before embarking on the task of identifying a designer. Invitations to selected firms are expected to go out before Christmas.

Obrist claims that they are receiving more interest in the project than ever. ‘It’s extremely exciting. We think it has only just begun. There are so many artists we are yet to work with – a whole new generation of architects – and we are very optimistic about the future. Each year it is a very difficult decision.’

Asked if the directors had a favourite pavilion from the past nine years of commissions, Obrist offers a diplomatic reply: ‘We love them all.’

A programme of public talks and events will take place in the Serpentine Pavilion this summer. Visit www.serpentinegallery.org for more information.

Previous pavilion architects

2008 Frank Gehry

2007Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

2006 Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond

2005 Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond

2004 MVRDV (unrealised)

2003 Oscar Niemeyer

2002 Toyo Ito

2001Daniel Libeskind

2000 Zaha Hadid

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