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Use the Serpentine programme to support young British architects

Ellis Woodman

As public projects become increasingly reliant on private benefactors, there are alarming signs of a resistance to considering new talent, says Ellis Woodman

A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend who runs a practice on the Continent when he pulled out his iPhone and flashed up an image of his firm’s entry in the competition for next year’s Serpentine Pavilion. I confessed it was news to me that there even was a competition for the pavilion. Certainly, if there has been a competitive selection process in years past, the rejected contenders’ names have never been made public.

I told my friend how much I liked his project and that I thought he must be in with a good chance but was then even more surprised to be cautioned that, actually, the odds were slim, as his was one of 10 practices in contention. ‘Why bother?’ was my incredulous response. ‘It’s a glorified marquee and, even if you do win, you’re only going to lose money.’ ‘That is entirely true,’ he replied. ‘But it is a toehold. It puts us in good company.’

Looking through the names of the architects that have undertaken the commission over the programme’s 17-year history I had to concede he was right. With the exception of Daniel Libeskind and Snøhetta, every one of the architects who designed a pavilion during the programme’s first 12 years is now a Pritzker Prize winner. One suspects that those who have been enlisted in the five years since won’t have long to wait. 

The striking similarity between the two lists is perhaps not entirely coincidental as, for many years, the Serpentine Gallery’s trustees and the Pritzker Prize jury shared a chairman in the shape of Lord Peter Palumbo. I don’t claim to know to what extent Palumbo personally served as kingmaker, but he has certainly stood at the epicentre of a circle of influence that has defined architectural culture to an extraordinary extent in recent times.

It is now rare that a shortlist for a major US public commission includes an architect from outside a pool of 20 familiar names

If the Serpentine Pavilion represents a rite of passage for future Pritzker winners, the prize has, in turn, become a critical means of validating architects in the eyes of clients and philanthropists. Particularly in the United States, where public buildings of significant scale have long been reliant on the support of private benefactors, the appointment of an architect who comes with the Pritzker’s imprimatur is often seen as a necessary means of securing private funding.  It is now exceptionally rare that a shortlist for a major public commission in the US includes an architect from outside a pool of 20 familiar names. The fact that the larger part of that list comprises European architects remains a source of widespread frustration for their American colleagues.

British procurement culture – while hardly exemplary – has historically been more accommodating of untested talent. However, as a consequence of the reduction in public spending on capital projects and increasing reliance on private benefactors, there are alarming signs of a shift towards the American model. 

Only one of the 10 practices shortlisted for the recent UK Holocaust Memorial competition was under 20 years old, while the average age of the named directors of the firms invited to compete for the Centre for Music was a staggering 70. For better or worse, the tastes of the world’s Blavatniks, Sacklers and Sainsburys look set to define our public buildings to an increasing extent in the coming years. 

The key question for those of us further down the architectural food chain is how to educate them as to the breadth of younger talent and encourage them to extend their largesse towards practices that are not globally recognised brands. The Serpentine programme has a role to play in that effort but supporting young British practices has never been part of its remit. Perhaps this would be a good moment for that to change.

This column appeared in the Tech in the City issue


Readers' comments (4)

  • I share Ellis' concern at the lack of opportunity for young hungry practices to prove their skills on a public stage, but fear the Serpentine is now so far removed for it to be incongruous.

    Perhaps better is to promote the LFA's equivalent, the emerging architect focused Dulwich Picture Gallery pavilion, which was a huge success and no less of a stepping stone for the practices involved.

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  • Yes - this is a real problem, and operates at a number of levels in the profession. The ever increasing risk aversion that dominates procurement is stifling talent.

    The procurement process currently running for the refurbishment of the National Portrait Gallery asks applicants to provide examples of three national museum or gallery projects of over £20m in value, and an annual turnover of over £2m in order to be considered for the short list...

    Good job they didn't stipulate that for the Pompidou Centre, or even the Walsall Art Gallery for that matter...

    Great piece Ellis

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  • Every 2 summers several teams of my grad students work with local firms to design an alternate Serpentine Pavilion en charette for a day...none of them has won the Pritzker yet, but often pose salient critique of the standing pavilion. And they were blown away by the Dulwich last summer. I hope that it continues as a launch pad for young UK firms.

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  • Chris Roche

    The Serpentine Pavillion Series of "Projects" is rarely critical, and largely iconic, in it's most ironic sense. A vanity exercise for the metropolitan elite, which highlights the disconnect between the perceived role of the architect, and the actual value of the profession in solving emerging environmental and societal issues. It's past it's sell by date, and should be laid to rest.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04

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