Issue Number: 120
Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine, tells Ben Luke about its second space in Kensington Gardens.
My immediate response when I first see the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery on a sweltering summer afternoon is to gaze in wonder at Zaha Hadid RA’s stunning building. It is an extension to a 19th-century brick building, a former ammunition store located on a separate site from the original Serpentine Gallery, over the Serpentine Bridge in London’s Kensington Gardens. How has Hadid’s structure, with its shimmering white undulating roof and soaring lightwells within, been kept quiet until now?
Julia Peyton-Jones at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid RA. Photograph by Richard Dawson. Although Hadid’s extension is a restaurant space, it is also a place for cultural and social events, and one senses this dramatic light-filled structure will become a destination in its own right. The Academician has also transformed the older building into some of London’s most beautiful, flexible art spaces: a promenade of elegant daylit rooms, ideal for showing painting and sculpture, installation and performance.
I prise the Serpentine’s Director, Julia Peyton-Jones, away from the preparations for the building’s opening, and from her attempts to grab lunch (though it is well past lunchtime), to take a look at the new space itself. She describes Hadid’s restaurant as ‘a wonderful, glorious, swooping, dramatic space that is so completely part of Zaha’s language’. She reminds me that, in 2000, Hadid was the first architect to take on the annual summer pavilion commission, in which leading architects create startling temporary structures outside the original Serpentine building. These have proved one of the most eye-catching initiatives of Peyton-Jones’s 22-year tenure. ‘That pavilion from 2000 was much more angular, and although this new structure is all about curves, both share the idea of swooping up to the sky and touching the ground,’ she observes.
Along with Hans Ulrich Obrist, who codirects exhibitions and programmes at the gallery, and a small but dynamic team, Peyton-Jones will now double the amount of the gallery’s activities, and broaden them, too, to embrace other art forms such as dance and film. With admirable boldness they have commissioned Adrián Villar Rojas, a young Argentinian artist who makes atmospheric sculptural installations, to create the first show in the gallery, with new work made in response to the brick architecture of the space.
Peyton-Jones began her career as a painter, studying at the Royal College of Art in the 1970s, before becoming a curator and, after a stint at the Hayward Gallery, the Serpentine’s Director in 1991. A sense of experimentation permeates her activities at the gallery. ‘I think play, in the best and most constructive sense, is very much part of what these two buildings can do,’ she explains. ‘We can play with different art forms, we can play with different audiences, we can play with combinations, and we can play with our existing programmes, because the pavilion commission will continue.’
She is also proud that the gallery is still far from monumental. ‘We have got huge, powerful art institutions in this country, so in a modest way we are resolutely small. Hurray!’ she exclaims. ‘But we are in this fantastic context – the park is bigger in size than any of our great art institutions.’ Indeed, the Serpentine’s recent use of the Kensington Gardens itself to present sculptures by Anish Kapoor RA and Fischli & Weiss has shown that it can provide a stunning context for contemporary art.
Remarkably, the Serpentine has now existed for longer with Peyton-Jones at the helm than it has without her. The expansion project must give her a huge personal sense of pride. ‘Yes it does – it has been over four years in the making, it has been challenging, extremely interesting and the end result is terrific,’ she says. ‘However, it’s really a beginning. There have been 43 years of the Serpentine: that was the first chapter; this is the second chapter.’