The Serpentines New Pavilion Launch: the Party That Draws Everyone From Kate Moss to Sir Mick Jagger

There’s a running joke, Julia Peyton-Jones tells me, between her and the architect Cecil Balmond. In the early days of the Serpentine pavilions, just as it was about to open, she would call him up in a panic. “As vice-chairman of Arup in those days, Cecil was our key collaborator. I’d ring him up and say, ‘Cecil. It’s not going to work. We’ve got a really big problem. I know I’ve said it before. I know I said it last year. But this time it’s really, really, really impossible. We’re not going to get the thing open’.” It’s that crucial time once again when Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine Gallery’s 63-year-old director, might well be on the blower to Balmond if he were still on board, as she and her “incredible band of foot soldiers” prepare to open the 15th annual summer pavilion.

Talking to her in the Serpentine Gallery’s boardroom, I sense mild panic beneath her cool exterior as she sends her head of media relations off in search of her lost handbag. “I feel bereft without it and need my hankie,” she says. He returns 10 minutes later clutching it. She’d left it in the boot of her Mini. “The thing is,” she explains, pouring herself a cup of green tea, “the pavilion is so all-consuming that when you’re in the middle of it you can’t think of anything else, except the now. And then, when it’s opened, there’s such a sense of relief and celebration.”

This year’s pavilion is a “playful”, chrysalis-like polygonal tunnel wrapped in “very unpretentious”, rainbow-coloured webbing by Spanish architects SelgasCano, a Madrid-based husband and wife team who are known for their love of synthetic materials and colour.

How does Peyton-Jones choose them? “It’s incredibly serious and difficult. We have a list and we add people. We ask our peers, colleagues and past pavilion architects. Some names have been on the list since 2002. We often think we’ve made the decision but then we go back.” The final decision is made by her, co-director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and head of programming Jochen Volz. There are then six months between commission and completion. Does anyone ever turn them down? “Hopefully they’ll say yes but once someone — I can’t say who — said no. We asked them another year and they said yes.”

This year, Peyton-Jones’s persuasive charm has also secured the platinum-plated sponsorship of Goldman Sachs. She credits Michael Bloomberg, “a titan” and the gallery’s chairman since January 2014. He has told her he wants to make the Serpentine “the best museum in the world”. In fact, Peyton-Jones and Obrist have just come back from giving a talk at the investment bankers’ swishy Fleet Street offices.

“It was thrilling. You read about what they do as a business and how they’re making millions of pounds, and indeed when you go there the whole organisation purrs like a Rolls-Royce; everything is delicious. You think you’d like some tea and by magic it appears. And can you imagine walking into the lobby, where they’ve got big posters up of all 14 previous pavilions? It makes me weep for joy.” Obrist, she says, “who works on a 24-hour clock so his week is 14 days whereas mine is seven”, became so excited that he almost fainted. Does he often faint? “Yes, very occasionally he does. It’s another running joke,” she says.

Peyton-Jones’s ambition, to grow what started in 2000 as a temporary tent for the gallery’s annual party on a budget of £100,000 (admittedly designed by Zaha Hadid) into a world-famous institution, has been fully realised. “I and my team have commissioned some of the greatest architects of all time,” she says, referring to Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind, Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Noovel, to name just a few past pavilion starchitects who, in keeping with pavilion rules, had never before constructed a building in England. They are paid only a “modest stipend and expenses” and must adhere to a budget. When architects MVRDV overshot it in 2004, the entire project had to be cancelled. Then there was the time when Sou Fujimoto came all the way from Japan to meet Peyton-Jones without knowing why. “We had a meeting and after 45 minutes I said ‘Well, you’d better see the site’, and he, in a wonderful Japanese way, just blinked at me and said, ‘Why have you invited me here?’ I said ‘This is ridiculous. We’re inviting you to do the pavilion.’ We’d sent him the letter and he’d either not read it or misread it. But the end result was beautiful.”

After four months up, the pavilions are sold, usually to private buyers, which recoups up to 40 per cent of the costs. “There’s only one buyer every year and they buy before they know they can get planning permission, so it’s an incredible leap of faith.” There is also the annual summer party — a fundraiser which Peyton-Jones has engineered into becoming London’s tip-top social event of the season. Eight hundred guests eagerly fork out £375 a head to schmooze in the heart of Kensington Gardens with A-listers, from Kate Moss and Mick Jagger to Princess Beatrice and Sir Salman Rushdie.

This year Christopher Kane co-hosts and guests can expect ultra-luscious goodie bags courtesy of co-sponsors Nars and Godiva Chocolates. Could I buy a ticket? “You could,” replies Peyton-Jones, “absolutely. There is only one teensy-weensy problem, which is that we are over-sold. We have all our supporters and sponsors, so it’s quite complicated.”

Peyton-Jones, who reminds me of a glamorous head girl, refuses to acknowledge her reputation as a networker extraordinaire. “I don’t recognize myself in that description. One of the things that comes with the job is building audiences and we work with an incredibly broad range of people, from the disenfranchised of society to the billionaires who support our programme.”

The former art student — she studied painting at the Royal College of Art — taught at Edinburgh College of Art and was a curator at the Hayward before joining the Serpentine in 1991. She says she was not brought up to be ambitious, nor was she academic at school. “I come from a generation where the role of women was very unclear; being a secretary was considered a great idea, and indeed it’s a very honourable profession.” What changed her life was discovering that she is dyslexic. “I only found out very late, when I was 42. I was listening to a report on The Today Programme and thought ‘that’s me’. I got tested and of course it was terrific. It explained everything.”

It can’t be a coincidence that the discovery came as she was making her mark at the Serpentine. “To come out of that not being very good at things to really finding what you love most is just the greatest thing. I feel very privileged. It’s a little miracle for me, and a miracle that continues being miraculous.”

With that, Peyton-Jones gets up to leave. She’s got a dinner with one of the trustees and a 7am flight to Moscow for the opening of Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum, designed by Koolhaas, in Gorky Park. Most pressingly of all, though, is her other little miracle — a Jack Russell called Charlotte, which is sitting outside waiting for her.


The Serpentine Pavilion 2015 is at the Serpentine Gallery, W2 (020 7402 6075, serpentinegalleries.org) from June 25-Oct 18

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