by MICHAEL SPENS
To be known as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, after Dr Mortimer Sackler and his wife Theresa, the prime sponsors (together with long-term Serpentine supporters Bloomberg Philanthropies), in business terms it looks set to transform the galleries’ operation. Dr Mortimer Sackler, who died in 2010, was the youngest of three brothers, one of whom, the famed philanthropist the late Dr Arthur M Sackler, with his wife Dame Jill Sackler, transformed the Royal Academy in the 1980s with the brilliantly designed Sackler Wing by Norman Foster. Now the Serpentine Sackler Gallery created in Hyde Park close to the Serpentine Lake, and directed by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, have ably negotiated and surmounted numerous obstacles. Building anew in a Royal Park is one: retaining an existing listed brick munitions block (c 1805) rumoured to have had the hand of architect Decimus Burton, was another. Meticulous restoration of the latter was mandatory. That work was carried out primarily by architect Liam O’Connor, with Julian Harrap, a proficient classicist, who must have relished the Doric columns. It entailed the conversion of two massively arched brick-vaulted gunpowder magazines with the extant peripheral courtyard space to be enclosed. That restoration constitutes the new gallery volume now provided. This part still boasts the Napoleonic wars subterfuge of a gunpowder magazine qua Palladian “villa” c 1805. To the surprise of some, the new extension by architect Zaha Hadid does not itself provide exhibition space, but promotes it. Dramatically, romantically “plopped in”, yet leaning with its edge casually on the pre-existing block, it seems thus to have just only now arrived. Hadid had promised to design a “fantastic” space. It has to be the most dramatic “arts-eatery” in the burgeoning London art scene, given its prime location as a diner in the park. The star chef who will feature here bears almost as much responsibility as a curator for the financial future of these Serpentine Galleries. The daytime profile of this advent (appropriately) resembles a large white table napkin carefully flourished for the menu. This gives astute recognition of the gallery-driven museum restaurant/cafeteria craze now sweeping London.
Hadid offered the right shot in the arm for this patient. She claimed she would design a fantastic piece of architecture. Usefully, for all the right reasons, she has had a long and creative association with the Serpentine Gallery: initially as designer of the first summer pavilion (one of the best); second, as a long-term trustee over several years. As protocol required, she stood down “at arm’s length” from the board when the decision to select an architect was made. When appointed as architect for the new project (from a shortlist of one), Hadid was able to modify the brief to respect a “classical” architectural mode in which to handle the rendering of the historic munitions store. She is even reported to have reduced her own firm’s scale fee to below £400,000, a substantial reduction, even allowing for fellow architect O’Connor’s work alongside, on the 900 sq metres munitions space gallery conversion. Hadid’s new building, which abuts this, is, after all, purely a restaurant and social events space. But that surprisingly, is the key, the missing link to this whole venture, bringing the Serpentine Gallery into line with museums and galleries across London, in a new age of indulgent art-fancying, spinning, and necessary refreshment for the consumer.
That dramatic, curvaceous, thinly structured membrane – dazzling snow-white by day, lusciously pink, almost crustacean, when bathed in its special evening light (thus uniting with the pink brick galleries) – is gob-smacking, but it does not always meet close scrutiny. It is, indeed, Hadid’s first permanently rooted tensile structure, ingeniously derived, the five sculptural columns structurally support this roof skin, collaborating with three point loads from the steel ladder that bring the weight of the roof structure down to ground zero. With all this, there are some elements of “ad hocism” successfully deployed. Technically, there are perceptible jointing problems with the membrane-like cladding that deny the real seamlessness sought for, and then there is the age-old problem of rainwater flow and site disposal, such as autumn leaves, pigeon droppings, as well as litter. The Great White, as it might be called, is actually closed in, with the peripheral glazing to the restaurant impenetrably sealed from the park breezes. Internally, the five vertical sculptural light scoops act as ingenious rooflights, diving to floor level. At night, the whole curvaceous profile is both seductive and fantastic in the Hadid mode, beckoning inwards: kisses – küssen blown towards those kerb-crawling art-lovers transfixedly driving slowly past. Perhaps as the evening lingers, what seem to be massive lipsticked lips will draw in passing trade, or reassure those with booked tables: if the place is not fully booked as expected. After an evening opening at the main gallery, the staff will need to persuade the select minority to amble down a five-minute walk to fulfil the transition, glass in one hand, perhaps, and audio-aids in the other.
And yet what of the green park landscape, so cherished here in central London? This is visible, but sealed off, by day or night. It is hard to imagine that Peyton-Jones and Obrist do not have a longer-range policy-decision to embrace this Serpentine-side “campus”.
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery had already stolen a march on Frieze Week, opening well ahead. In this cosmic London art scene, you can’t pitch wrong, or you’re out. What other strands of the art world does Hadid’s crowd-pulling signature edifice reach? One ever-present sentiment of this still burgeoning London art market and its vibrant art scene is nostalgia. Some critics have commented on the way in which even the 1950s, as well as the 60s, 70s and 80s, are evoked here in mood: indeed, to some, this new building appears to echo that old feeling of world fairs of the time, say the Festival of Britain, or the Brussels World Fair of l958, or later Venice Biennalia strewn with architectural gestures. Yet what is clear is that this singular, emblematic White Blob can pull many chords, as well as “Bon Appétit”. Unwrap the white napkin and enjoy.
To compete, needs must. Such is the expansion and the growth of both the London art market and parallel exhibition gallery activity that a smaller institution such as the Serpentine Gallery, offering many free-access public exhibitions (as a registered charity), has to rely, like major galleries, on the profit element in the provision of restaurant facilities of a high order. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery represents the recognition by all concerned that art has become a vital combined cultural and leisure activity – hence the necessity to capitalise on the opportunity offered by a superb parkside spot.
The arrival of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in its enviable location in central London comes as a clear marker for the effects of the broader cultural boom sweeping across the city. The phenomenal buoyancy of this trend, including the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern and the Royal Academy, predicates London’s unique position as the leading global art centre, a touristic and cultural nucleus with no immediate reference, for example, to the indigenous local day-to-day art schools and their agendas. Artists, “starchitects”, entrepreneurs (some of whom might also be artists like Damien Hirst), global supercollectors and a new breed of “art journalists” and “curators” (no longer involving intellectually-driven critics) collectively inflate and extend via the media the seamless bubble of London’s art world. All this is seemingly unaffected by the dodgy banking predicament of this nation of all nations. Art floats supreme, with its own economic essence, largely configured offshore.