The big build up

How the Serpentine, with no funds, puts up world-class pavilions

Kensington Gardens. Helicopters whirr overhead. It’s May 1, and as anti-capitalist protest unfolds across the capital, a group of tourists pauses outside the Serpentine Gallery, in London’s largest park, to inspect a rectangle marked out on the turf with wooden pegs and twine.

They don’t know it, but this rudimentary shape marks the start of work on one of the country’s most exciting architectural commissions; the latest in the Serpentine’s annual summer pavilions, designed each year by a world-class architect and built within six months. If all goes to plan, the new building will open at the end of May, in the week before a major Gilbert & George retrospective, giving a reasonable amount of time for the architecturally curious to visit before it’s dismantled in September. But many things can go wrong; and if they do, the building’s appearance will be regrettably brief. It may not happen at all – but at this stage nobody is willing to countenance such an idea.

In the Serpentine’s offices, just yards from the site, the Tokyo-based architect, Toyo Ito, discusses design with the British engineer, Cecil Balmond, who worked last year on the similarly frenetic pavilion project with Daniel Libeskind. The gallery enlisted Balmond’s help in attracting Ito, who is little known in the UK but respected by his peers for work which has included Yokohama’s Tower of Winds and the Mediatheque in Sendai. “We knew each other already,” says Balmond. “I called him, explained that it was an event in London, an important chance to make an interesting piece of work.” As it happened, Ito had recently experienced difficulties working on a temporary pavilion in Bruges. His first thought was, “Oh, no, another one.” “That was my initial feeling,” Ito confirms. “But the positive aspect includes the opportunity to work with Cecil. And to work on things that you might not normally be able to do.”

Since then, Ito and Balmond have had four face-to-face meetings and worked together through various proxies from Ito’s Rotterdam office and the London office of Balmond’s firm, Arup. They’ve also held several ‘virtual’ meetings, encountering all the inevitable problems caused by the time difference between London and Tokyo. By now, they possess a clear notion of the building’s structure.

The Serpentine’s commission requires the architect to use “innovative use of new and traditional materials” and to explore “forms and illusions of transparency”. In outline, Ito’s design is surprisingly conventional: four walls and a flat roof. But the computer aided drawings makes you wonder how those walls can hold up that roof. Imagine a box made of porcelain which has been dashed to pieces. Then imagine glueing it together, but leaving out exactly half the fragments. How could it not crumple? In much the same way, Ito’s design uses equal parts of substance and absence. Pieces seem to float in mid air. More impressive still, the edges of those pieces form a repeating pattern, spiraling like a fractal, so that the building’s square footprint recurs, much smaller and offset at an angle, near the centre of the roof.

“Ito wanted to think about different ways of carrying the weight,” says Balmond, a latter-day Brunel. “There are now so many methods that it seems odd that things are still built in the old ways. The pavilion gives us a chance to show what can also be done in more commercial contexts.” But it also demands that they turn the project round at great speed, and there’s a conflict between those two requirements. “The process evolves into new ideas and developments,” says Balmond. “You’re working in a new way, with elements you understand but also elements you don’t understand and in ways that you don’t understand.”

The Serpentine, a grade II listed 1930s tea pavilion, first started showing art in 1970. In a typical year, some 400,000 visitors attend exhibitions of work by established artists who have included Warhol, Man Ray, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Louise Bourgeois; as well as artists largely unknown when the Serpentine first showed their work, such as Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread. So far, so impressive; but the architectural commissions lift the Serpentine into a class of its own, beyond the reach of similarly sized galleries such as the Whitechapel or the Camden Arts Centre, which do not enjoy the benefit of open space in a park.

Run as an independent charity since the mid-80s, the Serpentine has always enjoyed the influential supporters. Backed by Diana, Princess of Wales, it raised £4m for a major renovation in 1998. But because the gallery maintains a policy of free admission, money is always tight, as the director, Julia Peyton-Jones, explains. Last year, the budget was £22m, she says, adding carefully: “Our grants from Westminster City Council and London Arts, comma, grateful though we are to them, comma, do not cover our costs. We start each project with zero.”

Through the gallery’s well-connected supporters, Peyton-Jones has managed to rustle up not just money but advice and materials. Particularly helpful has been Peter Rogers, younger brother of Lord (Richard) Rogers and himself a director at the property company, Stanhope. Typically, Rogers will phone some contact in the construction industry, or write a letter introducing Peyton-Jones and her colleague Mark Robinson; and those two follow up with a face-to-face meetings. On Ito’s pavilion, Rogers estimates, companies have agreed to give the equivalent of more than £100,000 either in materials or production. Corus, for instance, provided 130 tons of structural steel, which was assembled in Manchester by William Hare Ltd. Others have given glass, aluminium and furniture.

Why do companies do this? Partly, Rogers guesses, because they find the project exciting. “People take pride in doing something different. This is more interesting than turning out the same thing all year round.” In addition, he acknowledges, they relish the opportunity to exchange favours with Stanhope. “We encourage people who have made a profit out of our projects to help out,” he says. “And there is some obligation [afterwards] to support them in return.”

Among the organisations providing help for little or no charge is the consultancy Montagu Evans, which on both previous pavilions helped to get planning approval from Westminster council at extraordinary speed. “We have a planning advisor at Montagu Evans,” says Robinson, sitting beside Peyton-Jones in the Serpentine offices. “His name’s Barnaby Collins. He says his firm gets people asking for the ‘Serpentine fast-track planning application’.” (“They don’t!” exclaims Peyton-Jones, evidently unaware of this circumstance, which Collins later confirms. “That’s so cool!”) Then there’s Knight Frank, which has undertaken to sell the pavilion on the Serpentine’s behalf; again, for no fee.

Robinson, who joined the Serpentine four years ago, has the tricky job of coordinating these generous helpers and can never scold them because they’re not being paid. He previously worked at the Royal Academy and the Whitechapel gallery – but never in the construction industry. He’s quietly spoken, unfathomably tactful and always ready to smile at the mention of episodes that have caused him headaches.

“You are seeing Mark looking cheerful,” says Peyton-Jones. “But this is knackering. Bloody hard work. Meetings can be tough, and Mark is on the sharp end. Contractors might look at the designs and say, ‘Piss off, architects!’” Robinson, ever diplomatic, elaborates: “It’s the nature of the scheme that plain speaking can be accommodated. Sometimes you talk to the men on the shop floor and they say, ‘That’s not going to work, have you thought about this?’” As an example, he mentions the terrifyingly complex steel framework underlying Ito’s design. “You can draw to your heart’s content, but when you get on the shop floor to weld, it’s different. People will call us and tell us they’re doing what they were asked to do but that the steel is bending.”

To get some idea how difficult the design is to execute, I borrow a hard hat and walk across to the site with Robinson. We find six workmen cutting grooves across the floor: a decorative criss-crossing that has no practical function. Mercifully, says Robinson, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd has lent him the services of “someone who knows what he’s doing”. Chris Deverson, a young man with red hair, is dressed from the waist down like the other construction workers – in jeans and heavy boots – but on top he wears a shirt and tie. As somebody who will soon begin a year working at a desk, he plainly enjoys being on site but does seem slightly puzzled by the time-consuming quirks of this particular job. Right now, he’s charging round with a set of drawings in one hand and a ruler in the other, ensuring that each criss-crossing groove is cut in exactly the right place.

“Each of these lines has a centre point,” he says. “We measure along the outside edge, then connect the two points using twine. This one here starts at, hmm, let’s see, 4,563mm from the end of the beam.” He draws a line with a pencil. “It’s is 16mm wide, so I mark out 8mm on either side.” Once the lines have been marked out, planks are nailed alongside them so that a workman can cut in the grooves with a machine. Another follows close behind, pulling a vacuum cleaner to ensure that the park is not disfigured by sawdust.

Additionally, Robinson says, McAlpine provides influence and buying power. “Like getting that polystyrene,” he says, gesturing towards a large quantity of the stuff lying in a corner. “I could call and they’d tell me it takes two weeks – but if McAlpine calls, it comes the next day.”

By now, every day Robinson can save is a bonus. Already, the pavilion’s opening date has been pushed back – not once, but twice. The original opening date was 29 May, a week before the Gilbert & George retrospective. It soon become clear that this was impossibly early, so it was pushed back; and now it’s been postponed even further.

On the night of the Gilbert & George preview, June 5, visitors look round the gallery then step outside to shelter from the heavy rain inside a temporary marquee. Distracted by voluble chatter about the show and all kinds of art gossip, few seem to spare a thought for what is going on behind the tall fences of the construction workers. But Robinson, wandering among them, is unable entirely to conceal his disappointment. Not only has the pavilion proved unavailable for Gilbert & George; it now won’t open till July 12 – three days after the Serpentine’s traditionally impressive summer party. (It was at one such party in the mid-90s that the late princess – by dressing magnificently – managed to upstage her estranged husband on the night of his revelatory TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby.)

What caused the delay? “We put the date back because we missed a planning meeting,” says Peyton-Jones. This is not inaccurate, but the suggestion that her own team is to blame is misleading. One other person closely involved tells me, unattributably, that the delay is entirely the fault of Westminster’s planning department. “They neglected to consult a particular group of residents,” says this insider. Realising its mistake, Westminster belatedly sent out the proposals and the Serpentine had to wait 21 days while the residents considered them. “Shit happens. Everyone makes the odd mistake.” Peyton-Jones, who will need the council’s support for all subsequent projects, is hardly going to complain. (Westminster did not return my calls.)

The evening after the Gilbert & George party, Westminster finally gives its approval and later that week the pieces of wall, ready assembled by William Hare, are sent down from Manchester. They travel by night, on wide loads, with police escorts. Owing to traffic problems on the motorway, one load is delayed at a service station and arrives a day late.

Then comes the roof. Once again, Deverson has to interpret fiendishly complex plans. There are 21 numbered roof sections, colour-coded on his vast sheets of paper. On 11 June, I watch the first piece being lowered into place by a massive crane (which would normally cost around £1,000 a day but which the Serpentine has managed to get for nothing). Construction workers clamber over on the scaffolding to grapple with this oddly shaped roof fragment. At the fuzzy margins of the building, they push and squeeze together its triangular ends and bolt them onto the walls with square plates. It’s a painfully slow process. Every so often they stop, pull out the bolts, then instruct the crane operator to lift it again.

Slotting the pieces into place from above, by crane, is especially difficult because the construction workers can’t see over the bits of roof that are already there. Ducking around the scaffolding, they stand up only to find themselves surrounded by some new polygon of white-painted steel, each corner of which describes a freakish angle only rarely encountered on building sites.

Also clambering about, today, is Daniel Bosia from Arup. He’s checking every joint – ensuring that they reach the strengths calculated by computer and indicated on his drawings. He’s also looking for signs that the heat generated by the welding might have bent the beams. Even before the first segment has been fitted, he finds a problem: a wedge designed to hold up an adjacent piece turns out to have been attached less securely than it should have been. The weld is only 10mm thick, says Bosia, flourishing his ruler. He disappears, then returns with Robinson, who stoops to assess the dodgy weld. It will not be possible to affix the next segment until this has been welded afresh. Bosia turns to Deverson, who stands with hands on hips. “How difficult will it be to get some welding equipment?”

This problem, representative of so many others that arise during the short life of the project – but unlike Westminster’s planning blunder – causes no significant delay. After all, the workmen can get on with other corners of the roof while the welder does his stuff. As Peyton-Jones told me, back in May, designing and building these pavilions is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. “At times, the picture seems to be getting clear. At other times, you can’t seem to find that piece of the sky; so you have to say, ‘OK, we’ll get on with the trees instead.’”

Now, with the summer party drawing near and the pavilion approaching the finished condition originally imagined by Ito and Balmond, Peyton-Jones remains as enthusiastic as ever. “It’s rare to have a project like this in a public space in London,” she says. “This does not happen often.” For a gallery to pull off such a commission just once would justify a strong sense of pride. The Serpentine has pulled it off three times in as many years. She’s already started discussing the identity of next year’s architect; but with nothing settled yet, she declines to mention any names. She’s also talked with Robinson about whether to get the materials sponsors in place before lining up the architect, rather than the other way round.

More pressing, for now, is the task of reselling Ito’s pavilion when it is dismantled, all too soon, in September. And that’s where Knight Frank comes in. The Libeskind pavilion, last year, was sold to a private investor, says Dick Ford, who handled the sale. He’s already started looking for a buyer for this year’s model. “To begin with,” he explains, “I’ll only write to a few people – a teaser, saying ‘You didn’t get it last year but here is another, something a bit more practical.’” (Last year potential buyers expressed concern about the Libeskind. “One said, ‘Frankly, it’s not a practical building.’”)

Is he worried about being unable to sell it? “This thing must be sold. It absolutely has to be sold. It would be extremely embarrassing not to be able to sell it. The Serpentine has to recover its costs” – labourer’s wages, plus associated costs for private views, invitations, publicity and furniture, which last year amounted to £100,000. But ultimately, he says, price is not the issue. “If you’d commissioned something like this yourself, it would cost a tremendous amount of money. This year, I would give it to you if you wrote me a cheque for £150,000.”