Artistic licence

Why are the Serpentine Pavilions more interesting than an office block?

How the architects of spec office buildings must envy the architects of art galleries and museums. It’s a skilful and very necessary business, the design of spec office buildings, but how much public and media interest is there in them when they open? Very little, outside specialist publications – unless they happen to be very tall indeed, in which case editors cease to think of them as offices because they have become skyscrapers, therefore suddenly interesting.

Contrast this with the international media scrum surrounding the opening of Tate Modern’s new extension by Herzog & de Meuron, or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by Snøhetta, both on this month; or – what is even more extraordinary – the global interest in the annual Serpentine Pavilion. Functionally speaking this is little more than a draughty pop-up café, usually one that leaks. But this is the only pop-up café opening to which the BBC sends Will Gompertz. It is the only pop-up café to be treated to a celebratory party every year at Richard and Ruthie Rogers’ house, where you are invariably offered a sighting of Alan Yentob.

This is the only pop-up café opening to which the BBC sends Will Gompertz

This year’s party was the best ever, incidentally. Why? Not just because of the Rogers’ legendary generosity and party skills (and River Café catering), but because there is more than one architect involved and one very important client. Not only Bjarke Ingels for the pavilion (itself up there with the best of them) – but four others who contribute a cluster of ‘summer houses’. These are Asif Khan, Barkow Leibinger, Kunlé Adeyemi, and the veteran Yona Friedman. Rogers gave fatherly mini-crits of them all but the best fun was when the intentionally slightly cheesy café orchestra marched in to serenade Julia Peyton-Jones, outgoing Serpentine director who first started the Serpentine Pavilion programme with the late Zaha Hadid back in 2000. Her personal encomium came from Ruthie. So there was a lot of architectural love in the room. A few days later, Peyton-Jones was made a Dame. Quite right – she has always been splendidly damelike.

All very metropolitan; all very Arts. Where are the equivalent great-and-good celebrations for a fine new school, visitor centre, housing estate, clinic, research lab or, yes, spec office block? The best ones win the profession’s awards, but beyond that? I’m aware that as a writer and editor I play along with this. Why two new art museums and a theatre in this issue? Why do I seem, once in a while, to privilege arts buildings beyond others?

I can’t really answer this – beyond saying that the arts are vital to humanity, represent something beyond function and necessity, and that our response to them is consequently on a different level. Donors want to give arts buildings money for this reason, so the architecture is frequently better funded than more workaday buildings. Unfair? Maybe. But also somehow cheering.

Zoe Berman assesses the Serpentine at