Hyde Park might be the last place you'd think would need a garden, but Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery, which opens to the world's press today, is just that. Inside its black boxy exterior is a garden of shrubs and grasses decorating a cloister-like space for contemplation.
Zumthor's pavilion owes its existence to the Serpentine Gallery's director. Julia Peyton-Jones, 58, commissioned the gallery's first pavilion, by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, in 2000. Since then, these structures – each by a highly regarded architect who has not previously built in Britain – have become an annual event, a regular backdrop to the institution's glamorous annual summer party, the latest of which will be held tomorrow night.
"I feel impoverished," says the gallerist, discussing the effect of Zumthor's pavilion. "The thing we have become adrift from is the soil and the nature, and that is incredibly important. The thing about the garden is it puts you in touch with yourself. You are alone with your thoughts in there, and for some people that can be uncomfortable".
Peyton-Jones, softly spoken and elegant, is the powerhouse behind the Serpentine's remarkable success story, from the pavilions' conception to Thursday's multi-million-pound auction at Sotheby's of works donated by artists including Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Gilbert and George. Like the party, for which people pay hundreds of pounds for a ticket, proceeds of the auction will go into the Serpentine's coffers. Such fundraising activities have allowed the gallery to press forward with a radical expansion programme while most other public arts institutions are cutting costs. Next year, it will open the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a renovated former munitions depot five minutes from the original gallery, made possible by a one-off donation from an American foundation.
"What we are interested in now is producing the other half of the apple," says Peyton-Jones. "We will continue our programme here as it is now, but at the new building we will present architecture, fashion, literature, dance, as well as science and technology. It will be multi-disciplinary, not necessarily from established figures."
Peyton-Jones began her artistic life by training as a painter at the Royal College of Art before joining the Hayward Gallery as a curator. She became director of the Serpentine in 1991. There she secured Diana, Princess of Wales as patron and held a series of gala dinners to raise money for a refurbishment programme. Hadid's 2000 pavilion was supposed to be an eye-catching backdrop for one of these dinners, to stay in place for several days before being removed. But it was so popular it stayed for several months.
"When trying to understand a building, I find it difficult to read drawings or photographs," says Peyton-Jones. "It doesn't tell you what it's like to stand in it. A beautifully designed structure makes your spirits soar. Time and again, when I fly from Heathrow Terminal 5, I do a prayer to Richard Rogers. I know, when I go there, I will find my way around and it will be life enhancing".
Since its inception, the pavilion project has seen a who's who of contemporary architecture bring radical designs to the Serpentine. Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond designed an ovoid, translucent canopy in 2006; Frank Gehry built an exploding timber roof in 2008. Does she think it is somewhat odd, given that the gallery will receive £1.2m of public money in the financial year beginning 2014, after a 20 per cent hike, that her most high profile project does not celebrate British talent?
"No, because the scheme is not meant to include British architects," she says. "Many British architects have already built here. If they haven't built here, then perhaps there is something not working well within our system. We would be preaching to the converted. What people cannot see are architects of international stature. We are a public institution and our role is to educate and inform the public".
Another anomaly is the lack of female designers. In 12 years, nine of the pavilions have been spearheaded by men. Such a statistic rings true with architecture, a male-dominated profession, but shouldn't Peyton-Jones, one of the few prominent women in art, be doing more to redress the balance? "The glass ceiling that exists everywhere needs to be taken seriously," she says. "There needs to be collective responsibility. Some areas fare better than others. Business is still difficult, and architecture speaks for itself. There are some pockets in which women can progress more easily than others."
Next month, Peyton-Jones, along with her co-director, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, will oversee the opening of an exhibition by Italian contemporary artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. He is set to create a site-specific labyrinth, something she says will "resonate" with Zumthor's creation.
Peyton-Jones has no plans to move on from a position she has held for 20 years. "It's like making a painting," she says. "You stand back from it and realise it needs a little more red in the top right corner. It's a very organic thing. I don't have a path carved out." Now, at least, she has time to find the odd quiet moment.
"Even though I work in a park, I am usually on the telephone," she concludes. "I am never unconnected. Inside the pavilion, I notice the bees. I don't see them as part of my life. However I now know I am the worse off for not doing so. I feel privileged, if that doesn't sound too romantic."
A life in brief
* Born in 1952, Julia Peyton-Jones was educated privately before she studied painting at the Royal College of Art between 1975 and 1978.
* Between 1978 and 1988 she worked as an artist in London. Two of her paintings still hang in the Bank of England.
* After completing her postgraduate education, she also worked as an art lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art.
* In 1988 she joined the Hayward Gallery as a curator where she stayed for three years.
* In 1991 became director of the Serpentine Gallery, overseeing a major refurbishment its galleries.
* In 2003 she was appointed an Officer of the British Empire.