Dezeen Magazine

Oscar Niemeyer "took the brief very seriously" for 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Movie: in the next instalment of our exclusive video series with Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine Gallery director recalls her trip to Brazil to convince Oscar Niemeyer to design the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2003.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer. Photograph by Sylvain Deleu

Niemeyer's 2003 Serpentine Gallery pavilion consisted of a white tent-shaped structure made from steel, aluminium, concrete and glass, which visitors could enter via a bright red ramp at the front.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer
Photograph by Sylvain Deleu

Peyton-Jones reveals that the Brazilian architect didn't initially respond when she asked him to design the pavilion.

"Zaha Hadid wrote the letter of introduction," Peyton-Jones recalls. "But it went into a black hole. We didn't get a reply."

Oscar Niemeyer with Julia Peyton-Jones
Oscar Niemeyer with Julia Peyton-Jones. Photograph courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

Peyton-Jones travelled to Rio de Janeiro to meet Niemeyer personally, believing it would be a difficult task to convince him to design the pavilion that year. She soon discovered that her concerns were unfounded.

"He was completely open and said: 'Yes, of course,'" she explains. "There's this picture of me sitting across the table from him and it was really like that. Sitting across the table and going: 'Would you? Could you? Shall we?' And we just kind of did it and it all came together."

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer
Photograph by Sylvain Deleu

Niemeyer received a very simple, open brief, with the budget being the main constraint.

"He took the brief very seriously," Peyton-Jones says. "The brief was about four pages, it talked about the budget, but it was super simple. That brief has remained the same over the whole 15 years."

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer
Photograph by Richard Bryant

The tent-like form of Niemeyer's pavilion rested on a narrow glass box housing a partly submerged auditorium, which gave the impression that the external structure was floating off the ground.

Like previous architects, Niemeyer also designed the furniture inside the pavilion.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003 by Oscar Niemeyer
Photograph by Sylvain Deleu

Peyton-Jones recalls when Luíz Inácio da Silva – who was the President of Brazil at the time and a personal friend of Niemeyer – came to visit the pavilion.

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"His interpreter didn't speak a word of English, so that was a bit of a thing," she recalls. "I just guided him around by his arm and he patted the babies' heads and so on."

Julia Peyton-Jones portrait
Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones. Copyright: Dezeen

This movie was filmed by Dezeen at the Serpentine Gallery in London. All photography is courtesy of Serpentine Galleries, unless otherwise stated.

Dezeen is looking back at each of the pavilions from 2000 to 2015 in a series of movies. You can watch all the movies as we publish them on our YouTube playlist: