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Zaha and the gunpowder plot

Zaha Hadid’s first building in central London springs out of one that's already listed

Tim de Lisle | September/October 2013

It looks like something from outer space. In fact this is London, but not as we know it. The Serpentine, the gallery in the middle of a royal park, is opening a second building. The voluptuous curves and gleaming rice-spoons of light are designed by Zaha Hadid. Bizarrely, it is her first building in central London. Her creations, from the 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre to the Guangzhou Opera House, are usually self-contained, but here she had to work with an existing building: a prim Georgian edifice, built as a gunpowder store at the time of the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Placed in the park so as not to endanger the populace if it went up in smoke, it was known as the Magazine—which used to mean a place to keep ammunition rather than a stash of words and pictures.

For decades, the Magazine has sat there with nothing better to do than watch the traffic snaking round it to cross the bridge over the lake. It has seen its younger sister, the Serpentine tea pavilion (opened in 1934), having far more fun—turning into a gallery in 1970, becoming a place to see and be seen after Princess Diana sashayed into its summer party in 1994, and emerging as a champion of architecture with its annual summer pavilion from 2000. After designing the first of those, Zaha Hadid already had a working relationship with the Serpentine’s bosses, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

The Magazine is a listed building, so Hadid had less squiggle room than she is used to. She has restored the 1805 structure to make a cool white-and-grey space for the art, roughly doubling the Serpentine’s capacity. Handsome as it is, you would never know it was Zaha’s—but her signature is all over the extension, with its wavy roof and glass walls. Rather than displaying art, it will house the other indispensable element of the modern gallery experience: the café.

The building will be called the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, in honour of the late philanthropist Mortimer Sackler and his wife Theresa, who helped to pay for the conversion. It may well divide opinion, but the people strolling in the park or rowing on the lake will have one more thing to gaze at and talk about: a bold juxtaposition of old and new, solidity and flow, rectitude and exuberance. ~ Tim de Lisle

Serpentine Sackler Gallery opens Sept 27th, entry free

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