Diébédo Francis Kéré’s 2017 Serpentine Pavilion needs no introduction. As the invited architect of one of the world’s most prestigious architecture commissions, his particular integration of African sensibilities, socially-orientated values, sustainable materials and, let’s not forget, an aesthetically beautiful form, it has had plenty of press coverage already.
For his design for one of the world’s most eagerly anticipated architecture commissions — the annual temporary pavilion erected beside the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park during the warmer months— awarded to an architect yet to realise a building in the UK at the time of invitation, Kéré has looked to the African motif of the shade-giving tree that acts as an important social meeting place in villages.
In effect, it’s a kind of inversion of the positive and negative space of the real thing. While the roof that offers shelter very much suggests the flat canopy shape of many distinctive African tree species, the trunk is absent. Instead, where one might expect to find the densest wood, an oculus open to the sky channels rain to cascade as a waterfall into the centre of the structure. The trunk is only physically present as a fluid circular curtain of water in a downpour.
In simplistic engineering terms, this is made possible because the roof is supported by a pylon-like structure that also defies its function as a “trunk” by being penetrable. This permeable “tree” is partially enclosed by curving walls. Constructed from thousands of pieces of wood painted a strong blue. Again the African imagery floats effortlessly to the surface. Their sweeping lines are evocative of enclosed royal compounds or legendary cities like Djenné built from mud. And yet, the materials, colour and patterns used may be at once abstract and modernist, but they also conjure up other African iconic imagery; Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh or the wall painting patterns developed by the Ndebele people at the other of the continent from the 18th century onwards.
Diébédo Francis Kéré – Serpentine Pavilion 2017
Many of the materials, structural ideas and construction techniques deployed in Kéré’s truly striking pavilion seem to come from his award-winning designs for public buildings— schools, education centres, clinics— realised in Africa, both in his native Burkina Faso and other countries. This is a very faithful elaboration of his studio’s credo and not just a little piece of spectacle for the hordes of visitors that will flock to experience it during 2017.
Trained and based in Berlin, Francis Kéré and his Kéré Architecture practice are rightly taking their place in the limelight of that unique power clique of the influential and game-changing who rise to the elite in each generation of international architects. But this is not a practice that builds ivory towers. At the heart of Francis Kéré’s practice is a very pragmatic way of giving back.
One of his earlier award-winning projects was to raise the funds to build a school in the town from which he hails in Burkina Faso, the architectural equivalent of “sending money home” that has been a core value and point of honour for many generations of immigrants over the centuries whether Irish in the USA, Congolese in Belgium or Turkish in Germany. And he’s not stopping there. Through the Kéré Foundation he continues to bring functional, sustainable, community-focussed and beautiful architecture to some of the poorest regions of Africa. And, yes, you can make a donation online if you want to be part of this socially elegant initiative.