Luxury London speaks to the Burkinabé architect behind this summer’s new Serpentine Pavilion, Diébédo Francis Kéré, about his inspirations (Pavilion opens June 23)
Visitors to the Serpentine Summer Pavilion over the past 17 years are used to seeing some strange sights. Launched in 2000, the annual series presents the work of internationally acclaimed architects, who are called upon to create a unique, temporary structure that resides in Kensington Gardens for the the summer duration. Last year, Londoners and tourists alike were bowled over by Bjarke Ingels’ modern-day pyramid; the year before that, they were floored by José Selgas’ psychedelic tunnel inspired by the London Underground.
For 2017, visitors can expect a more pared-back, but nonetheless impressive structure, designed by award-winning architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. The huge wooden disc, supported by a central steel framework, strongly resembles a satellite dish, but has in fact been inspired by the architect’s roots, as he wanted to capture his hometown of Gando, a village in Burkina Faso in western Africa, and place it in the heart of west London.
Central to Kéré’s inspiration is the concept of the tree as a meeting place. For thousands of years, Gando’s villagers have come together under the shades of trees to exchange news, discuss business, gossip and seek advice on their love lives, sheltered from the scorching sun. He explains how he wanted to emulate this sense of community in the capital.
“The design of my pavilion is meant to enhance visitors’ experience of nature, not only the landscape, but also the wind, sun and rain. It creates a new enclosure in the park for people to come together, learn new things, have conversations and celebrate exciting events,” says Kéré.
The expansive roof, made from recycled timber, has therefore been modelled on a tree’s canopy. Meanwhile, the inside has been enclosed by curving blue walls built from wooden blocks in a textile-like pattern, in reference to special clothing worn by young men in his village for festivities. Although the supporting steel framework appears delicate, it is actually very strong – so strong, in fact, that it is able to support the 10-metre cantilever of the roof. “The massive canopy structure almost appears as if it is floating,” comments Kéré. “It is very dramatic!”
Until now, the pavilions have showcased the work of contemporary British and western artists. Kéré is the first African architect to be chosen for the prestigious commission. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel, directors of the Serpentine, comment: “Kéré’s pavilion will highlight the power of simplicity by reducing architecture to its core elements... We share his belief that architecture, at its best, can enhance our collective creativity and push people to take the future into their own hands.”
The Berlin-based architect – who specialises in designing bold, innovative structures in harmony with their surroundings – would like visitors to experience his pavilion by day and by night: “As they approach, they will notice all the different areas where they can sit and relax and the open spaces will feel welcoming and comfortable,” says Kéré. “It will be an exciting place, especially for children, with lots to explore. At night the glowing canopy will create a fantastic effect from the outside. Light in the darkness is like a signal of great energy. People will be drawn to the life happening inside.”
As in previous years, visitors will be encouraged to interact with the pavilion in different ways throughout its tenure in Kensington Gardens. The directors have planned a varied programme of events, exploring ideas surrounding community that include talks and evening performances on Park Nights to entertain people.
Kéré runs his practice from Berlin, where he studied architecture, at the Technische Universität, but builds largely in his native Africa. His first project was a school in his village built with mud bricks, using unskilled labour. He is celebrated for working adventurously and blending traditional building techniques with cutting-edge engineering. Among his successes, he has held professorships at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio in Switzerland.
”My experience of growing up in a place that is very hot and dry strongly influences my designs. My projects have a strong focus on climate and energy. These embrace natural ventilation and daylight, not just for under-developed areas, but also for places like London,” explains Kéré. In sunny weather, visitors to his pavilion will be able to find shade under the canopy or sit and bask in the courtyard that surrounds it. But on wet days, rainwater will funnel through a central opening in the roof, creating a “spectacular waterfall effect”. With its playful, tribal and elemental feel, and natural and innovative form, this year’s pavilion encompasses freedom, fun and festivity.