The onset of summer in London brings with it the opening of the annual Serpentine Pavilion, an architectural showpiece constructed in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park serving as a physical extension of the nearby Serpentine Galleries. The architect selected to design the 2017 Pavilion which runs from June 23rd to October 8th is Burkina Faso’s Diébédo Francis Kéré who presently works out of his Berlin-based practice, Kéré Architecture. The criteria for selection to be the Pavilion’s architect stipulate the role is bestowed upon an internationally active designer who has yet to have a permanent structure built in the UK. Thus, the decision taken by a panel led by the Serpentine Galleries’ Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist and CEO Yana Peel means that Kéré becomes the first African architect to be chosen for this prestigious commission.
Born in the small rural village of Gando in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, Kéré has sought inspiration from his childhood environment to create a communal gathering spot enclosed by a series of four curved walls comprised of rich indigo-infused wooden triangular slats (indigo is the colour traditionally worn by men when courting girls in Burkina Faso) in a staggered pattern to allow light to trickle in through the perforations. The sense of protection afforded by the walls is only intermittently broken to allow access points for visitors to enter this intriguing haven. Ranging above the central enclosure sits an elaborate latticework of fine wooden struts which undulate asymmetrically, once again allowing the sunlight to filter through the offset slats down onto the idyllic seating area. This delicately overhanging structure is held aloft by a cantilevered steel framework with a custom-built polycarbonate cover to protect visitors from the vagaries of the British weather. Yorkshire construction firm Stage One tasked with building all of the Serpentine Pavilions since 2009 have been involved in the project since the turn of the year with groundwork commencing at the site from the beginning of June. Kéré’s design brief set out to pay homage to the tree which serves as his community’s focal point back in his native village. When viewed from distance, the architect’s vision snaps more clearly into focus with all ages congregating around the trunk, some sat on wooden blocks while others simply lean on the structure all bathed in the light breaking through the man-made foliage overhead.
As a village chief, Kéré’s father encouraged him to study abroad and having won a scholarship went on to graduate in architecture from the Technical University of Berlin in 2004. The following year he was to set up the Kéré Architecture practice and has since worked on several international projects including the Obama Legacy Campus in Kenya (located in Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama’s father), the Beijing Pavilion for the 2013 China International Architecture Biennial and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum completed in Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. However, Kéré has been most prolific in his native Burkina Faso, especially in developing educational and social facilities in and around Gando often on a pro bono basis. His works have included both a primary and secondary school, nearby library and housing for teachers and other support staff. He marries the technical knowledge he gained in Europe with traditional materials such as clay bricks and local know-how to vastly reduce both overheads and the ecological footprint. His motto has become “help to self-help” and he is fully committed to empowering both the community and its citizens in developing countries, a stance which has seen him rewarded with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009.
Following on from Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi being asked to design the Summer Houses which accompanied the main 2016 Serpentine Pavilion, with this current installation Diébédo Francis Kéré joins a list of architectural heavyweights including such luminaries as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron. As a result, on a domestic level as well as upon the wider global platform Kéré is rapidly becoming the figurehead for a new generation of African architects and designers.
What impact might Francis Kéré’s selection for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion have on the younger generation of African-born architects?