A shimmer of sub-Saharan warmth alighted in central London earlier this year when the Serpentine Gallery’s 2017 Pavilion was opened to the public. Designed by architect Francis Kéré, this bronze and blue pavilion was inspired by the tree that serves as the focal meeting point in Gando, the architect’s home town in Burkina Faso. Planted in one of London’s wealthiest and opulent corners, this structure’s organic and sheltering qualities underscore the physical and material distances between its dusty, African roots and its metropolitan surroundings.
The pavilion has four entry points between its inward- and outward-facing blue walls to an open-air central courtyard. Seating was provided at every turn and the space positively encouraged contemplation and conversation. The airy, ventilated roof provided shelter from both sunlight and rain, with the latter being funnelled through a central waterfall and out under the floor to the park beyond.
A funnel-shaped roof floated above curved blue wooden walls made of slatted triangular blocks. A lightweight steel skeleton provided support for the funnel, openly visible from the inner courtyard. Beneath the funnel, bronze-coloured wooden slats provided shade and contrasting colour. The jaunty angle of this canopy harked back to the architect’s remembered tree. Delicate geometry provided strength and air flowed round and between each component of the pavilion. This was an outdoor shelter, open to the elements, with people never separated from the surrounding park’s natural backdrop.
The Serpentine has been commissioning summer pavilions by leading architects annually since 2000. Each is in situ for just a few months. In this context, each is a temporary conversation piece. For Kéré’s dazzling pavilion, the conversation should draw us southwards to his home country and to the story he so eloquently tells of himself. As a child, his first school had poor lighting and ventilation, so when he started studying architecture in Europe, he chose to make his first project a primary school in his home village that corrected these deficiencies.
Using local skills and materials, he came up with a design (for the Gando Primary School, above) that pulled cool air in from the interior windows, releasing hot air out through a perforated ceiling – a low-tech and sustainable solution.
What began as an inspired and ingenious solution to basic needs (providing school children with relatively inexpensive and sustainable schools) has subsequently grown into a Foundation that aims to build an infrastructure for education and community support. The Kéré Foundation, see below, is the fruit of this imagination.