When a project is in its 17th year, as the Serpentine’s Summer Pavilion is, you can’t help worrying it’s going to run out of steam, what with the specificity of the site – in Kensington Gardens, outside the Serpentine Gallery – and the restrictions of the budget (around £600,000). But this year, the choice of Diébédo Francis Keré, an architect from Burkina Faso, has given it yet another shot in the arm.
Last year’s protagonist, the superlatively confident Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, created a sensational almost cathedral-like structure using mass-manufactured fibre glass components. Keré’s is a rather quieter, craftier affair, made of blue-stained pine, slender steel structures, and a wooden roof that fans out prettily from a central funnel. It’s asking for people to gather in its warm embrace, rather than be wowed by its sheer presence.
The Serpentine Pavilion 2017 by Diébédo Francis Keré CREDIT: IWAN BAAN
This year’s protagonist is a more modest man altogether, and his work is socially engaged and low-impact. Born in the small village of Gando in 1965, he traveled to Germany on a scholarship to study architecture, but returned to Burkina Faso after two years. “I thought I’d learnt a lot already,” he says, when we meet in Kensington Gardens. “I wanted to go back and build a school, and also life in Europe is so stressful. Once I returned to Burkina Faso, I just wanted to stay there.” But eventually his tutors persuaded him back and he graduated from Berlin’s Technical University in 2004. He set up his practice in the city the following year.
The Serpentine Pavilion 2017 by Diébédo Francis Keré
For his London project, he was inspired by both the trees of the city’s parks and the bricks of its buildings. The pavilion’s curving walls are punctuated by many little apertures which offer tiny framed views of the surrounding nature, and filter breeze into the central space. They have been made from triangular components formed of brick-like wooden batons, which are then tessellated together to form the structure. “It’s modular, but made by men, not by machines,” says Keré.
The Serpentine Pavilion by Diébédo Francis Keré CREDIT: IWAN BAAN
The blue he has chosen for the walls is a nod to his homeland, where young men wear an indigo-dyed buba (shirt) when they want to show themselves at their best. “Here in London, I wanted to show my best side,” says Keré. The final effect seems to flow like textile, with the natural knots in the pine taking on the appearance of moiré silk. Back in Burkina Faso, explains Keré, clay floors are compacted during construction by women dancing upon them. Here, a rather less poetic concrete base is in place.
The extended circular roof will provide shade in the heat and protection from rain. But its central oculus acts as a waterfall in wet weather, chanelling water back into the ground where it goes on to be collected in tanks and piped back into the park.
Diébédo Francis Keré CREDIT: ERIK JAN OUWERKERK
“It’s very important to celebrate water. Even in a rich country like London, where you have everything, you still need to save energy. Water is precious. We have calculated that we can collect 9000 litres this way and return it to the park, so it’s both symbolic and real.” Just part of the dialogue that the pavilion proposes between a London park and an African architecture. Be sure to pass by.