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Architect Francis Kéré Is Bringing Burkina Faso To London

The African architect envisions a “micro cosmos” in London’s Kensington Gardens.

Architect Francis Kéré Is Bringing Burkina Faso To London
[All Images: Kéré Architecture via Serpentine Galleries]

The arid landscape of Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa, bears little resemblance to the manicured trees and lawns of Kensington Gardens, in London. But to Francis Kéré, a Berlin-based architect who hails from Burkina Faso, designing for both situations requires the same sensitivity to site, local conditions, and climate. For this reason, the Serpentine Gallery picked him to create its 2017 Pavilion, one of the architecture profession’s most coveted, and celebrated, commissions.

When the pavilion opens June 23, visitors to Kensington Gardens, in London, will encounter a round, cobalt-blue structure capped by a saucer-like canopy. Inspired by trees both physically and metaphorically, the pavilion encourages natural ventilation and shelters visitors from London’s rain and heat. An oculus in the roof will collect rainwater that’s then used to irrigate the park. The curved walls, composed of prefabricated wood blocks, are adorned with a textile-like pattern of perforations. Along with the slatted roof, the entire building’s skin creates a dappled light effect, much like how sun shines through leaves. Additionally, trees become gathering spaces in Burkina Faso, much like the Serpentine Pavilion is a tourist beacon for the park.

[Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk via Serpentine Galleries]

In his artistic statement, Kéré wrote:

The proposed design for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion is conceived as a micro cosmos–a community structure within Kensington Gardens that fuses cultural references of my home country Burkina Faso with experimental construction techniques. My experience of growing up in a remote desert village has instilled a strong awareness of the social, sustainable, and cultural implications of design. I believe that architecture has the power to, surprise, unite, and inspire all while mediating important aspects such as community, ecology, and economy.

Constructed entirely from wood, the structure is a departure from the simple buildings for which Kéré is known both in materials and audience. In his socially driven practice, the architect mostly designs schools that use local building techniques and mud-bricks–necessary for building in remote areas. For the Serpentine Pavilion, he kept the same aesthetic simplicity, but opted for more adventurous construction befitting an architectural folly that’s seen by thousands.

[Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk via Serpentine Galleries]

“I told myself, ‘Francis, don’t try to change yourself for this commission’,” he told the Guardian. “Remain true to how you started, but do a little bit more. Here I have the chance to work with amazing engineers, so we can make the steel very thin and have an impressive cantilever.”

Since the Pavilion program was established in 2000, the Serpentine Galleries have invited an international cadre of top architects like Bjarke Ingels, Selgascano, Sou Fujimoto, Smiljan Radić, and Zaha Hadid. Kéré is the first participant from Africa and is excited to contribute his expertise and sensibility to the history of Kensington Gardens and the Serpentine.

The pavilion is open to the public from June 23 to October 8, 2017. Visit serpentinegalleries.org for more.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.