In a royal park in London, award-winning architect Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso has combined African tradition with innovation. With his design for the Serpentine Pavilion, he pursues an artistic idea that was already perceptible in his teachers’ houses. We at 100 years of bauhaus went there in search of the Bauhaus Spirit of today.
“Collaboration forms the very basis of my culture” (says Francis Kéré, thereby giving expression to the core idea and the theme of his work. Francis Kéré is one of the architects who lives in a permanent state of transition. His is a strenuous and yet inspiring existence between Burkina Faso and Germany. Knowledge transfer incarnate, so to speak. And the temporary pavilion of his that has been erected this year in London’s Kensington Gardens is another child of this extremely fruitful in-between condition. Kéré is a role model for many, and for many of his compatriots he is, in fact, a hero.
It all began when the young chieftain’s son from Gando received training as a carpenter. That is what earned him a scholarship from the Carl Duisberg Society (in cooperation with the German Development Service) and eventually led him to Berlin. There, he finished his carpenter apprenticeship and ultimately became that which he had always dreamed about as a child: an architect. Even though he was, in reality, an architect even before receiving his degree from TU Berlin; he initiated his project for the school in Gando after just his second academic year. And the entire village pitched in to help, albeit with scepticism at the outset. After all, what had the architect been thinking – shouldn’t a real school be made of concrete? Won’t the rain wash away the earthen material? But their courage and commitment were ultimately rewarded with a renowned international architecture award. With walls made of clay and an ingenious means of natural ventilation, his ‘project of the heart’ – the school building that Francis Kéré would have desired for himself – earned him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004.
How much architecture and the psychology of learning are connected with each other is something Francis Kéré had to experience first-hand in Burkina Faso. “Children can’t learn in a room where it’s over 40 degrees. I sat in a room like that when I was a child; it was like an incubator”, he says. Providing a school education was difficult in a region where there was no running water and no electricity. But even after the collaborative construction of the school building, a further obstacle still remained: How could teachers in the country be attracted to Gando? The solution was to offer them living quarters on site. So these were also built, and this time there was a double roof system for natural ventilation. The ‘refrigerators of Gando’ – that’s how they were soon called. Walter Gropius had once pursued a similar task in Dessau. Although his was not born out of the necessity with which his African colleague was confronted. Nevertheless, in their rational visual presence, the ‘Masters’ Houses à la Kéré’ can definitely vie with the Masters’ Houses in Dessau. And as for the collective spirit expressed in their construction – the very aspect that was so important to the Bauhaus – Gando certainly comes out ahead.
In my village in Burkina Faso, during the hot day everyone is gathering under the tree. That is approximately how the architect, who incidentally is also a highly gifted storyteller, sums up the leitmotif for his own personal interpretation of the Serpentine Pavilion. And the longer you look at this year’s design, the more you could imagine it would be the ideal place for a storyteller; he would be standing or sitting somewhere in the middle, beneath the round canopy, and everyone in Kensington Gardens who passes by would be invited to join the circle around him and listen.
The circle, strictly speaking an ellipse, is important in this design and has symbolic force. Of course it stands for social togetherness, but what Francis Kéré means here with the human form of gathering is, so to speak, poetically transferred to the elements of nature. More specifically: it is transferred to the water that is caught and collected in the centre of the funnel-shaped structure for later use.
Kéré combines tradition with innovation. At the Serpentine Pavilion, various cultural motifs are also interwoven with new features. The triangular serrated pattern, which pervades the design like full-body ornament, is, for example, reminiscent of the wall paintings of the mud houses in Tiébélé, a community in the south of Burkina Faso. The geometrically arranged spacings between the wood modules of the four walls ensure permeability – with which the architect pays homage to another natural element: the air. And the light, which glimmers through the graphic perforations in the walls when illuminated at night.
The light is also filtered by the herringbone pattern of wooden slats below the canopy, which shimmers and vibrates, even by day, as the viewing angle changes. As a whole, the entire design is permeable, airy and open. The fully visible inner life beneath the canopy is no exception. The main structure of the pavilion consists of a lightweight space frame, similar to the “flying” roof structures of previous projects by Kérés. Although the steel is very thin and delicate, it is nevertheless sufficiently strong. So strong that it can support the roof as it cantilevers out ten metres, arousing associations with a solitary tree in the African savannah.
As he was growing up in his village, Francis Kéré heard the story of how important the colour indigo blue was for his culture. When young men go out on dates, for instance, they would put on a special piece of clothing and that was blue. What could be more fitting for a building for such an honourable occasion and setting, a royal park like Kensington Gardens, than to wear something blue? The choice of artistic means can sometimes also have a narrative rationale …
Apropos narrative, what stands out at the Serpentine Pavilion 2017 is the clarity of the language – which has always been important for Francis Kéré. But one can recognise this not only in his architecture and in “Radically Simple”, the monograph published last year. His own words also testify to this. In his interviews and statements, he repeatedly emphasises how ‘simple’ his works and ideas are. Kérés’s favourite word probably would have brought a smile to the face of Mies van der Rohe – who, by the way, the African architect has held in high regard ever since his days as a student.
23 June 2017 – 8 October 2017
To the website of the pavilion
[ÖÖ 2017, Translation: DK]