A Pavilion for the Public?


22 February 2017

Diébédo Francis Kéré has been announced as the architect of the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion – arguably the United Kingdom's most prominent temporary architectural installation, and a respected showpiece for architects internationally. Kéré, from Gando, Burkina Faso, is the first African to be chosen for the scheme. He is only the second figure from outside the traditionally demarcated "West", excluding the architecturally-advanced Japan to design the pavilion.

The appointment of Kéré is a complete volte-face from last year's selection of Bjarke Ingels, the sharable content-friendly scion of the starchitect generation. While Ingels' asymmetrical towers and pyramids of Lego sometimes seem to stem from the desire to infantalise the world into a plate-glass playground, Kére's work is largely functional, problem-solving and unspectacular. The difference is clear in their practice's self-presentment: Bjarke Ingels Group's website imitates the aesthetic of a 2D video game, Kéré Architecture's is straightforward and earnest. Ingels used last year's pavilion as launch-pad for a London office to expand his already-swelling international practice; it is unlikely that Kére plans the same.

Indeed, Kéré is something wholly new to the Serpentine summer program. His reputation is built not on photogenic silhouettes, material innovation or the sort of spatial investigation that causes the academic architectural community to froth at the mouth. His Aga Khan Award-winning first structure, the Gando Primary School (2001), is a simple box composed of mud bricks, sheltered by a raised tin roof. It was built as a student project with a raised budget of $50,000.

Besides its merit as a structure – cooler than Burkina Faso's usual concrete school buildings, it provides a more congenial educational environment in a country in which summer temperature reaches 45°C – it brought primary education to a largely illiterate village. As well as an initial extension, it now boasts a library, an allotment garden, housing to attract city-dwelling teachers, a community centre and, perhaps most significantly, a secondary school, opened in 2013 that is able to accommodate 1,000 students.

A superb example of architecture reacting to a basic want – Kéré himself, as son of a chieftain, was able to go to school, but had to travel to a distant city to do so – the Gando project also makes a case for a holistic localism. It doesn't merely reference or reflect aesthetics of a Burkinabé village. By using locally available material, it prevents a need for expensive transport, and expands rather than distorts its location's village-scape. Most significantly, it was designed in collaboration with local residents and future users, and later built by them. Attendant to the growth in literacy is an enhancement of work skills, as Gando's young residents have been employed by other villages to aid their own construction projects.

Based in Berlin, where he studied architecture at the Technical University, Kéré's expansion into more conventional European projects – a pop-up shop for Camper at the Vitra Campus, an upcoming temporary theatre for the Volksbühne at Tempelhof – has allowed him to support further education and health structures in Africa and Asia. At last year's Venice Biennale, he revealed speculative plans for rebuilding the Burkina Faso parliament building based around the form of the tree, whose shade acts as a meeting place throughout Burkinabé.

With its wooden canopy held by slender steel supports, Kéré's Serpentine pavilion sprouts from the same form. Its circularity and raised roof also evokes the classic typology of the park pavilion, as seen in the cafes of Hyde Park and Victoria Park. Its unattached, lightly undulating walls should provide a sense of transparency, as well as capturing the air of surrounding Kensington Gardens. Placed alongside Ingels' perforated but linear corridor last year or Selgas Cano's prismatic burrows in 2015, Kéré's iteration looks to nestle more organically into its verdant setting. In this it absorbs the function of last year's seemingly aborted summer house scheme, thats results produced on a shoestring budget and haphazardly placed on a neighbouring lawn – could fairly be described as mixed.

Although the Serpentine's first pavilion, designed by the late Zaha Hadid, has been ingloriously reposed by a Cornish theme park, in recent years the gallery has largely sold them to magnates, hotels and private art galleries. Whilst Kéré is aware of the pavilion's secondary purpose as a money-maker for the gallery, his ambitions are rather more inclusive, as signalled in an interview for the Guardian. "I am working with partners," he has said, "to see if it can travel, and maybe end up in African as a museum or library." Whatever the pavilion's eventual fate, Kéré's belief in architecture's inclusivity and capacity to enhance lives bodes well for its semi-public use as a place of meeting.