Francis Kéré: Serpentine Pavilion 2017 — “Gathering Form: Making a Building, Building Community”

Author
Jeanne Gang

Editors
Melissa Blanchflower and Joseph Constable

Publication
Francis Kéré: Serpentine Pavilion 2017

Publisher
Serpentine Galleries and Koenig Books

Year
2017

Design
Fraser Muggeridge studio

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In this essay for the publication accompanying Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion, Jeanne Gang highlights Kéré’s approach to building community through architecture.

“Francis Kéré creates by centring his approach on the question, ‘How will this building be made?’ For him this is not an abstract question but a specific, community-based inquiry into locally available materials, techniques, tools and people—an interrelated set of criteria that can shift over the life of a project. Nested within this investigation is the goal of making a building’s construction a collective enterprise that gathers communities together, strengthening their social bonds and empowering them with new knowledge, skills and confidence. For many of his projects, he directs and works alongside his teams of builders—often the very same people who will use the buildings upon completion, whether they are members of his home village community in Gando, Burkina Faso, or a mix of long-term and recently immigrated residents of Berlin, as is planned for his proposal for the Volksbühne Satellite Theatre project at Tempelhof Airport. Many workers come to the building site without previous experience in construction and learn along the way. They finish with the kind of technical understanding and hands-on experience that can lead to continued employment in the building trades, as well as a deep sense of ownership and pride in the project they built together. Shared cultural practices can also become part of the construction process, integrated just like welding or bricklaying and further weaving together building and community.

With all of this action occurring at the building site, it’s no wonder that Kéré has said he sometimes feels more like an orchestra conductor than an architect. To lead his projects, he must use considerable social intelligence as well as wielding more traditional architectural expertise in material, structure and form-making. He and his team are continually experimenting with earth as a building material, testing the capabilities of various local soils by combining them with additional materials and developing new methods to form the resulting composites into bricks, panels and other modular elements. Advanced engineering always plays a major role in his projects. Lightweight structures and inventive sustainability strategies enable efficient construction, increase performance, and reduce environmental footprints. They also liberate the walls of his earth buildings from their traditional load-bearing roles. Thus more free to experiment with form, Kéré and his team explore various ways in which looser, more porous relationships between interior and exterior can produce architecture that announces the exciting and valuable activities happening inside—from education and healthcare to housing and cultural events—and graciously welcomes everyone to gather and take part.

A sense of the possibilities that Kéré’s projects open up for their communities is expressed in their final architecture. One prominent example is the ‘lifted’ roof of many of his buildings, including his first, the Primary School in Gando. Supported by rebar space-frame structures that are rigidly geometric in plan yet seemingly weightless in section, these roofs hover above their earthen building volumes like poised airplane wings, ready to take flight. Detaching the roof in this way passively ventilates the interior, which is critical in Gando and similar project sites where the climate is hot year-round and the resources needed for mechanical cooling do not exist. Students and other users can stay cool and dry beneath these soaring roofs and the ceilings below, which are often made of perforated brick or are otherwise permeable to the sky—as in the Gando School Library, where clay pots sawed in half and cast into the ceiling create a shifting galaxy of light on the floor and walls inside. It is moves like this that demonstrate an ability to bring the social and natural worlds together in quietly extraordinary ways, creating ideal environments for gathering and enhancing shared experience.

London is now lucky to receive Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion, an unfettered space for gathering that he and his team have designed to embrace the particular climate, landscape and community who will use it in Kensington Gardens. For this place of leisure, the lightness and strength of a steel space frame lift a new kind of soaring roof—a bold canopy that extends upward and outward from an elliptical ring of columns, offering visitors shade and shelter, the essential ingredients of gathering. With its translucent polycarbonate envelope and timber brise-soleil, it connects the interior with the sky and scatters geometric patterns of changing light across the concrete podium. At night, it becomes a dramatic lantern, welcoming people from across the Park to take part in the events held below its glowing canopy. Perhaps this relative freedom from constraints has awakened something new.

The canopy also liberates the building’s four walls from structural duties. They become free to concentrate on performing the fluid work of bringing people together and connecting them with nature. Each wall, arcing in plan, is shaped to flexibly accommodate a different type of social use—event space, play space, café, and contemplative space facing out towards the surrounding garden. Their materiality and construction reveal a central concern with ‘how it’s made’, this time calibrated to the demands of the Serpentine brief.

Elemental in nature, the walls are made of stacked, pyramidal wood blocks, which were the solution to a tight construction timeline. Their indigo-blue stain protects them from the elements and carries the cultural magic of Kéré’s home community in Burkina Faso, where indigo is an auspicious colour worn for the most special of events—just like the realisation of his first building in London. And as in his other constructions, the porosity of these blue walls performs both environmentally and experientially. Narrow gaps between the blocks’ edges create flickering effects and reinforce the openness of the scheme, allowing light and air to pass through and dissolving inside and outside with their stitched glimpses.

The walls’ curving interplay shows a deep engagement with gathering—how to encourage and support it, and how powerful a role it can play in human experience and memory. Most of the visitors to the Pavilion, unlike the tight-knit village community in Gando, will arrive there as strangers to one another and the building will not hold their built-in memories. Demonstrating an understanding of the needs and desires of this more ephemeral community, the Pavilion’s multiple approaches and modes of occupation welcome people from all walks of life to draw together and engage as they wish, connecting through shared experience.

The Pavilion’s exuberance, in fact, feels like a celebration of the multitude of informal social connections that can occur there—as if it is relishing the opportunity of its programmatic ‘lightness’ and temporary nature, which are so different from the critical, long-term functions served by the majority of Kéré’s projects. This community-focused spirit is concentrated at the Pavilion’s centre. Here, the canopy’s elliptical oculus acts as a funnel that can transform rainy weather, so common in London, into a spectacular natural event—a waterfall that cascades through the ceiling and is subsequently channelled underground to irrigate the surrounding landscape. Brought together by this ephemeral event, Pavilion visitors are invited to share a sense of wonder—gathered as a community, even for just a moment, through witnessing the beauty of nature and feeling part of its dynamic flow. This is how great architecture is made.”