London’s annual temporary architecture pavilion spectacular has returned. Each summer the Serpentine Pavilion program selects an accomplished architect who has yet to create work in the United Kingdom, and asks them to build a temporary shelter on the gallery's lawn. The resulting structure is erected in June and dismantled in October.
This year’s offering is designed by Francis Kéré—the first pavilion designed by an African Architect to grace Kensington Gardens. Kéré’s project is composed of a series of curving blue walls shaded by an elliptical cantilevering wood and steel canopy. Thus far the design has been universally lauded by critics; read on to find out why they thought the project was so appealing.
“This simple structure is laced with countless stories of inclusivity which speak to a London in grief” – Ike Ijeh, BDOnline
Ike Ijeh places Kéré’s communal pavilion in the social context of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Brexit, and the divisive political climate that currently grips the capital city. Ijeh finds this year’s offering to be one of the “most low-tech pavilions in years” and as a result, the journalist commends the project for its welcoming design and unpretentiousness.
Left as an ode to African culture alone, this year’s pavilion would have formed an interesting enough cultural curio of the like once found in the nearby former Commonwealth Institute. But Kéré wisely elevates his work above the status of artifact by ensuring that it also fully relates to the park and city in which it stands.
Ijeh claims that even though Francis Kéré is a native of Burkina Faso, his accessible and intimate project is proof positive that the multiculturalism of London itself is successful. By promoting genuine human interaction through natural materials, Kéré’s project is a vote of confidence in tumultuous times:
Yes it is an enigmatically crafted poem to the architect’s homeland. But, at a difficult time for the capital, it also forms a vibrant architectural lens through which we can reaffirm the cultural internationalism that is central to London’s enduring character and spirit.
“The resulting miniature-stadium-esque aesthetic is unmistakably Kéré, and is led by a mix of pragmatic climatic responses and the storytelling he is becoming known for” – Jon Astbury, The Architects’ Journal
Jon Astbury praises both the simplicity and cultural significance that Kéré’s pavilion embodies: everything from the laced wood and steel canopy, to the stacked and painted wooden walls carry symbolism.
The pavilion continues a penchant for lightweight roof structures perched on delicate metal frames above a solid base. In his hometown of Gando, Burkina Faso, this would be brick or rammed-earth—here it is Toblerone segments of stacked indigo timber, referencing the brickwork of the gallery opposite but also the color worn for celebrations in Gando.
Astbury goes on to praise how the building selflessly negotiates the climatic challenges of the site. The structure’s massive canopy can simultaneously filter sunlight, protect occupants against rain, and tend to the park’s green space:
Climatically it responds to that summer condition of sunlight all too frequently giving way to rain: the gaps between the timber base, the slats in the roof and the clerestory space all ensure sunlight is exploited, but in the event of rain water will be channelled down a polycarbonate funnel and into the centre of the space to irrigate the park. The central point of this water element is vital, not least because of the conditions in which Kéré usually works. As he states in his speech, calling London the architecture capital of the world, ‘You have everything—yet you have no idea that you have everything.'
"Inspired by a tree used as a meeting place in his native village of Gando, architect Francis Kéré has brought a piece of Burkina Faso to London—a deceptively simple roof that seems to float above the greenery” – Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
Wainwright remarks on the tranquillity achieved through Kéré’s space through its straight forward, human-centered design. He finds that through the building’s simple elements, complexity is derived:
The pavilion becomes more rewarding the longer you stay, your eye drawn to subtle details amid the changing patterns of light, such as the kids’ slide like a little volcano, beautifully milled from a mound of plywood.
Wainwright goes on to applaud the project’s relative authenticity. Kéré’s “upturned hat” is entirely unusual to the Serpentine as it escapes the parametric tropes that pavilions of the past have seemingly been stuck in. It’s also one of the few projects, he argues, that delivers more than its concept promised:
The result achieves that rare feat for a piece of contemporary architecture: it looks much better than the computer visualizations. The pavilion has been built with precision and refinement. Like an upturned hat, the 25-metre diameter roof appears to float above four curving walls made of deep blue-stained wood arranged in a staggered triangular pattern, with gaps providing glimpses through the structure.
“Kéré’s pavilion is a tree-like space in which to enjoy all weathers and ‘meet your dream’” – Rowan Moore, The Observer
Rowan Moore claims that the pavilion is successful because of the scope of what it tries to accomplish. The gathering space is merely a small sheltered seating area with good lighting conditions. The project doesn’t transcend its pragmatic purpose by wandering into the realm of sculpture. Program is still king in Kéré’s tactful project.
There’s a tendency with Serpentine pavilions for the architecture to outrun the content—the series of events they contain—and head towards being an art installation, at which point they enter territory where actual artists, Dan Graham for example, do better. Kéré’s pavilion, expressive though it is, doesn’t do this. They can also sit uncertainly between permanence and temporariness.
The critic lauds the level of authenticity that Kéré achieves. He finds the rationalization for the design choices to be more convincing than previous pavilions:
The deep blue, for example, is a color worn in Burkina Faso on special occasions and to impress, when going on a date, or some other time when 'you go to meet your dream.' The walls, made of stacked triangular assemblies of simple timber sections, are meant to have the look of a textile. But, despite Kéré’s talk of being awed by his predecessors, this is a Serpentine Pavilion that (unusually for the genre) doesn’t try too hard. It provides congenial places for gathering and pausing. It improves the climate.
“The structure does have a certain geometric exuberance to it—albeit less of the Instagram pizzazz of last year’s unzipped wall of boxes by Bjarke Ingels or the rainbow-tinged polytunnel created by Selgas Cano for 2015.” – Edwin Heathcote, The Financial Times
Edwin Heathcote frames his positive review of the pavilion around an interview conducted with the architect himself. He finds Francis Kéré’s design expressive but not self-absorbed. The structure is a respectful homage to the building techniques prevalent in the architect's native Burkina Faso.
The differences between the continent’s myriad cultures are, obviously, enormous; David Adjaye’s enthralling book Africa highlights the sheer exuberant variety of architecture across the continent, from the informal to the spectacular. So is there, I ask, even such a thing as African architecture? 'Yes,' Kéré says. 'People use what they can: mud, roofs made of branches. There are circular structures. They get the best they can from nature: mud, wood. They learn to do more with less.'
The pavilion’s success is a promising milestone for African architecture, says Heathcote. This small shelter in central London represents an unexpected embrace by the West towards African design, and its popularity could help spur public interest in the continent:
The Serpentine pavilion, adapted a little for life in an English park, in the summer and the rain, is a little taste of how it works. And is he, I wonder, optimistic about architecture in Africa? 'Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes,' he says. 'People now know that architecture can make a difference,' he adds. 'It’s a way of becoming visible.'