It’s that time of the year again: the 2017 Serpentine Galleries pavilion, an annual Instagram phenom of an architectural folly, is here.
For the Serpentine’s 17th temporary pavilion, which opens to the public on Friday, June 23 in London’s Kensington Gardens, Berlin-based architect Diébédo Francis Kéré conjured a joyful, tree-shaped structure that works together with its verdant surroundings.
Known for his socially engaged architecture, Kéré has built several education and health facilities across his home country of Burkina Faso, where his buildings—with their clean lines, simple materials, and elemental beauty, have created an essential infrastructure. His expertise lies in creating low-cost buildings that adapt to the local climate and are built using local materials and traditional techniques.
“I believe that architecture has the power to surprise, unite, and inspire all, while mediating important aspects such as community, ecology and economy,” he says.
With this latest project, Kéré demonstrates how his architecture can make a seamless transition from Burkina Faso’s red clay soils to the Serpentine’s manicured lawn. “In Burkina Faso, I am accustomed to being confronted with climate and natural landscape as a harsh reality,” he said. “For this reason, I was interested in how my contribution to this Royal Park could not only enhance the visitor’s experience of nature, but also provoke a new way for people to connect with each other.”
Realized in a simple material palette of concrete, steel, polycarbonate, and timber, the pavilion’s low-lying circular form is inspired by baobab trees, a species native to Kéré’s hometown of Gando. Characterized by their chubby trunks and a flat canopy of branches, the baobab trees function as meeting places for the community.
“Like the shade of the tree branches, the pavilion becomes a place where people can gather and share their daily experiences,” explains Kéré.
An overhanging timber roof, supported by a steel structure and covered with a transparent skin, offers dappled shade and allows air to circulate. "Wherever you turn, there are openings” said Kéré of the design. “We wanted you to still be connected to nature.”
Underneath this canopy, four bright-blue curved walls made of prefabricated wooden blocks wrap the space. Assembled in triangular modules that have slight gaps and apertures between them, the design allows air to circulate while creating a sense of lightness. Indigo blue, Kéré explained, is an important color in his country’s culture. “If you have the chance to do something like I did here you come with your best color, you show yourself from your best side. This is indigo blue.”
At the pavilion’s center lies a circular open air courtyard. Here, the roof slopes downwards like a tree trunk, funneling rainwater into an underfloor drainage system, where it will be collected and used to irrigate the park. Somewhat uncharacteristically, London’s famed rain didn’t make an appearance at this morning’s viewing.
“I hope it will rain soon,” laughed Kéré during his address to the crowd. “You will be safe and protected by the structure, and you will see the effect of a waterfall, here in the middle of the pavilion. I wanted to celebrate water, even in London.”
“Water is a precious gift. Here we are able to collect 9,000 liters of water that will be used for the park. It is real.”
In the evening, the pavilion’s open structure becomes a source of light, with the perforated walls providing glimpses of activity within. “In my home village of Gando, it is always easy to locate a celebration at night by climbing to higher ground and searching for the source of light in the surrounding darkness,” reflects Kéré. “In this way, the pavilion will become a beacon of light, a symbol of storytelling and togetherness.”
The pavilion is open to the public in London’s Kensington Gardens from Friday, June 23 to Sunday, October 8.