Homage to the forest tree: Architect Francis Kéré pays tribute to his African roots

Serpentine Pavilion 2017, Designed by Francis Kéré, Design Render, Exterior. ©Kéré Architecture

The announcement of Diébédo Francis Kéré as the designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion has been hailed as a timely recognition for the work of this architect. Kéré is one of a few African architects with a global profile, and he will be the first architect from the continent to design the installation.

Francis Kéré. © Erik Jan Ouwerkerk

Since 2000 the Serpentine Galleries Foundation has invited international architects to design a temporary building in Kensington Gardens for the London summer. Kéré is the seventeenth architect to accept the Serpentine Galleries’ invitation. Some notable previous invitees include Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Oscar Niemeyer, Bjarke Ingels, Frank Gehry and Sou Fujimoto.

This annual commission of an international architect to build his or her temporary structure in London has become one of the most anticipated events in the global cultural calender. It’s a leading visitor attraction during London’s summer season.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, shared the news of the appointment in his Instagram feed with three of Francis Kéré’s sketches.

In these drawings the structure is described as: “A big umbrella supported by thin metal structure anchored in a concrete block.”

In the next sketch Kéré refers to “a funnel to collect water for the community”.

In the third Instagram image Kéré highlights the “place to meet and discuss” under a roof.

The trope of the roof is a constant in Kéré’s work. It refers to the primordial act of creating a shelter in the landscape of Burkina Faso, where he is from. The trope can be easily identified in all of his designs.

Dedication and tenacity

Born 52 years ago in the village of Gando, Kéré is the eldest son of a large family. He made good on his family’s efforts to send him as the first child of their village to school. He travelled nearly 40 kilometres to the next village in order to attend a school with poor lighting and ventilation.

It unfolds as a gripping story of perseverance, dedication and tenacity. The experience of trying to learn in this oppressive environment affected him so much that when he began to study architecture in Europe, he decided to reinvest his knowledge towards building a new school in his home village.

Gando Primary School, Burkina Faso. @ Simeon Duchoud

His first building upon completion of his studies at the Technical University in Berlin, the Gando primary school received the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 for the motivation that went into it:

Far beyond its educational programme and exemplified highest calibre architectural design employing locally available materials and techniques, training, and community participation and empowerment.

He had used the project for his diploma work and to raise funds for it he established an NGO in Germany. As his advisor, Peter Herrle, recalls, “the period after the award was the hardest time”. That is because, once Kéré established his practice in Berlin, he started being confronted,

with a lasting project: how was he to make enough money from non-commercial projects in Africa to maintain an office?

This is indeed a singular condition that reverses the often abused neo-colonialist paradigm of global north practices involved in pro-bono work in the global south.

The ability that became apparent from his first built work was the synergy between managing a design and build process in a context of extremely scarce and limited resources and skill sets. This, whilst at the same time raising awareness and funds for the endeavour in a different continent.

National Park of Mali; Bamako, Mali, 2010, © Kéré Architecture. Kéré Architecture

The human challenge of effectively having to speak different languages – both to communicate verbally, but also in terms of design aesthetics, represented an innovative breakthrough in the collective imagery of what architecture in Africa could be in the 21st century. Furthermore, it spoke to a growing number of architecture students on the continent that have been in dire needs of role models.

Radically simple

Kéré’s work is currently being exhibited in the first major monographic exhibition at the Architecture Museum of the Technical University in Munich, Germany. The show is curated by Andres Lepik and Ayca Beygo. Together with the accompanying catalogue, it is aptly titled “Radically Simple”.

The adjectives refer to the architect’s ability to “blend local skills, community effort, economic solidarity and European input”. Conceived of as a narrative, both the show and the book help a wider global audience discover the unique story of a truly remarkable individual.

Camper Pop-up Shop at Vitra; Weil am Rhein, Germany, 2015 ©Vitra. Eduardo Perez

They also speak to the collaborative nature of the participatory engagement with a community that is key to ensuring the success of the spatial and built transformation of the environment. The discipline of architecture is uniquely posited to allow this engagement. It is perhaps for this reason more than others, that Kéré’s appointment to design this summer’s Serpentine pavilion is so timeous.

The leitmotiv of the roof, the canopy, the homage to the tree in the forest, are reinterpreted by the architect in many of his latest exhibition installations. There is a reference to the tradition in Burkina Faso where young boys are sent out in the wilderness as part of their education. Simultaneously, there is a conscious position to create spaces that emphasise social encounter, exchange and gathering.

The plurality of the cultural, social and political language of Kéré’s work in general, and the pavilion proposal in particular, is not only ornamental, decorative or superficial. It is in fact clearly grounded in a daily practice of translation, intended here as a “cultural technique for dealing with difference”.

This is indeed needed at a time of global uncertainty and fear.

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