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Review: Francis Kéré’s bright and airy Serpentine Pavilion is a hit

Source: Jim Stephenson

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Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion exhibits both clarity and quality, finds Jon Astbury. Photography and video by Jim Stephenson

After the surge of activity at the 2016 Serpentine Pavilion, which as the swansong of former director Julia Peyton-Jones introduced four additional ‘Summer Houses’ that didn’t quite hit the mark, it was something of a relief to see the return of one, singular focus for this highlight of the architectural summer calendar, now in its seventeenth year. It was a feeling reinforced not only by the quality of the design and detailing (finished well on time this year), but the whole concept of the structure, which its Burkina Faso-born designer Diébédo Francis Kéré described as inspired by the idea of gathering underneath a tree.

This sense no doubt owes much to the design itself, but it is also the result of a revised and more rigorous procurement procedure, which saw a panel led by new CEO Yana Peel and Hans Ulrich Obrist draw on the expertise of an advisory board including Richard Rogers and David Adjaye in choosing a design from an invited competition, rather than the selection of an architect which had been Peyton-Jones’ approach in the past.

Serp2017 jimstephenson 3 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 3 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

It was also something of a relief to return, after the egg-like and tensile cocoons of Smiljan Radic (2014) and Selgas Cano (2015), as well as BIG’s more interiority-led pixelated ‘zip’ cavern (2016), to something so bright and airy, something that, as Kéré describes, ‘breathes’. Characteristically, and especially with this being his first work in London, Kéré appears to regard preconceived notions with suspicion – everything will work as a response to the site (including his speech, for which, he admitted to creative director Obrist, he had prepared nothing).

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. 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 colour worn for celebrations in Gando.

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.’

Serp2017 jimstephenson 5 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 5 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

Architect’s view

The proposed design for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion is conceived as a micro cosmos – a community structure within Kensington Gardens that fuses cultural references of my home country, Burkina Faso, with experimental construction techniques. My experience of growing up in a remote desert village has instilled a strong awareness of the social, sustainable and cultural implications of design. I believe that architecture has the power to surprise, unite and inspire, all while mediating important aspects such as community, ecology and economy.

In Burkina Faso, the tree is a place where people gather together, where everyday activities play out under the shade of its branches. My design for the Serpentine Pavilion has a great over-hanging roof canopy made of steel with a transparent skin covering the structure, which allows sunlight to enter the space while also protecting it from the rain. Wooden shading elements line the underside of the roof to create a dynamic shadow effect on the interior spaces. This combination of features promotes a sense of freedom and community; like the shade of the tree branches, the pavilion becomes a place where people can gather and share their daily experiences.

Serp2017 jimstephenson 20 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 20 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

Fundamental to my architecture is a sense of openness. In the pavilion this is achieved by the wall system, which is comprised of prefabricated wooden blocks assembled into triangular modules with slight gaps, or apertures, between them. This gives a lightness and transparency to the building enclosure. The composition of the curved walls is split into four elements, creating four different access points to the pavilion. Detached from the roof canopy, these elements allow air to circulate freely throughout. 

At the centre of the pavilion is a large opening in the canopy, creating an immediate connection to nature. In times of rain, the roof becomes a funnel channelling water into the heart of the structure. This rain collection acts symbolically, highlighting water as a fundamental resource for human survival and prosperity. In the evening, the canopy becomes a source of illumination. Wall perforations will give glimpses of movement and activity inside the pavilion to those outside. In my home village of Gando (Burkina Faso), 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. This small light becomes larger as more and more people arrive to join the event. In this way the pavilion will become a beacon of light, a symbol of storytelling and togetherness.

Francis Kéré, Kéré Architecture

Serp2017 jimstephenson 16 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 16 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

Engineer’s view

Creating a sense of community was Kéré’s intent for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion. As engineers, our role is to provide the technical solutions that transform his architectural vision into a functional space where people can gather.

The architect’s vision is one of community and connecting people together with nature. We created an exposed structure using a simple palette of tactile traditional materials that encourages visitors to engage with them. Throughout the design process, our focus was to create delight for the people that visit the pavilion.

We developed our own digital parametric model of the canopy structure, allowing the geometry of the roof and the spacing of the ceiling timbers to be delicately adjusted to best suit the architectural vision and create striking views from inside the pavilion. Using tools developed in-house, the model was transferred into an immersive virtual environment so that we could put ourselves into a full-scale simulation of the finished structure, which helped shape the design around a human-scale perspective.

Serp2017 jimstephenson 21 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 21 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

For Kéré, it is important the pavilion becomes a beacon of light at night. We worked closely with the architect and contractor to create visualisations of the final designs, allowing us to envisage the mood and ambience from multiple points of view to craft a subtle and inviting glow.

Only four materials were used to build the pavilion – steel, timber, concrete and polycarbonate – to create a light, exposed structure. Each material was engineered down to a minimum, with every detail requiring close attention. Each component was carefully aligned and refined to create a neat simplicity that belies the complex elliptical geometry of the structure.

Connecting with nature is a key theme of the architect’s design. Kéré took inspiration from the trees of his home village and the structure was designed to mimic this. The roof projects out to form a canopy for shelter from the elements and the funnel formed by the central columns channels water into the heart of the structure when it rains. We introduced a hidden drainage system underground that holds the water until it dissipates into the surrounding landscape.

The engineering challenge of delivering the Pavilion is further intensified by the project’s tight timescales: we have only 20 weeks from appointing the architect to the opening day, and from the moment the first shovel hits the ground the pavilion must be constructed in just seven weeks. This rapid pace necessitates a circular design process as everybody pulls together to realise the architectural vision. Working closely with Stage One during fabrication, we planned an exact construction sequence for the canopy’s complex collection of nodes to help minimise time on site. Behind the project’s success lies a commitment to collaboration from everybody involved. The freestanding walls are unique to the project, using triangular wooden modules as a play on modern timber construction and more traditional London brick construction. Connected edge on edge, the panels combine to provide shelter but gaps between the panels create a playful visual connection from inside to outside.

Jon Leach, director, Buildings + Places, AECOM

Serp2017 jimstephenson 9 webres

Serp2017 jimstephenson 9 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

Project data

Dates open 23 June - 8 October 2017
Overall site area 541m²
Gross internal area 162.5m²
Footprint 330m²
Heights 4.7m max internal ceiling height, 2.7m min internal ceiling height 

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