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Wraps taken off Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion

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A first look at the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens PLUS an interview with co-commissioners Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel

The temporary structure has been designed by German-trained, African-born architect Diébédo Francis Kéré - the 17th international architect chosen to build the annual landmark at the Serpentine Gallery.

This year’s pavilion, which opens to the public on Friday (23 June), was inspired by a tree and meeting place in Kéré’s home town of Gando in Burkina Faso.

Kéré described his design as a ‘responsive’ structure that ‘seeks to connect its visitors to nature and each other’.

The scheme features a timber roof and walls supported by a steel structure, and a central oculus which funnels rainwater through the building to create a ‘spectacular waterfall’.

Francis Kéré said: ‘As an architect, it is an honour to work in such a grand park, especially knowing the long history of how the gardens evolved and changed into what we see today.

‘Every path and tree, and even The Serpentine lake, were all carefully designed. I am fascinated by how this artificial landscape offered a new way for people in the city to experience nature.

‘In Burkina Faso, I am accustomed to being confronted with climate and natural landscape as a harsh reality. 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.’

The pavilion is the first commissioned jointly by artistic director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and chief executive Yana Peel, who came in as last summer following the departure of former co-director Julia Peyton-Jones.

Project data

Overall site area 5,41m²
Gross internal area162.5m²
Dimensions of pavilion The footprint of the pavilion is defined by an oval-shaped ellipse. At the centre of the pavilion roof is an oval opening where an inner drainage funnel evacuates water from the roof into a central courtyard. Longitudinal dimension of pavilion roof (in the perpendicular axis to the gallery) is 24.1m; the widest dimension of the pavilion roof is 20.25m; the maximum height of the pavilion is 4.8m
Building footprint 330m²
Heights Maximum internal ceiling height is 4.7m; minimum internal ceiling height is 2.7m; lowest point of inner drainage funnel is 2.4m
Structure and materials Four modular timber walls and a steel truss roof structure with timber brise soleil ceiling panels and polycarbonate sheet weather protection. The wall system consists of 520 triangular modules made of stacked 75 x 200mm timber members of variable lengths.
The steel roof structure consists of 2,567 linear metres of 25 x 25mm and 40 x 25mm hollow square tube. The brise soleil ceiling consists of 420 panels made of 20 x 40mm timber members with 40mm centres.
The pavilion sits on a platform of poured concrete with drainage channels underneath all four walls and in the central courtyard.

This year’s pavilion explained: Q&As with pavilion commissioners Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel

Hans ulrich and yana peel

Yana Peel 

How do you think your approach to the Serpentine Pavilion differs to that of Julia Peyton-Jones?
This year’s pavilion is different. It’s radically simple, with a real community focus inspired by Francis Kéré and his socially-engaged vision of architecture. In a year in which we have defined the Serpentine’s mission going forward – to inspire the widest audiences with the urgency of art and architecture – who better to give shape and meaning to this message than Francis? Hans Ulrich’s and my shared ambition is to build on the pavilion’s historic success by evolving and experimenting with this unique site and experience. We will – we must – fill this place with life, as Francis says.

Would you consider looking at up-and-coming British talent for the main structure in future years?
The criteria for the Serpentine Pavilion is a commission for architects who have not yet built in England. It is an opportunity for a London and UK audience to experience the work of architects from around the world in the built form. Sometimes that will be a British architect as with Zaha Hadid, who built the very first pavilion, or the 2016 summer house designed by Asif Khan.

How have you found working with Francis?
Francis is totally inspiring. Just watch his TED Talk or come to see him speak in the pavilion during the summer. He’s a storyteller as well as an architect, and this spirit has infused the whole summer at the Serpentine – in particular our new strand of programming inside the pavilion: Radical Kitchen.

Francis is a storyteller as well as an architect

This will see different London community groups assembling every Wednesday at 1pm to share ideas around care and resilience in the city, and food cooked by the wonderful women of Mazi Mas, a roaming restaurant and social enterprise. Francis joins them in discussion on 5 July.

Why should visitors come to see this year’s pavilion?
This pavilion is a beautiful embodiment of Francis’s approach to architecture and community – he wants it to engender a feeling of togetherness

How do you foresee the future of the pavilion programme over the next five to ten years?
The Serpentine is committed to its architecture programme and to offering all our artists and architects a platform for experimentation. The programme has evolved over the past year to include the Summer Houses in 2016 and our hugely successful exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s early paintings and drawings in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which she of course designed.

I am also particularly excited about the potential of VR and AR in the gallery context, the first iteration of which was our collaboration with Google Arts & Culture to bring alive Zaha’s work in the Sackler show. To use Zaha’s words that continue to inspire us as we look to the future: ‘There is no end to experimentation’ – so watch this space. 

Hans Ulrich Obrist

How has your role changed over the years with respect to the pavilion?
The visionary Francis Kéré was very much the joint choice of myself and Yana Peel – with our advisers Richard Rogers and David Adjaye – in this, our first year as co-commissioners of the Serpentine Pavilion. We were both excited by his bold and beautiful design, which plays with light and water and the symbol of the tree that inspires its roof canopy. But we also fell for his natural storytelling powers and his strong focus on community. This summer, we will all be gathering under Kére’s tree.

We fell for his natural storytelling powers and his strong focus on community

The 2017 commission is also the result of a natural evolution of ideas. Julia Peyton-Jones and I worked on the pavilion commission together after I joined the Serpentine in 2006. That year, we commissioned Rem Koolhaas to create our first ‘content’ pavilion, which hosted the Interview Marathon and saw a new approach to commissioning live work in response to the pavilion.

We also developed the model of pairing an architect with an artist, resulting in some extraordinary structures from Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen (2007) and Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron (2012). In 2013, we began to showcase younger, emerging architects for the site: Smiljan Radic, selgascano and Sou Fujimoto, whose 2013 pavilion – thanks to our ongoing relationship with LUMA Foundation – has found a happy home in another public arts institution, the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania.

As Yana and I take the project into the future, we are drawing fresh focus from Kéré’s world view, which bridges his practice in Berlin and his upbringing in Burkino Faso to such great effect.

You ran an invited design competition to help select this year’s designer. Why did you choose this process?
We felt the commission was established enough to allow this process to work well. With the sad loss last year of our trustee, friend and long-time pavilion adviser Zaha Hadid, as well as the departure of adviser Lord Palumbo, we invited two new advisers into the fold this year: Richard Rogers and David Adjaye, who is also one of our Serpentine Trustees. The whole process was a series of conversations. Conversations with artists and architects is at the heart of everything we do at the Serpentine.

Has the pavilion programme achieved what it set out to and are you willing to try and experiment with new things?
There is no end to experimentation, in the words of Zaha who, let’s remember, built the very first Serpentine Pavilion and believed in experimenting until the end. The pavilion is a simple idea, conceived as a living exhibition but also as an annual experiment, one that doesn’t suffer the same constraints as a permanent building.

Rather than architectural models in vitrines, we want to make architecture a one-to-one experience

Rather than showing architectural models in vitrines, we want to make architecture a one-to-one experience. I think of Cedric Price’s words in this context: ‘It is in the making and consuming that culture is created, not in the identifying, classifying and storage.’ For that formula to work, the pavilion’s free admission is key.

Are there any regrets or near misses in terms of an architect you didn’t manage to work with – or pavilions that never happened?
There have been unrealised projects – including that of Frei Otto. But there are no regrets, only inspirations for the future. As Francis Kéré would say: ‘Architecture shapes our dreams.’

We believe in synergies between institutions, not rivals

Do you see the IF_DO pavilion at the Dulwich Gallery as a rival to what you are doing?
The Serpentine’s was the first commission of its kind in the world, and there are now a number of similar ones as far away as Australia. It can only be a good thing when architecture is made more visible and tangible to the widest possible audience. We are delighted the pavilion has inspired others and believe in synergies between institutions, not rivals.

Aside from the pavilion, do you plan to have any exhibitions dedicated to architecture?
The Serpentine is a visual arts institution, with an annual commitment to architecture through the pavilion commission. But we have also devoted exhibitions to design, Konstantin Grcic and Martino Gamper for instance, and of course we’ve also exhibited the art of Zaha Hadid in the building she designed for us – a show that toured in expanded form to Hong Kong.

Are there any further capital projects in the pipeline, and if so do you need any architects?
There are no capital projects currently in the pipeline but the pavilion project will be expanding internationally.

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