Monday, 10 July 2017

Construction time again #2:Francis Kere and the Serpentine Pavilion.

It's become something of an annual secular pilgrimage of mine to head down to Kensington Gardens each summer and check out the Serpentine Pavilion. Last year's edifice came courtesy of the Bjarke Ingels Group and this year the baton has been handed over to Burkinabe architect Diebedo Francis Kere. My knowledge of the architecture of Burkina Faso is limited to one visit to the Calvert 22 Foundation in Shoreditch where I saw an Isaac Julien photograph of Place des Cineastes in Ouagadougou. That impressed me so I had high hopes of Kere's pavilion.

I love the blue colour that Kere has used in his construction - and the triangular motif was aesthetically pleasing too. Kere's firm may be based in Berlin but his influence comes from the small village of Gando in Burkina Faso's Department of Tenkodogo where he was born in 1965 and became the first child in that village to go to school. It's inspired by the tree that serves as a central meeting point for the people of the village.

It both connects to and, with its canopy, keeps out nature. Unfortunately it was unable to keep out the sound of Starsailor supporting Phil Collins over in Hyde Park. You could hear James Walsh bleating like Larry the Lamb when the wind blew in the right/wrong direction.

It also didn't serve as much of a meeting place when it had to be evacuated due to a bomb scare. A careless visitor had left his bag there and had to sheepishly return to retrieve it before we were all allowed back in. I wasn't tempted to stick around for banana bread, a seasonal fruit pot, a bottle of Gingeralla, or even a glass of Pinot Grigio in the cafĂ© but I did linger longer to admire the building for a bit and to learn a little about Kere's background and career.

According to the UN Human Development Index in 2011 Burkina Faso is the 7th least developed country in the world. Low income, low life expectancy, and lack of education has hindered progress in the country and the fact that there is virtually no rain for about eight months of the year, when the temperatures regularly reach 45c, hasn't helped either.

Kere started his career by building a primary school out of mud bricks in Gando. Most Burkinabe schools are built from concrete and are, therefore, often intolerably hot and not particularly conducive to learning. The fear with mud bricks was that they'd not survive the rainy season but Kere's innovative widened tin roof solved this problem.

From there he went on to build an extension to the school, a school library, and housing for the teachers. More schools and an atelier followed as well as a project to plant more mango trees to help with malnutrition in an area where most people only eat one meal a day.

People further afield started to take notice of Kere's work and he received commissions from neighbouring Mali and then as far away as both Switzerland and China. He even ended up having a tenure as a professor at Harvard. He'd come a long way from Gando but he'd clearly kept Gando in his heart along the journey.

So he was probably long overdue an appearance in the UK and I'm pleased to say that in terms of functionality and playfulness the pavilion was certainly doing its job. Kids and big kids alike were enjoying sliding down its smooth wooden surfaces and its proposed use as a meeting place was, after the bomb scare, working wonders. People knocking off early on a Friday afternoon were putting their feet up and letting the stresses and pressures of the working week slowly rinse off.
We've been having a wonderful, and proper, summer so I was unable to witness the oculus Kere had provided to funnel off rain water and convert it into an apparently spectacular waterfall. I'd like to see that - but then again I'd like it to continue being sunny for a bit longer yet.
The Pavilion is also being put to use to host a series of community picnics. This, and the ongoing series of Park Nights that seeks to present a 'series of experimental and interdisciplinary encounters' in art, music, film, philosophy, and technology, all seem to hew true to the ethos Kere had in mind when designing the building. He did, after all, say in his mission statement that he hoped that "the Pavilion will become a beacon of light, a symbol of storytelling and togetherness." I think he's gone and done it. Bravo

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