Francis Kéré on his Serpentine Pavilion: “I dream of work in the UK. It’s the place to build”

Published 21 June 2017

Three years after his tunnel of straws inspired audiences in Sensing Spaces, architect Diébédo Francis Kéré is back in the UK as the designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion. We caught up to hear about his new creation.

  • Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect from Burkina Faso, first brought his work to the UK as part of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Sensing Spaces exhibition back in 2014. Now, he has completed one of London’s most famous commissions – the Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilions, which have been built in Kensington Gardens each summer since 2000, showcase an architect who has yet to build in the UK – which has included Royal Academicians including the late Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Zumthor and Daniel Libeskind. We caught up with Kéré to hear how he tackled this year’s commission.

    What were your ideas behind the pavilion design?

    It was very simple. I was inspired by a tree and the figure of this tree in the landscape. The canopy of the tree creates a shelter to protect you from the elements, without closing you completely off from the outside world. It is open and that is what I love.

    You often use natural, local materials such as clay. What made you choose the materials here?

    I had the chance to work in the most advanced society in terms of design, technology and feasibility, so I chose wood. Wood is a natural and traditional material here in the UK. It fits well in the park setting. I just gave it a surprising shape by adding texture and I stained it blue to protect against the elements.

  • Serpentine Pavilion 2017 designed by Francis Kéré

    Serpentine Pavilion 2017 designed by Francis Kéré

    Serpentine Gallery, London (23 June – 8 October 2017)

    © Kéré Architecture, Photography © 2017 Iwan Baan

  • Your work usually involves training people in your community to build. How did working with engineers and contractors compare?

    London is one of the most advanced places in terms of development and technology. Sometimes it’s good for someone like me, who is always pushing to train people, to relax. Here there is no limitation on the making. You can be really creative with the fabrication. We still had a sort of community with the engineer Aecom, with the Serpentine Gallery and with Stage One who built the pavilion.

    How do you justify high-end commissions like this, with such a need for buildings and infrastructure in your home country?

    For every architect the Serpentine Pavilion is a very attractive project. It is about architecture, about exploring and using the chance to create something new. It has given me visibility which will help my other work. The profession needs to be able to work at multiple scales – in an environment where people are fighting for basic needs as well as to offer the chance to work for high-end, visionary clients. It is a chance to innovate, to create something new, fresh and surprising, and I just took it.

    We first saw your work in the UK in Sensing Spaces in 2014. Has your work changed since?

    It has developed enormously since then. It keeps improving. I keep exploring new materials. There I used straws and plastic that was normally hidden and I exposed the materials. Here I am using traditional timber in a very modern way. I keep researching and trying to improve my designs.

  • How do you see your role as an architect?

    I try to use my profession to serve human experience and to try to create spaces which people can enjoy and live in different ways. Architecture should be used to serve human beings, but also to enhance visitor experience towards nature.

    Who do you look to for inspiration?

    I love a lot of the leading UK architects, but I have been greatly inspired by the Modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe, and by Louis Kahn. I really look to the way Kahn, as an American architect, could use architecture in the most remote places at the time, such as India, to create remarkable structures. The National Assembly Building in Dhaka has inspired me a lot.

    Do you have any more plans to work in the UK?

    I dream of work in the UK. This is the place to be to build. I’m waiting for big commissions and visionary clients with whom to explore architecture, space and materials.

  • Diébédo Francis Kéré on his Sensing Spaces installation, 2014

  • The Serpentine Pavilion designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré is in Kensington Gardens from 23 June to 8 October.

    Laura Mark is Architecture Project Manager at the RA.

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