“I almost hope it will rain,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine, standing beneath the soaring timber canopy of the gallery’s summer pavilion, which plunges inwards to form a conical funnel where rain will be channelled into a circular waterfall. “It has definitely been designed with British summers in mind.”
The opening of the annual pavilion has been plagued by untimely downpours in previous years, putting optimistic architects from warmer climes to the test, but this year African architect Francis Kéré seems to have brought the scorching heat of Burkina Faso to Kensington Gardens.
“I was inspired by the big tree in my native village of Gando,” says the 52-year-old architect, who established his practice in Berlin in 2005. “The community always gathers in its shade. I wanted to create a place that would encourage people to come together, with spaces where you feel enclosed and protected, or choose to look out to the park.”
The result achieves that rare feat for a piece of contemporary architecture: it looks much better than the computer visualisations. The pavilion has been built with precision and refinement. Like an upturned hat, the 25-metre-diameter roof appears to float above four curving walls made of deep blue-stained wood arranged in a staggered triangular pattern, with gaps providing glimpses through the structure. In some lights, it looks like translucent fabric, in others a massive opaque wall. On the outside, the wood is subtly chamfered, so the walls shimmer in the sunshine like woven silk.
“It’s like the indigo clothes we wear in the village on festive occasions,” says Kéré. “I thought, ‘I’m coming to London, so I must wear my best outfit.’” Dressed in a deep blue suit and white shirt, he blends into the crowd of architects, except for the ring of tribal scars on his face, which mark him out as the son of the village chief – a position of privilege that gave him the chance to attend school in the city, and later win a scholarship to study in Germany.
Since he graduated from the Technical University of Berlin, Kéré has built a reputation for designing sparing structures in Burkina Faso, using mud bricks and lightweight steel frames, often built by unskilled labour with elegant economy. “I have used the same principles here,” he says, “but with the wonders of British engineering, I can do more.” He initially considered using bricks made onsite for the pavilion walls, but was forbidden from turning the royal park into a mud quarry.
The pavilion becomes more rewarding the longer you stay, your eye drawn to subtle details amid the changing patterns of light, such as the kids’ slide like a little volcano, beautifully milled from a mound of plywood. “It’s one of the most deceptively complex pavilions so far,” says Tim Leigh of Stage One, the Yorkshire fabricators who have built the last nine pavilions. “It looked simple, but to make the cantilevered steel structure so fine was a real challenge.”
The spindly wooden spokes of the canopy are fixed at different angles, casting a pulsating pattern of dappled light across the concrete floor. The angled gaps provide glimpses through to the delicate steel trusses that hold the whole thing up, supported on a ring of pylons at the centre, where rainwater will be funnelled down to a patch of gravel and into a 9,000l (2,000 gallon) tank, to be recycled for irrigation.
Standing in this central clearing – open to the sky, surrounded by pylons and the spokes of the great wooden dish shooting outwards – is a momentous feeling, like the village chief might appear at any minute. There will be no tribal ceremonies in Kensington, though this year’s programme is more community focused than ever, and the pavilion will host a weekly lunch organised by Mazí Mas, a social enterprise established for and run by migrant women.
The Radical Kitchen will see the space taken over every Wednesday at 1pm to provide a platform for community groups to share food and “recipes for change, care and survival in the city” – an ambition that has taken on more relevance since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, just a couple of miles away. Groups hosting lunches include the People’s Fridge, a community organisation in Brixton where people can donate spare food, and the Focus E15 campaign group with Architects for Social Housing, who have been battling estate regeneration across the capital.
Previous pavilions have been variously sold to private collectors and corporate sponsors, and now ornament gardens and vineyards around the world. Sources say billionaire businessman and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown interest in Kéré’s, but the gallery won’t confirm. “It’s not up to me,” says the architect. “I just hope that it can be useful.”