OPINION

The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion by Diébédo Francis Kéré

London

20 June 2017

Berlin-based Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré’s structure for the Serpentine Galleries’ long-running pavilion scheme was unveiled yesterday.

It’s a successful structure: a swooping wooden canopy, held up by a light-weight steel framework, provides a slatted brise soleil for museum-goers. (They need it – London is currently experiencing a record-breaking heatwave.) Four dark blue walls are made from timber blocks, stacked as to produce a pattern reminiscent of Burkinabé textiles – they modulate around the 330sqm site, offering four entry points into the pavilion. The focal point of its interior space is an open-air courtyard, into which water will cascade through a canopy oculus in the event of rain. The rainwater is then evacuated through a drainage system, and used to irrigate surrounding parklands. (They need it – on the day of the press view, lawns were looking scorched.)

The pavilion has all the hallmarks of a Kéré building: it fosters social interaction, responds to its local ecology, and deploys common-sense and largely unspectacular materials and techniques in doing so. As such, it couldn't be a further cry from last year’s starchitect party tent, the Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) lego-like “unzipped wall”. Architecturally, it marks a departure for the Serpentine Galleries, whose pavilion scheme has the stated aim of introducing outstanding architects “to wider audiences,” but whose commissions have mainly fallen to already-fêted practitioners such as BIG, Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Novel and Frank Gehry since its inception in 2000.

The programming that accompanies Kéré’s pavilion also signals a subtler shift, with the Serpentine Galleries seeking to communicate a more socially conscious agenda. Like previous years, the pavilion will be the site of Park Nights throughout the summer, an annual event series of talks, performances and screenings curated by the gallery. Unlike previous years, however, the Serpentine will host a series of lunchtime talks entitled Radical Kitchen, where local community groups will meet and share recipes for “meaningful social change” – details of the series have yet to be revealed. The Radical Kitchen events are catered by Masí Has, a roaming, London-based pop-up restaurant run by migrant women.

This move seems understandable and timely given the community focus of Dulwich Art Gallery's newly opened garden pavilion, which saw local Camberwell architects IF_DO design an open, multi-mirrored meeting spot responding to the hefty 19th-century gallery building next to it. The Dulwich Pavilion was not conceived as a rival to the Serpentine Galleries' scheme – indeed, it may be a one-off, marking, as it does, the bicentenary of the opening of the Dulwich Picture Gallery – but the success of the initiative might suggest that there is room for other conversations about temporary architecture in London, prompted by less obsessively iconic and more socially anchored practices.