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Burkinabe architect Kere's unique vision celebrated in London.

Each year, London's most popular contemporary art gallery, the Serpentine, located in the city's Kensington Gardens, invites a leading global artist to create their first structure in the capital, dubbed the Pavilion, which becomes a major visitor attraction during the summer. This year, the unique honour was bestowed on an Afrian architect--Burkina Faso's Francis Kere.

Diebedo Francis Kere's marvellous Serpentine Pavilion has 'landed' like a glorious African spaceship on the manicured lawns of London's Kensington Gardens.

Kere (right), who heads a Berlin-based practice, Kere Architecture, is the 17th international architect to accept the invitation of the Serpentine Gallery to create a temporary Pavilion in its grounds.

The concept of this annual commission is for a leading global architect to create his or her first structure in London. Each Pavilion, which is in place for about four months, is a leading visitor attraction during London's summer season.

The Pavilion, which opened in June, has attracted rave reviews in the national newspapers and on television shows. It has become a 'must visit' site for the capital's millions of visitors as well as locals.

Kere says: 'I have an overwhelming feeling of honour, what with the long list of respected architects who have designed the Pavilion in the past; and also because London is one of the most important cities for design.

"I am fascinated by how the artificial landscape of this grand park offers 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."

Kere has created a Pavilion that aims to connect visitors to nature, and to each other. A soaring wooden roof, supported by a delicate central steel framework, references the canopy of a great tree and its trunk, and allows air to circulate freely during the sometimes hot, humid English summer, and provides shelter from the alternating rain. When the heavens do open, an oculus funnels water to create a spectacular waterfall effect, before it is drained away for use irrigating the park.

The Pavilion has four entry points into its central courtyard, where visitors can perch on wooden stools, and ideally share with each other the striking and unusual beauty of the building.

"My architecture is intended to serve human beings, but also to involve them with nature, which is always a leitmotif for me. In my home town in Burkina Faso, during the heat of midday, everyone gathers under a huge, shady tree and converses with each other. So I used the tree as an inspiration for the Pavilion.

"I am interested in exploring new ways of using materials, especially those that are local to the site. We chose to use wood for the Serpentine Pavilion, not only because it's sustainable, economical and locally available, but also, by adjusting the angle of the cut wood [for the ceiling spokes], we added depth and shadows."

By day, the effect is lyrical--pools of dappled shadows inside, which move when a cloud passes overhead. "Light is fundamental, it shows the presence of energy, and that presence is carefully studied. This is how architecture becomes dynamic," he says. At night the Pavilion 'spaceship' looks like it's going to take off, emitting twinkling lights.

The walls of the Pavilion, which are perforated to provide ventilation, are painted indigo blue. "This colour is important in my culture. For an important date, both young men and women have to wear indigo blue--it's the colour of celebration," Kere explains.

The beginning

Kere was born in the hot dusty town of Gando in Burkina Faso. He was the eldest son of the town's chief. He left home at seven years old to attend primary school far away, leaving his family, friends and close-knit community.

When he asked his mother why, she told him that: "The community is contributing to your education. One day you'll come back and contribute to the health and wellbeing of our people." Which is exactly what has happened.

Then Kere won a scholarship to study carpentry in Germany in 1985. "What a great privilege--to move from Burkina Faso, to escape my environment and to enter another, where everything seemed possible."

There he received additional training in architecture, and while still a student, kick-started his own architectural practice, as well as a non-profit organisation called School in Gando Association, laying the foundation for creating an educational infrastructure there.

"I thought to myself--what to do with this privilege I've had? I dreamt of making things better for my community. When I attended school in Burkina Faso, it was dark and hot inside. I have the distinct memory of struggling to focus in my classroom. There were only a few small windows, and my class was overcrowded.

"I started to think then about how the school could be built differently and better." And so began the extraordinary career of architect Diebedo Francis Kere.

In a sense, this memory was one of the inspirations for him to build the Gando School, which was completed in 2001. In 2004 he won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture tor its outstanding design and in recognition of his role as a significant practitioner of socially engaged contemporary architecture.

Very few architects have ever managed to lay the groundwork for such lasting international success with their very first work. What also makes him unique is that he was still studying. The associated prize money was very important to fulfilling Kere's dream of having the opportunity to provide lasting benefits to his family and community, not only through monetary contributions--the usual way--but also by building structures for his people.

"I asked myself how to build in Burkina Faso with its colonial legacy? To start with, I chose to build with clay bricks rather than concrete."

The school's reddish earth colouring fits organically into its natural surroundings, and its raised roof structural form, which Kere consistently uses, makes spirituality as well as functionality an architectural statement.

With his commitment to human values and reaction to local conditions and needs, he mobilised the local Gando population into construction--training unskilled people, so that many of them became top-notch craftspeople.

He linked traditional building methods with new resource-saving technologies, and in essence, handed his people the chance for an education and the opportunity to better their lives with successive structures.

Giving back to the community

Burkina Faso is a poor country financially, with a very low average income and high rate of illiteracy. However, following the social context of strong family ties that exist in so many parts of rural Africa, it's expected that any family member who makes good in professional and financial ways, should do his or her duty by helping out relatives.

For Kere, with an enhanced sense of social awareness, this included both his community and his family--as well going further than his home town, since the Gando School now teaches about 700 students.

Using his prize money from the Aga Khan Award (and later awards as well), Kere's horizon broadened and in 2013 the Women's Centre opened in Gando. The aim of the building is to improve the living situation of the 300-plus women of the region.

In rural areas of Africa, women bear most of the burden of underdevelopment and poverty. While the men leave for work, the women and children remain in the villages and are often responsible for the farming.

The concept of the Women's Centre was to work with the Soontaba Cooperative, founded by women in 1999 to create an educational facility, meeting place and much more in Gando. The women were directly commissioned by Francis Kere to build their centre in 2010.

The Women's Centre comprises two spaces which are physically separated. The rectangular area is used for a classroom, a meeting room, an office, a kitchen and sanitary facilities, while the curved area is used for agricultural storage, for crops to later De sold in the market. Part of this building, the curved area, is modelled on the traditional round huts used for storage.

Kere's ambition was to encourage the women to install large clay pots within the building structure to store crops. The pots are raised high above the ground to protect them against water damage and termites. Since fewer crops now spoil due to this expert storage method, the Soontaba is experiencing an increase in profits.

Ventilation slots at ground level provide fresh air. The local women were so inspired by Kere's initial concept that they made the clay pots, and also constructed the walls and floors of the building.

Francis Kere's creations seem endless, particularly in Burkina Faso. In 2014, a Surgical Clinic and Health Centre was built; then came a secondary school in Koudougou, the Lycee Schorge, as well as the Noomdo Orphanage there, completed in 2016.

Many other local projects have been completed. The latest commission, and most prestigious, is the new Parliament House in Ougadougou--still a work in progress.

Further commissions in various African countries are being handled by Kere's Berlin-based company. These include projects in Mali (of which two have been completed), Mozambique (completion expected this year), Sudan, and Kenya, with the Obama Legacy Campus. Kere Architecture has also undertaken numerous international projects, and its work has been exhibited globally.

There are a number of internationally celebrated African architects, such as David Adjaye, Kunle Adeyemi, Mokena Makeka and Mphethi Morojele, to name a few. But none of them have backgrounds that are rural or indeed traditional. Kere's unique and extraordinary achievement is to negotiate both worlds--the global ana the indigenous.

The Ganao Primary School and the Chicago Place for Gathering could not be more different, yet they are not. They have constructional traces in common, and both are graceful, highly innovative structures, like the Serpentine Pavilion.

Since the economic crash Of 2008, architecture has been radically repositioning itself, setting socially aware standards. Kere's work, going back long before that dire date, has always been socially motivated, whether for his African projects or the rest of the world.

These are not new interpretations of the vernacular. Instead, they are original creations, synthesising two worlds into a third way. "The role of the architect," says Kere, "is to bring society forward, to inspire people. Architecture can be inspiring for communities, [enabling them] to shape their own future.

His work unites social relevance and personal commitment with innovative, relevant design concepts, and not least, highly pleasing aesthetic standards. His buildings position human values as paramount, an attitude not much acknowledged in architectural practice.

The Serpentine Pavilion is open until 8 October 2017, at Kensington Gardens, London.

Radically Simple, a book on Diebedo Francis Kere, is published by Hatje Cantz. ISBN: 978-3-77574217-7.

Caption: Left: Kere is the 17th international architect to build a Pavilion in the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery, London. At night, his 'spaceship' structure looks like it's going to take off, with its twinkling lights

Caption: Clockwise from top left: Interior of the Serpentine Pavilion, London; the Lycee Schorge Secondary School in Koudougou, Burkina Faso designed by Kere; and his pop-up shop for shoe brand Camper, installed at the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhine, Germany to coincide with the 'Making Africa' exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum
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Title Annotation:Arts: ARCHITECTURE; Francis Kere
Author:Highet, Juliet
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6BURK
Date:Aug 1, 2017
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