Since its inception in 2005, Kéré Architecture has been taking plaudits for its socially driven, sustainable approach to architecture.
Based in Berlin, Germany, the firm has worked on projects across the world, from Europe to the USA, and most notably in Africa, where founder Francis Kéré continues to reinvest his knowledge and expertise back into his home nation of Burkina Faso.
Alongside an ambition to engage localities in its design approach, Kéré has instilled a philosophy within his firm to provide more with less, fostering innovation and resourcefulness in the practice, using local materials, local knowledge and local technologies to create holistic and sustainable design solutions.
This quest to work closely with local communities in all phases of design, from planning to construction, is based on a belief that architecture can be a vehicle for collective expression and empowerment, and by supporting the educational, cultural and civic needs of local communities with its provocative, yet dignifying design, Kéré Architecture hopes to continue raising awareness towards the sustainable and economic issues facing populations in rural Africa and beyond.
Such passion and dedication towards improving the rural communities in Africa stems from the firm’s founder. Born in the small West African town of Gando, 125 miles south east of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in 1965, Diébédo Francis Kéré was the first son of the head of his village. As such, his father allowed him to attend school, even though many in the village considered conventional western education to be a waste of time.
At 18, Kéré was awarded a scholarship to study carpentry in Germany, before he made the switch to architecture, earning a degree in architecture and engineering at Technische Universität in Berlin. During his studies, Kéré also set up the Kéré Foundation, formerly known as Schulbausteine für Gando, to fund the construction of the Gando Primary School, which earned the prestigious Aga Khan Award in 2001. The Foundation is still in operation today, providing funding for a number of community projects in Gando.
Since establishing his own architecture firm in 2005, Kéré’s work has earned many more prestigious accolades, including the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, BSI Swiss Architectural Award, Marcus Prize, Global Holcim Award, and Schelling Architecture award.
Kéré has also been granted the honour of chartered membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2009, and an honorary fellowship of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) in 2012. This year, Kéré became the seventeenth architect to be granted the annual commission for the Serpentine Pavilion, and is the first from Africa to do so.
Erected outside the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens, the temporary pavilion serves as an opportunity for an architect to create their first built structure in England, and has previously been commissioned by the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron.
Kéré was selected to design this year’s pavilion by Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director, Hans Obrist, and new CEO, Yana Peel, as both felt the need for a deviation from ‘old ways’. Speaking to CNN, Peel said: “We wanted to build on the history but instantly also create a new phase of invention and experimentation.”
“We were very interested in how his practice has evolved over the past few years into being this socially engaged and ecologically engaged practice,” added Obrist. “From our very fist meeting he was very interested in thinking about the Royal Park and how you link people to nature, and how you provoke a new way for people to connect with each other.”
Kéré’s pavilion, as with a lot of his work, takes inspiration from his African heritage; the pavilion’s colour and the way that it lights up at night is a reference to his childhood in Burkina Faso, while the form of the canopy is informed by a tree in his home village of Gando.
At the unveiling of the pavilion earlier this year, Kéré said: “Where I come from, a tree is often a public space. It can be a kindergarten, a market, a gathering place for everyone. The idea was to create a huge canopy that allows the visitors to feel the elements while being protected. It is enclosed by wooden blocks that are perforated, allowing the air to circulate, which create comfort inside.”
The pavilion’s slatted timber roof is lined with translucent panels of polycarbonate, keeping rain off visitors, while allowing light to filter through. Meanwhile its funnel shape is intended to direct rainwater into a well in its centre, which is then dispersed underground to the surrounding park.
The main structure of the oval pavilion is made up of triangular sections of deep blue wood, creating a design of v-shaped perforations. This rich, indigo blue colour again has strong links to Kéré’s culture. “Blue is so important in my culture, it is a colour of celebration,” he said.
“If you had an important date in my village, there was one piece of clothing everyone was going to ask for. So when I got the commission for the pavilion here in London, I said: I am going to wear my best dress, my best colour, and that is blue.”
The lighting design for the pavilion was a collaborative effort between Kéré Architecture and AECOM. Lit from within by strips of lights in the structure’s canopy, it is intended to act as a beacon for celebration. “In Burkina Faso, there is no electricity. At night it is dark, so what happens often is that young people go to elevated points to look around and if there is light, everyone goes to that place, and there will be a celebration,” said Kéré. “That is what the pavilion will be at night – shining to attract the visitors to come and celebrate.”
Project Architect for the Serpentine Pavilion, Blake Villwock, added: “The canopy in the pavilion functioned as both a filter for natural daylight and also the source for illumination in the evening. Both functions emphasised the canopy as an important element of the design, from within and from a distance.
“At night it becomes a glowing beacon for the city. In this way, we are interested in how the natural and artificial can be integrated in the built and natural environments. I think architects can really help to push these sorts of ideas forward and challenge the discipline to innovate.”
Villwock added that the teamwork on show across all aspects of the project helped to make it such a hit. “The success of the pavilion truly is the result of an incredible collaboration of the Serpentine Gallery, our engineers and the fabrication crew. We are forever grateful to our entire team,” he said.
“The Serpentine program is notorious for its quick turnaround of sketch to fabrication to opening night,” Villwock continued. “We were approached last October to submit a proposal where we flew through two weeks of conceptual design. The concept largely came from a sketch Francis drew during a late night workshop.
“Shortly after we won the commission, Francis and I were on a plane to London and a train to Yorkshire to start workshopping ideas with our team of engineers at AECOM and fabricators at StageOne.
“The brevity of the project led us to use a simple palette of materials that were innovated using the latest digital fabrication technology. It was always important to us that the pavilion seemed handcrafted, yet precisely detailed. Development of models and full-scale prototypes was an essential part of the design process where many aspects of the engineering were unprecedented. Throughout the process, David Adjaye [one of the architects on the panel that selected Kéré for the commission] was very encouraging as a design consultant to keep pushing the boundaries.”
Villwock, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been working at Kéré Architecture since 2014, and as project architect, liaises between Kéré and the firm’s clients, engineers and fabricators for English-speaking projects. He has also led design teams for a number of other projects in Africa and Europe, including in Germany, Uganda, the USA, the UK and Burkina Faso.
And he explained that while the firm, currently made up of thirteen architects and designers, has projects spanning several continents, Kéré remains deeply involved in every project, keeping in regular contact wherever he is in the world.
“Francis is very focused,” he said. “Projects around the world force him to spend much of his time traveling and away from the office. But having said that, we are in constant communication every day. The design process could take place across continents; sketches and feedback will bounce across many time zones.”
Kéré’s main passion though, lies in the work that the firm does in Africa. “Francis is more hands-on with projects in Africa, especially in Burkina Faso, where he is driving the construction and research on the ground,” said Villwock.
“For sites in Africa, he devotes a lot of time on-site coordinating with the local workforce and community; he is not only introducing schools for local children but also creating opportunities for training locals in construction.”
This passion for more community-led projects in Africa has rubbed off on the rest of his team at Kéré Architecture, as Villwock revealed that, while their African projects may be more technically challenging, the rewards can be greater in the end.
“Our Berlin team approach all projects in a thoughtful way,” he said. “Of course, there are more constraints when designing in Africa. It’s more challenging but this also brings unexpected potential for creativity.
“From my experience, the impact made in the African projects is often times much greater and so there is a strong sense of responsibility over just trying to be fashionable. Each project initiates an opportunity to inspire. The community is usually more receptive and appreciative to new ideas, which leads to a richness in the designs of these projects.”
Kéré Architecture’s community focus isn’t restricted to the likes of schools or community centres either, with the firm currently in the process of designing the new National Assembly of Burkina Faso, in the country’s capital of Ougadougou.
Replacing the one set on fire during the 2014 revolution that freed Burkina Faso of dictatorial rule for the first time in more than three decades, the new structure will ‘scale up the village dynamics while bolstering national identity’.
Villwock added: “In the design of the new National Assembly of Burkina Faso we introduced a new public space in the stepped façade where the community can come together and interact with their parliament in a completely new way. The pyramidal shape becomes a monument where citizens, many of whom have never seen a view higher than the treetops, can climb and have an elevated and new perspective of their city.”
Alongside this impressive new structure for the National Assembly, Kéré Architecture is currently working on a number of projects a little closer to home, including a cultural centre near Tunis, in Tunisia, an installation for a fashion show during London Fashion Week, and a temporary theatre in an aircraft hangar at Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport.
Kéré Architecture’s style has been described as ‘characteristically stripped back’, with a ‘frugal simplicity’. However Villwock doesn’t believe that they strictly confirm to a signature look or ‘style’, instead focusing on creating something new and unique in each project.
“I wouldn’t say that we have a signature style, but in every project our philosophy is to add value through design,” he said.
“The architecture is extremely complex. There is an immense amount of effort and research that goes into our work at all scales. Through each project, we are trying to push the boundaries in terms of performance and engineering. In terms of the ‘stripped back’ aesthetic, we try to be effective in the most economical way using locally sourced materials. Nothing is ornamental; every detail serves an important function.
“Francis constantly challenges us to work towards unprecedented design. The architecture of course serves its function, but it should always strive to be unique.”
Regardless of whether the firm has a signature look, there is a recurring theme of creating projects for the community and utilising nature in the work of Kéré Architecture, and this extends to the firm’s approach to lighting, as Villwock explained: “Light is the way nature comes into a space, it plays a huge role in our design and methodology.
“The architecture needs to negotiate the amount of light that is present in the space. In Africa for example, the design usually focuses on shading the interiors due to the hot temperatures. In places like Britain, we can embrace and try to enhance the effect of natural light.”
But while he believes that lighting plays a major role in the firm’s design, Villwock said that it is unlikely that they will introduce a lighting department within the company, instead preferring to continue working with local specialists on a project-by-project basis.
“Part of the joy of our small office is that we really benefit from the knowledge and collaboration of experts and designers,” he said. “With the broad range of projects that we do in all areas of the world, it is so important to engage with local specialists in all aspects of design, including lighting.”