“Architecture should give us oxygen,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director and rainmaker-in-chief at the Serpentine Galleries in London. He cites a proposal by his hero, the late conceptual architect Cedric Price, for re-oxygenating Manhattan. He also thinks that oxygen is something that is offered at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, by the Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré.
Kéré first became interested in building as a child, growing up in Burkina Faso, helping his uncle in the demoralising business of restoring mud-built buildings that degraded every year in the rains. He went to Berlin to study, where among other things he encountered the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, who is the first name that comes up when you ask him his inspirations. He studied and measured a little-known Mies-designed house in east Berlin and admired how it was “little but very powerful”. He liked the architect’s “rationality”.
Kéré decided to bring these qualities to his home town of Gando, in Burkina Faso. He wanted to develop ways of building that worked better, without resorting to the expensive and alien techniques of reinforced concrete and air conditioning favoured by investors from outside. In a location that had no electricity, or access to heavy building machinery, he chose to improve traditional methods.
He designed and raised funding for a school, built of earth strengthened with a 10% mixture of concrete, with an oversailing metal roof that gave shade from the brutal sun and protected the walls from the rain. The design allowed for cooling air to pass through and around the building. In its primary purpose, of raising school attendance in a country where it is among the lowest in the world, it was a success: originally intended for 150 pupils, the school now has 1,000.
The building was also dignified and orderly in a way of which Mies might have approved. It won the international Aga Khan award for architecture in 2004 and helped Kéré to build an international reputation. The school was extended and gained a library. He was commissioned to design larger projects elsewhere in Burkina Faso and in neighbouring Mali, and then in China, Mozambique, Kenya, Togo, Sudan, Germany and Switzerland. He won the Serpentine commission after the gallery invited him to take part in a competition, judged by British architects Richard Rogers and David Adjaye.
London, plainly, is different from Gando. At the pavilion’s opening last week, Kéré spoke of a way of making floors in Burkina Faso, whereby women dance on the earth until it is compacted and hard. In London, delivery of the building is overseen by the vast engineering and design consultancy Aecom, who are very much not a troupe of dancing women. “This is one of the most sophisticated countries in the world,” according to Kéré. “I asked myself, ‘My goodness, what can I do in this place? They have everything.’”
Contemplating the 16 architectural grandees who have designed the Serpentine pavilions since Zaha Hadid created the first in 2000 – “it was a heavy, heavy burden” – he decided to be “true to himself”. He came up with the idea of making an architectural version of a big tree in Gando, where people could gather in its perforated shade. Its structure is a festival of triangles, with curved walls beneath the orange-ish roof in complementary deep blue.
The design has a lot to do with weather, which – as the pavilion opened in last week’s African temperatures, but will remain until 8 October – could be many things. Spreading from a central ellipse of steel supports, a layered canopy of timber and translucent polycarbonate filters the sunshine. The blue, curving walls provide degrees of breeziness and shelter from the wind. Rainwater, something which Kéré thinks the British appreciate too little – “you don’t know what you have” – will slosh from the canopy into a central void formed between the supports, at speed and with volume, to make temporary elliptical waterfalls.
That is mostly it, bar a few other touches. The deep blue, for example, is a colour worn in Burkina Faso on special occasions and to impress, when going on a date, or some other time when “you go to meet your dream”. The walls, made of stacked triangular assemblies of simple timber sections, are meant to have the look of a textile. But, despite Kéré’s talk of being awed by his predecessors, this is a Serpentine Pavilion that (unusually for the genre) doesn’t try too hard. It provides congenial places for gathering and pausing. It improves the climate. It nicely collages with the lush greenery around. Its shapes and colours have a simple, direct appeal. It is well made. It feels less lavish than previous pavilions, some of which benefited from large donations of building products from their manufacturers. It breathes.
There were some traps in its approach, although a character like Kéré was never likely to fall for them. There was a danger of folksy hokum, of presenting a Lion King version of Africa for no better reason than that Kéré is from a continent that gets more than its share of sentimental stereotyping. Mies helps here. There is little by way of superficial similarity between the Burkinabé’s curves and colours and the German-American’s rectangular black steel, but there is a seriousness about the pavilion’s detail that owes something to the latter. Mies also liked to design big roofs with walls placed freely underneath them, which is what Kéré does with the pavilion.
There’s a tendency with Serpentine pavilions for the architecture to outrun the content – the series of events they contain – and head towards being an art installation, at which point they enter territory where actual artists, Dan Graham for example, do better. Kéré’s pavilion, expressive though it is, doesn’t do this. They can also sit uncertainly between permanence and temporariness. They are engineered and built much like permanent buildings, which – as they are sold as collectible objects after their time in Kensington Gardens – they have to be; but they lose some of the improvisational quality that is an attraction of short-lived architecture.
With Kéré’s pavilion, as the dancing women were unavailable and as their mud floors may not have met UK building regulations, the floor is concrete. Something is missing here. The easiness of the space is hardened, and the sense that the building is a guest that sits lightly on the ground is diminished. But that’s about the only quibble with a very pleasurable building.
Which leaves a little space to acknowledge Richard Goodwin, an Australian architect and artist whose interest in the relation of construction to bodies led him to create installations in which naked performers tussle with each other. He’s also interested in the “porous” spaces – walkways, lifts, corridors, lobbies – on the edge of public and private space in cities. He proposes “parasites”: structures that might attach to this existing fabric and transform the experiences of it.
If you’re looking for nudity in Fables for the Drone Age, his show at the Betts Project, a pioneering architecture gallery in London, you’ll be disappointed. What you will get instead are the fruits of his speculations on porosity and parasites, an arresting array of models that fuse buildings with bits of car, helicopter and whatever to make what look like organic-mechanical aliens.
• Francis Kéré’s pavilion is at the Serpentine Galleries, London W2 until 8 October
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010