The Roof of Life

architect Diébédo Francis Kéré
written by Miloš Kosec
project Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London, UK


The English garden is a highly specific, carefully maintained landscape of Paradise. Paradise-like is also the clear boundary that usually conditions it. It does not necessarily take the form of a mighty defensive wall guarded by cherubs wielding fiery swords as in the Bible; cast iron railings and locks on gates usually suffice. They are characteristic not only of private gardens but also of public parks with their carefully specified and controlled opening hours. It is as if a strict delineation and temporal control of these key public institutions is also a precondition for their free access and availability to all. This is perhaps why in the last three hundred years English gardens became vital spaces of architectural experiments and bizarre eccentricities, of playful tests and picturesque installations. But past passion for faux ruins, fantastic follies and unusual pavilions of bucolic English countryside can only be understood together with its antithesis on the other side of the park fence: with kilometre-long rows of monotonous terraced houses and vast industrial landscapes of Manchester and Liverpool. The building of paradise-like Jerusalem of the romantic poet William Blake, an obsession of moralistic architects of the 19th century, therefore necessarily both complements and opposes violent processes of mechanisation and industrialisation. England's green and pleasant Land is Blake’s response to dark Satanic Mills. The motif of Utopia on the other side of the wall seems long-outlived in today’s relativistic, post-industrial and allegedly post-ideological society, but in the urban congestion of London it still thrives. Utopianism has to be also the prevailing reason for the annual Serpentine Pavilion project, appropriately placed in the Enlightenment-era Hyde Park and within it into the fenced-off lawn of the Serpentine Gallery. The English no longer build faux ruins and Palladian temples in their parks, but the pavilions of the new sort are no less exotic. The criterion of Paradise architecture is its contrast to the everyday, which is proved by the condition for every author of the Serpentine Pavilion: a world-famous architect or designer who never completed a building in England before. The Serpentine Pavilion is therefore every year also a very special debut. The list of past creators can be read as a Who’s Who of the international architecture scene. Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Zumthor, Álvaro Siza, Jean Nouvel and many others have preceded this year’s author and the first African participant, Berlin-based architect Diébédo Francis Kéré.


The fact that Kéré was born in Burkina Faso in a traditional community and that he was the first member of his village that received formal education is in the resumé of the Serpentine Pavilion more than of just statistical significance. It is an implicit but key emphasis, parallel to the rising interest in local and sustainable architectural practices that have become a marked contrast to the global firms of starchitects – whose long-awaited end seems to be in sight after the last year’s Venice Biennale of Chilean Alejandro Aravena and this year’s Pritzker Prize that went to Catalan RCR Architects. The enthusiasm for local and genuine has to be carefully considered, however: these words all too often hide the remnants of the old phantom of orientalism, mixed with the never clarified colonial complexes and patronizing Enlightenment. This is nowhere more obvious than in post-Brexit Britain, where the society is swerving between isolationism, wishes for the return of former colonial glory and multicultural cosmopolitanism. Does this mean that Great Britain is determined once again to build its own Jerusalem, carefully fenced-off from the rest of the World?


Kéré doesn’t explicitly address the many dilemmas of the society in midst of which he designed and built his pavilion. His approach is consciously based on his own youthful reminiscences of a more or less isolated African village community which he experienced from a position of the son of a village chief – this social perspective is worth keeping in mind. Based in the centre of the structure, a steel frame of an elegant console is elevated towards the sky. The elliptic membrane-like roof is growing upwards from this single base as a tree of Kéré’s native village under which the community has been gathering every evening. The elegance of detailing of the almost filigree-like steel framework is pragmatically subordinated to the total effect of the roof hovering over visitors’ heads, sheltering them from sun and rain of the English summer. But in its structural and spatial centre the vast surface is both stripped and concealed: the oculus of the trunk opens the senses towards the sky, raindrops and sunbeams. This is not merely a small-scale sensorial theatre: the oculus functions also as a water collector. Water as an increasingly precious element is then used for watering the park surrounding the pavilion. Under the protective roof the basic conditions of life are thus created; then a boundary, the basic condition of freedom, is added. Four blue walls are freely swerving under the rim of the roof, creating a balanced combination of obstacle and transparency. The architect has said to have chosen the indigo blue colour because, in his village, blue signifies a festive occasion – it was therefore appropriate to dress up his first London realisation.


There is something festive not only in the visitors of the temporary structure but also in the pavilion itself: as if they would be bowing to each other with special care and respect. The success of the perforated walls constructed out of modular wooden blocks is made visible in the central gathering space that is both sheltered from the surroundings and generously open for view. The gaps of the wooden blocks as well as the space between the curves of the walls and the roof are penetrated by the surrounding greenery and the light wind and the blueness of the sky and the views of the passing onlookers. Stepping over the threshold of the carefully delineated and fenced-off Serpentine garden is not unlike a small festivity.


Pavilion has always been a tempting typology for testing out new junctions between architecture and society – a most suitable architectural laboratory. Kéré’s airy structure in Hyde Park turns out to be surprisingly fresh and in its colourfulness even daring, despite some of its more folklore undertones. But it can be taken as a meaningful social allegory as well. Not necessarily in the pristine African community versus the alienated metropolis way. Each pavilion is a unique pretender for the role of the primal hut, the zero level of architectural Utopia. It is therefore crucial that the concept of society in London receive its biggest blow precisely in the days around the opening of the pavilion. Barely two kilometres from the architectural Utopia in Hyde Park stand charred remains of the burnt Grenfell Tower. The fire of the council housing estate, transformed into a disastrous torch by the recent botched renovation, has claimed at least eighty lives as well as the last illusions of the post-war welfare state. This dark Satanic Mill is truly a pendant to Kéré’s Jerusalem – it is impossible to think of one without the other. They are two complementary opposites. It is therefore suitable that the central trunk of the Serpentine pavilion remain empty: in the midst of the peaceful and utopian space of the community, it invites to reflect on the future social role of architecture. This is a task that reaches over and above the exotic, genuine and other all-too-idyllic concepts. It demands rethinking the possibility of making the experience of the community into an everyday instead of a merely festive occasion.