As the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion opens to the public Jon Leach, Director at AECOM takes a look at Francis Kéré’s creation
Creating a sense of community was architect Francis Kéré’s intent for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion. As engineers for the scheme for the fifth year running in collaboration with David Glover, AECOM’s role is to provide the technical solutions that transform Kéré’s architectural vision into a functional space where people can meet and gather.
The challenging timescales, which allow just 20 weeks from inception to completion, always leads to a spontaneity in the design; a fusion of art, architecture and engineering. The creation of such structures requires a true synergy between all parties, from the Gallery to the architects, engineers and construction team, ensuring clear communications and decision making. The result is a team dynamic that blurs traditional consultant responsibilities and interfaces as everybody pulls together to realise the architectural vision.
For the 2017 Pavilion, Kéré adopted a traditional African vernacular, a dramatic design with a sense of place and a human scale which would resonate with any community. An iconic tree-like canopy creates the central focal point, surrounded by curved walls which define a series of flexible spaces that can be used for formal and informal gatherings, including family areas and a play space for children. Kéré sought to adopt a modern interpretation of traditional, low-tech materials to bring together the warmth of his home-town community and the rich architectural tapestry of London.
The tree canopy is constructed using a slender welded steel lattice which supports a carefully crafted timber soffit and a translucent covering. With such a simple palette of materials every detail required very close attention. The steelwork and the timber were carefully aligned and refined to create a neat simplicity which belies the complex elliptical geometry of the canopy. The trunk ‘funnel’ formed at the centre of the tree canopy channels water into the heart of the structure when it rains, and a hidden drainage system under the structure holds the water until it dissipates.
The shade created by the canopy creates dynamic patterns of light and shadows on the Pavilion floor and on the free standing timber walls below. The walls are unique to this project, using triangular timber panels as a play on the increasingly common use of solid timber in construction and more traditional London masonry construction. Timber planks are glued and screwed together to create a series of triangular modules which appear to float edge-to-edge, allowing light between them to emphasise the shape. The CNC-cut planks have varying cross-sectional profiles to create visual interest. The timber has been stained a rich blue colour, which represents the traditional formal dress of Kéré’s home village. The lighting design turns the Pavilion into a beacon at night, creating a warm and approachable space despite the outward drama of the structure.
Creating a temporary structure brings no fewer challenges than if it were permanent. Knowledge of manufacturing, fabrication and construction methods, as well as materials, planning and building control processes, are all essential. In just three months, the technical team has worked with the architect to develop his concept. The unique technical and logistical challenges of delivering the Serpentine Pavilion programme ensure it is always an interesting project to work on. While it remains a highlight in London’s cultural calendar, working on the programme is also undoubtedly a highpoint for the engineers behind it.
Jon Leach, Director, AECOM
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