Francis Kéré brings soul of Gando to Coachella

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“Sarbale Ke,” which means “the place to celebrate,” is a gathering spot for festival goers inspired by the baobab trees of Francis Kéré’s home country of Burkina Faso. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

Even if you did not make it to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for this, its 20th year, you may have seen the work of Diébédo Francis Kéré.

Kéré was born in Gando, a tiny village in the country of Burkina Faso in West Africa and wound up becoming an architect based in Berlin.

Along the way he’s built a school for his own village and he's garnered several prestigious commissions for installations including the 2017 summer pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London and a permanent pavilion to open this summer at Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana.

But we met him at his installation at Coachella, a cluster of tall tapering towers like upside down ice cream cones, named “Sarbale Ke,” which means “the place to celebrate.”

Francis Kéré visits his installation at Coachella, which provides both shade and a gathering place to celebrate. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

The structures, made of colored prefab triangular sections with slits for air, are open at the bottom, and there you find people lounging and picnicking in the pools of shade at the base of each tower.

“Sarbale Ke” is inspired by the baobab tree of his native country.

“It's dominating the nature of the landscape and baobab tree is like the place where people naturally will migrate to for shade and just to meet and then to celebrate you know,” Kéré said. “This is the reason why I was inspired by it, to bring a little piece of Baobab to Coachella this year.”

“Sarbale Ke” brings welcome shade and heightened spirits to the festival in the hot desert. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Kéré is used to designing for hot places. It can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in Burkina Faso. So he developed a well-ventilated structure to allow people to sit comfortably inside the base of the towers.

Creating a place with shade and a sense of community also factored into Kéré's design for the school he built in his home village of Gando, its first-ever school. Kéré, now 54, was sent by his father at age 7 to to the city to live with an uncle and get an education. He won a scholarship that took him to Berlin, where he studied architecture and set up an office. Then he went back to help his village.

“He was a visionary because after attending education, I am the reason why I have a school of more than 1000 kids in my village,” he said, in praise of his father’s decision to send young Francis away.

Kéré is also designing a pavilion for Tippet Rise Art Center, called “Xylem,” named after the part of the plant that transports water from the roots to the leaves. Meanwhile, The Tippet Rise Fund of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation has made a grant in support of the construction of a high school in Gando. 

Coachella alumnus Phillip K. Smith III stands in front of artworks in his Palm Desert studio. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

The presence of Kéré cements the festival’s growing seriousness in terms of its art and design, an evolution that is being watched with great interest by the artist Phillip K. Smith III.

Smith was raised in the Coachella Valley and has seen it turn from a cultural backwater to a stop on the global art circuit.

His own work was featured in the first Desert X, in 2017, and twice at Coachella, with Reflection Field in 2014 and Portals in 2016.

“Portals” was a 2016 installation at Coachella, created by artist Phillip K. Smith III

He says Coachella builds on a long tradition of drawing international artists, architects and designers to the desert. It’s also giving opportunities to young local artists like Sofia Enríquez, and “those opportunities don't come along very often. So to be able to prove that you can do that begins to open up doors for the next opportunity and the next opportunity. And I can certainly say wholeheartedly that that has happened for me.”

While some may complain about the loss of a gritty edge and rise and in branded experiences at Coachella, Smith says the festival is what you make it.

“You can choose to be annoyed by the reality of, people have to pay for those things such as corporations etc., or you can just go out and just be immersed in that flora of creativity.” Smith said.

Thanks to Greater Palm Springs for their support of our Coachella coverage.