Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport will be home to an inspired collaboration by ex-Tate director Chris Dercon, Burkina Faso architect Francis Kéré and the city of Berlin. Their coming together at Tempelhof this autumn is sure to reaffirm what we already know, that all three are drastically reshaping the cultural landscape of our time.

As the newly appointed head of the internationally renowned Volksbühne in Berlin, Mr. Dercon is causing quite the sensation. The famously experimental theater, which has until now existed as a local symbol of anti-capitalist ideology, will be transformed into a cosmopolitan and participatory meeting point: Playwrights, dancers, musicians and artists from across the globe are already lined up for Dercon’s first season, which will take place in the original Volksbühne and in its highly anticipated satellite theater by Francis Kéré.

Volksbühne Satellite Theater announced for Tempelhof Airport in Berlin designed by Francis Kéré. © Kéré Architecture.

Kéré is a rising star of sustainable and holistic architecture. He is the first-born son of the chief of Gando village in Burkina Faso, a status which is still marked out by a circle of small scars around his face, and which allowed him the privilege of attending university. He was awarded a carpentry apprenticeship scholarship in Germany, and went on to complete a degree in Architecture in Berlin. During his studies, he raised the funds for his very first building: a school to replace the poorly built one he attended in his home village, which won him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Since then, he has continued transforming communities in Africa with his revolutionary projects, including working alongside Christoph Schlingensief to build the Opera Village Africa.

Growing up in rural Africa honed Kéré’s resourcefulness and ability to meet the needs of a community while respecting its limitations (in Gando, modern materials, finances, and skilled laborers were all hard to come by). This practicality married with his sensibility towards light, space and harmony is at the core of his practice, and represents the contemporary shift in architecture towards ethical construction at its very best.

Gando Primary School designed by Francis Kéré, Gando, Burkina Faso, 2001. © Enrico Cano

The Volksbühne project comes at a pivotal moment for Francis Kéré, whose invaluable contribution to rural and urban planning is finally beginning to be truly recognized in Europe. He has just completed his first commission in the UK, as the architect for this summer’s acclaimed Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilion, which opened in June, was inspired by the ways in which nature provides for us, reaching out like the canopy of a tree to offer shelter and a communal gathering place. The tree intrinsically serves these functions in Kéré’s native Burkina Faso, while man-made buildings do so in London, and the elegant inversion at play in the pavilion creates an opportunity to reflect upon our relationship to the environment. The tree trunk is hollowed out so that when rain falls, it is funneled down into the heart of the pavilion and irrigated into the surrounding park. Kéré has created a structure that provides for people and nature simultaneously, and that acts as a symbol of togetherness and mindful progress.

Serpentine Pavilion 2017 designed by Francis Kéré. Kéré Architecture, Image © 2017 Iwan Baan

It is no surprise then that Chris Dercon sought out Kéré to design the Volksbühne satellite, which is much more socially complex in its scope than the ordinary theater space. Kéré’s building perfectly matches the demands and possibilities of the theater itself with the social needs of the rapidly evolving city of Berlin. A complex city still finding its feet, it is unrestrained and unconventional. Although appealing internationally precisely because it refuses the trajectories of other European capitals in its laissez-faire attitude, Berlin is clambering for ways of dealing with the arrival of waves of refugees from crisis-ridden countries across the globe. The city’s defunct Tempelhof Airport, which closed in 2008, and since 2015 has been used as a refugee shelter, housing 2500 refugees at its peak, will continue to be a key registration center for new arrivals. The remaining unused space is the ideal home for the temporary Volksbühne, which will serve a vital role as a hub for creativity and dialogue in one of the vast hangars.

Kéré has designed a series of modular units that will engage with the history, size and aesthetics of the monumental hangar. The theater can shrink and expand according to the audience size, ensuring acoustics and ambiance are at their best for every production. The theater is also mobile: it will be wheeled out of the Hangar and transformed an open-air stage for certain productions.

The program draws in influential cultural pioneers from across the globe to work alongside locals. The Syrian Berlin-based writer Mohammad Al Attar is reinterpreting the Euripedes’ 2400-year-old play “Iphigenia”. His production is being developed with displaced Syrian women living in Berlin, who will share their personal stories on stage, mingling the ancient Greek tragedy with one of the great tragedies of our age. “Danse de nuit” will be an open-air performance—a new work by French choreographer Boris Charmatz, the piece “unfolds like a hastily drafted sketch of a 21st Century vigil—an artistic guerilla commando in the urban space”.

Left: Chris Dercon. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Centre: Francis Kéré. © Erik Jan Ouwerkerk. Right: Volksbühne Berlin at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Dercon and Kéré’s unconventional theater space, “the barriers between audiences and artists should literally and metaphorically dismantle, promoting inclusiveness through verbal and non-verbal exchanges.”

The opening of Berlin’s long-overdue BBA international airport, initially set for 2011, has been postponed six times so far and is a prime example of the struggle the city is facing to grow into its international role and fulfill its responsibilities. While Chris Dercon and Francis Kéré cannot be held responsible for improving international airline connections to Berlin, they are working hard on the precious cultural connections that its ex-airport can nurture.


By Minnie McIntyre