Francis Kéré’s Haven at Tippet Rise

Tippet Rise Art Center unveils its first site-specific commission since it opened in 2016: a secluded wooden pavilion, designed by Burkinabe architect Francis Kéré, where Mother Earth’s untouched majesty reigns supreme.

All photography by Iwan Baan

“Standing on the high meadow, looking out at the mountains under a vast sky, people can face nature at its widest scale,” says Francis Kéré. He speaks about Tippet Rise Art Center, a 12,000-acre sculpture park dedicated to the intersection of visual art, music, and the vast untouched landscape of rural Montana. It’s also where the Burkinabe architect, famed for his socially driven, sustainable design approach that draws on the structures of West Africa, has inaugurated his latest project. The pavilion, called Xylem, is the first site-specific commission that Tippet Rise has added to its collection since it opened in 2016.

Nearly every component of Xylem embodies the mystical grandeur of its surroundings. Comfortably nestled within a grove of aspen and cottonwood trees, the 2,100-square-foot pavilion features a construction of locally and sustainably sourced ponderosa and lodgepole pine, the same material that forms the curvilinear seating elements inside. A nod to the site’s sinuous topography, the seating draws inspiration from the abstract paintings created by Tippet Rise co-founder Cathy Halstead. Sourcing the wood was a rescue mission, of sorts: the trees were standing corpses, felled as part of a natural pruning process in response to parasitic mountain beetles. The pavilion’s name is even botanical in nature. (Xylems are round layers within logs that circulate nutrients within trees.)

It embodies the sort of responsible construction that has come to define Kéré as both architect and humanitarian. Xylem’s design typologies can perhaps be viewed as a continuation of the sustainable and climatically thoughtful schools Kéré has built across West Africa, where he hails from the village of Gando in Burkina Faso. He’s currently wrapping up construction on the Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School, named after his father, which will address the village’s long-standing need for secondary educational resources. (Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, has a literacy rate of 29 percent.) And the Tippet Rise Fund of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation is lending a hand by financially supporting its construction. “I’m deeply grateful for their generosity,” says Kéré, whose facility will accommodate around 1,000 students when it opens in Jan. 2020. 

Serving as Xylem’s chief inspiration are the traditional togunas of Mali’s Dogon culture—sacred shelters with wooden pillars, carved with ornaments representing the ancestors. Traces of togunas manifest in the structure’s canopy of vertical logs, which filters fleeting wisps of light inside. When viewed from above, the rooftop’s log arrangements, slotted between a modular hexagonal weathering steel structure, evoke gently undulating fields of flowers. It’s another nod to the pavilion’s intended use as “a quiet place to contemplate nature,” says Halstead. And once Tippet Rise’s fourth concert season kicks into high gear, Xylem will also play host to a series of poetry readings and musical performances. 

Xylem joins a wealth of blue-chip sculptures sprinkled throughout Tippet Rise’s vast rolling hills, which include Ensamble Studio’s monumental rock-like formations and two large-scale sculptures each by Alexander Calder and Mark di Suvero. (The latter’s Proverb, which resembles a neon-red pendulum, clocks in at three stories tall—by far the park’s largest.) Situated miles apart from one another, each sculpture is mammoth in size yet gracefully recedes within the majesty of Big Sky Country. With the addition of Xylem, which brings spiritual provenance from lands far and wide, Kéré’s statement holds true: nature’s widest scale has come into full force.

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