Francis Kéré adds uplifting timber pavilion to the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana

Francis Kéré adds uplifting timber pavilion to the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana

In the landscape of Montana, near Fishtail, where the sheer appearance of the earth does strange things to a visitor, a new structure designed by architect Francis Kéré at the Tippet Rise Art Center is settling into a grove of aspen and cottonwood trees.

Trees are few and far between in the landscape of rolling mountains and their abundant valleys, so vast that if your thoughts wander they can quickly get lost. You might not see it at first, a few minutes walk down some sloping land from the Olivier Music Barn, built in 2016 for hosting concerts. But when you do, Kéré’s timber pavilion named ‘Xylem’ will pull you closer: ‘We didn’t try to compete with the landscape, we tried to allow people to discover it. When they see a glimpse of the structure, people will migrate,’ says Kéré.

Cathy and Peter Halstead, co-founders of Tippet Rise, have designed many journeys of discovery across their 12,000 acre working ranch which they opened to the public in 2016. Pathways meander through landscaping that softly hides and slowly reveals monumental sculptures. A programme of emerging and established musicians, which the enlightened pair invite to perform annually, will take you on another type of journey. The addition of Xylem was more about personal discovery – an intimate, informal structure for people to enjoy a deep experience with nature, start up conversations and be inspired by the space itself.

Xylem by Francis Kere at Tippet Rise

Part pavilion, part bench, part sculpture, Xylem’s form may have been inspired by wooden togunas in Mali, where people gather to make plans and solve problems, yet here in Montana, the structure, built of local wood and constructed by local craftsmen, feels right at home. And, sitting inside the uplifting space, any problems certainly feel non-existent.

The undulating edge of Xylem follows the shape of the land and helps us to make sense of it – framing the Beartooth mountains, artist Patrick Dougherty’s Daydreams sculpture, the sound of an invisible stream that you can hear, but not see. The gaps between the vertical bundles of untreated lodgepole pine logs channel patterns of light in the most magical way. When it rains, water seeps through the golden pine canopy, but that’s ok, it’s all just part of the magic.

‘Listen,’ says Kéré, as we look towards the invisible stream. And when we quieten, our eyes find the stream that is running through the green undergrowth. ‘People think I’m shy, but they don’t understand, I’m just listening,’ he says. ‘Often we don’t listen, we want to show off and build something on top of the mountain so people can see it. But here we didn’t want to. It wasn’t about me. Cathy and Peter already have the vision to care for this land and open it up to the community. We listened to them, and it fits.’

Leaning back against the sloping logs, one gazes up into the xylems, the circular layers within the logs that channel nutrition through the trees. It’s a part of the tree that we don’t often see in architecture, which is perhaps why these multiplying circles made by nature feel so captivating, hypnotic and meditative.

Peter pinpoints it poetically: ‘The rings in the trees are telling stories that a tree expert could read, but inside the space our own stories come to us. I think it inspires us to rise to be better than we are and to make our own stories. You become the connection between the trunk and the canopy. You’re the connection between the land and the sky. The visitor becomes the conduit for the message.’

Aerial view
Aerial view of Xylem. Photography: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

For Kéré, the logs played a part in creating this feeling of inspiration for the local community: ‘If you are using locally sourced materials, you are giving people trust in their own capacity and environment. People will pay more attention to the wood – people ask where it’s from, and when they know it’s from here, they see what’s possible, and something is sparked off,’ he says.

Xylem wasn’t about creating an exclusive, one-off art piece, it was about architecture and construction, and the opportunity to work with local craftsmen – such as Chris Gunn of Gunnstock Timber Frames and Powell, Wyoming, who were also behind the houses at Tippet Rise and the Olivier Music Barn. ‘They are expert woodworkers, who brought expert craftsmen together who could saw a log with a flange that creeps up into a bench,’ says Peter. ‘Each log has its own identity and these people took great pride in every one. Every log is a work of art, so out of one artist we created many.’

Exterior or Xylem

Widening the possibilities of working with wood was important in this instance, because the trees used for Xylem were dead already; standing corpses feasted on by mountain beetles. So this process of reusing them, or ‘re-awakening’ them as Kéré says, is another way for man to work alongside nature – to make use of a material being provided to us.

‘Francis is quite an unusual human being,’ says Cathy. ‘He’s so creative, he holds so much of his history, and hopes for the future in the work he does. Here he sensed the closeness to the land, the possibilities that he has already captured in Xylem – that show you, the visitor to Xylem, that you have creative possibilities too.’

And the collaboration between Kéré and the Halsteads will soon be creating many more possibilities. In January 2020, the Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School in Gando, which has been supported by the Tippet Rise Fund of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation and designed by Kéré, will open to 1,000 students. §

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