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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Explained: Who is Diébédo Francis Kéré, the first African to win architecture’s highest honour?

The 57-year-old is the first architect from Africa to win the prestigious award, in its over four-decade history. We take a look as to what makes his style of building so unique and how does his world view empower people around him?

Written by Shiny Varghese , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
March 19, 2022 7:08:51 am
The National Park of Mali built by Diébédo Francis Kéré. (Photo: Twitter)

From being born in the village of Gando in West Africa’s Burkina Faso and then getting into Technische Universität Berlin, one of Europe’s renowned educational institutions, to winning the 2022 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s highest honour — architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has travelled far and long.

The 57-year-old is the first architect from Africa to win the prestigious award, in its over four-decade history. We take a look as to what makes his style of building so unique and how does his world view empower people around him?

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His initial days

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Very mindful of the challenges in Burkina Faso, Kéré, who won a scholarship to study in Germany in 1995, knew he had to return to Gando to build a school for his community. He urged his friends to contribute, and saved enough to return home with $50,000.

Diébédo Francis Kéré was born in the village of Gando in West Africa’s Burkina Faso. (Photo: Twitter/@LarsBorges)

As the Polish journalist-author Ryszard Kapuscinski says in ‘The Shadow of the Sun (Penguin, 1998)’ that an “individual cannot survive alone in Africa”, it means that decisions belong to the community. So, when Kéré told them that he wanted to build a school, they were elated. But when he mentioned he wanted to build with mud, they thought that he was crazy.

How does one protect a school building when the rains and floods come? Kéré had to convince them and after many rounds of talks and showing them drawings, they finally agreed. The work then began with bringing rocks that would be crushed and powdered to be used as bricks and flooring.

Kéré was sure that Burkina Faso, primarily built with clay, couldn’t have a school made out of concrete. The community came together, beating the rock and slaying the gravel, hammering with primitive tools, till the coarse texture gave way to clay. By 2001, the school was ready, and Kéré ensured that there was ample air and ventilation.

In 2004, the project won the Aga Khan Award. Soon, there were school extensions and libraries to be built. In each of them, Kéré turned to the community, working with clay, making bricks and sourcing everyday materials like earthen pots to introduce innovations into his buildings. Gathering his friends from college, he founded the Kéré Foundation, an NGO dedicated to building projects in Gando. By 2005, he opened his office called Kéré Architecture, with studios in Germany and Burkina Faso.

His projects

Kéré sees himself as a bridge between the cultures of the West and Africa, and his buildings as tools.

“Before I begin work on site, I train my staff on what my vision is and what to do, so that they can take it forward and train other people,” says Kéré, in an interview with ArchDaily, an international weblog that covers architectural news and projects.

Working among people who see concrete as a symbol of modernism, the road has been anything but easy for Kéré. For The National Park in Bamako, during the 50th anniversary of Mali’s independence in 2010, Kéré Architecture was commissioned to design new buildings in a contemporary bioclimatic vocabulary. Kéré had to coax and persuade officials to move away from concrete and use local stone. He created a “factory” on the building site and brought in young women for the masonry. Through creative engineering, he gave the buildings large canopies with ample ventilation to ease the hot, humid climes of the region, making the park a much-visited public place. In his project document, Kéré writes: “The intention of the project was to give an open feel to people from all walks of life, whether they were after a tea for 20 cents or more inclined towards exclusivity. We hoped to merge a quiet respite from the city, and a green escape from the dust, with architecture that is mindful of local material and is open to a multitude of uses.”

An extension of the primary school he built in Gando. (Photo: Twitter/@Erik-JanOwerkerk)

While in the Benga Riverside School in Tete, Mozambique (2018), he created flexible spaces within an elliptical building using eucalyptus wood for the façade, and features walls with voids to give a feel of transparency, at the Centre for Health and Social Welfare in Loango, Burkina Faso (2014), he offered the users windows of varying heights to give a dynamic view of the landscape.

Kéré acknowledges the influence of German-American architect Mies van der Rohe for his “less is more” philosophy and Estonian-born American architect Louis Kahn for the belief that architecture improved people’s lives.

It’s in the revisiting of his cultural codes and his deep sense of giving back to his country and its people that makes Kéré’s work unique. Many of his projects are spread across Africa, including countries such as Togo, Kenya, Togo, and Sudan. He’s done pavilions and installations in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and the US. Currently, Kéré is working on the Benin National Assembly, and the Burkina Faso National Assembly, work on which has been temporarily stalled due to the volatile political situation in the country.

What the Pritzker jury said about his work

The Pritzker citation notes: “Francis Kéré’s pioneering architecture – sustainable to the earth and its inhabitants – in lands of extreme scarcity. He is equally architect and servant, improving upon the lives and experiences of countless citizens in a region of the world that is at times forgotten… Through buildings that demonstrate beauty, modesty, boldness and invention, and by the integrity of his architecture, Kéré gracefully upholds the mission of this Prize.”

It added, “Kéré has found brilliant, inspiring and game-changing ways to answer these questions over the last decades. His cultural sensitivity not only delivers social and environmental justice, but guides his entire process, in the awareness that it is the path towards the legitimacy of a building in a community. He knows, from within, that architecture is not about the object but the objective; not the product, but the process.”

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