Design: Big interview / Berlin
Burkinabè architect Diébédo Francis Kéré sees his projects as hubs for nearby residents, even enlisting their help to build them.
When Diébédo Francis Kéré received the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize earlier this year he was asked for his take on the future of the built environment. The Burkina Faso-born architect’s response? “Everyone deserves quality, everyone deserves luxury and everyone deserves comfort.”
The annual prize, which recognises excellence across a designer’s complete body of work, also sets benchmarks for other architects. The hope of the Pritzker jury at is that, by endorsing Kéré’s work, which is rooted in a commitment to community and a respect for the environment, and embraces those people who most need good design, others might emulate his approach and outlook.
The oldest son of a village chief, Kéré began his career when he left his homeland in 1985 to attend a carpentry school in Berlin on a scholarship. “After graduating I went back to Burkina Faso to build a primary school,” says Kéré when he sits down with monocle in his Berlin studio, where he now spends much of the time. Keen to expand his skill set beyond carpentry, he learnt bricklaying and practical construction skills in Burkina Faso in the early 1990s but he wanted to find more ways to improve the built environment in his homeland. “My dream grew,” he says. And so he returned to Germany to study architecture at Technische Universität Berlin.
At the same time, Kéré established a foundation to support access to education for children in Africa and oversaw the design and construction of his first project, Gando Primary School, which was completed in 2001. He worked with the community on the build, helping people from the area to develop construction trades as they handcrafted a structure made from indigenous clay reinforced with cement. The project would set the precedent for Kéré’s practice going forward. We find out more.
What does being awarded the Pritzker prize mean to you?
The fact that I started my studio in the little village of Gando, a remote place with a population of 3,000 and no opportunities, is an encouragement to people. It’s a reminder that, if you do great things and believe in yourself, institutions like the Pritzker will find you. For me, it is huge recognition but it’s also a big push, as if someone was saying, “Francis, just keep doing it. You have a voice.” I want to show people that you do not need to establish yourself in cities such as New York. Instead, you can start little and grow big.
What effect do you expect your win to have on the wider design community?
In terms of the built environment, the award is about more than just architecture: through my work, my practice has addressed climate change and shrinking resources. It has also trained young people who can now stay in Burkina Faso and earn a living – so it has affected migration too. The prize is a big push to practise in this way. It’s also a reminder that architects should contribute to the general debate about their industry.
What gave you the confidence to build Gando Primary School before you’d graduated in architecture?
I knew how to do basic calculations and engineering, and had learned some construction skills at university. I’d also discovered a lot of ancient building techniques around Berlin. I felt that this combination was good enough to allow me to go back to Burkina Faso and start to work. I wanted to be active and use my knowledge to create something that would serve my community. So I started constructing the school as soon as I could.
How do traditional German construction techniques work alongside your use of local materials and skills in your African projects?
If you go with high technique and high technology in a place like Burkina Faso, your work won’t succeed. So in Germany I studied how people used and mixed materials to build before industrial times. I then took these methods and combined them with knowledge in Burkina Faso to create a building that responds to the elements, lasts longer and is not a burden on the environment. This approach is about knowing your reality and using simple techniques. I am always interested in uncomplicated solutions. That has been true from the beginning of my career until now.
Does this simpler way of building enable you to create structures that will ultimately last longer?
Yes. I don’t want to create white elephants: buildings that people are not able to fix. I want to construct something that people can understand, learn from and later maintain, which is why I employ skills used in the area where the project is rooted. I also want to make buildings that are comfortable enough that you don’t need energy to cool them. That is part of my dna as an architect. You can call it sustainability but, for me, there is no other way of building than to look for a material which is abundant in the place and use it to create something that really fits within the reality of the environment and the people living there.
Construction has begun on the Goethe-Institut in Dakar, Senegal. You designed it as a purpose-built home for a German cultural association. How do you ensure that it reflects Dakar’s environment?
As with all our projects, when we arrived on site, we explored the place, looking at what sort of knowledge already existed in the community. We then worked out how we could use this knowledge to create something that is unique. Dakar has hot days but at the Goethe-Institut we used compact bricks made from laterite, a rock indigenous to Senegal with acoustic and heat-insulation qualities, to save energy and resources. We want to create buildings that work passively with the environment but don’t put in a lot of energy; this gives them a long life.
How do you ensure that your buildings are embraced by the community that they’re built for?
I try to facilitate an emotional and social connection with the buildings. In terms of the emotional component, I want people to see my buildings as something unique, for them to be the community’s buildings. As for the social aspect, I like people taking part in construction: where the entire village participates in building, old and young, men and women, because it is a social, uplifting thing to do. I want people to say, “We have value because we’re able to build this structure with Francis.” In the process, they learn new techniques and their knowledge is validated. People feel valued and so they embrace the buildings.
Is it possible to replicate this community approach beyond West Africa?
Yes. But you cannot apply the same model to places like Germany because there’s a whole other way of making things in more developed Western countries. Inspiring people to become involved in the building and making is very difficult here because you have specific training that has to take place to participate. Despite this, it’s still possible to have people contribute to the process of design, which is important because architecture affects everyone: neighbours, users and passers-by.
Your portfolio comprises mostly public buildings. Why focus your efforts on these commissions?
For me, working on public and civic buildings is so important. When these structures are the responsibility of governments or big corporations, they often lack a relationship to the culture and way of doing things of the area. For example, we are currently working on the Benin National Assembly; when you build a parliament house, you are creating a structure that is representative of a given nation. If you apply techniques that relate to that culture or use symbols that reflect the pride of that nation, then the structure will work well because people will identify with it. I want to use the commissions presented to me to inspire but also to create something that unites people, culture and regions.