BUILDING CULTURE

Award-winning architect Francis Kéré talks about his design journey and giving back to his homeland with what he does best

The architect Francis Kéré was born in a poor village in Burkina Faso where there was no school, no electricity and no access to clean drinking water. His father, the village chief, decided that his son should be the first in the family to learn how to read and write, so he sent him at the age of seven to live with an uncle in a distant city, where he sat with 150 other students in an unventilated classroom in 110-degree heat. During his free time, like many of his peers, Kéré had to work, spending hours fixing crudely built homes, which were in a perpetual state of disrepair. “In my heart, I felt even then that I wanted to build things better one day, so that kids like me would be free to learn,” he said.

Kéré won a scholarship to study in Germany and worked his way into architecture school at the Technical University of Berlin. For his first student project, in 2001, he raised $50,000 to build an elementary school in his native village of Gando. He enlisted the help of local villagers, drawing blueprints for them in the sand. He dug up red clay and compressed it into bricks.

Fifteen years on, the school has grown into a large educational complex, and Kéré, 51, has earned many laurels for his pathbreaking designs, including the prestigious Aga Khan architectural award. While he is based in Berlin, has taught at Harvard and exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a lot of Kéré’s architectural activity is still concentrated in West Africa, where he has built not only a number of schools but also medical centers, cultural spaces and, in Mali, even a national park to give back to society.
Recently, Kéré has been devising ways of rebuilding the parliament building in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou. In the following interview, Kéré explains how his style of community architecture can play a part in giving people the tools to improve their lives.

One of the key ideas behind your work is that you’re not importing architecture to Africa or relying on foreign companies or NGOs. Instead, you try to empower local people to build from existing materials, techniques
and traditions.
That’s true, but I also try to give them a powerful new meaning — a sense of modernity, a sense of “Wow, this is the same material that we know, but we’re using it differently.” I want to show people that you can build a structure from wood of the eucalyptus tree too – something they’ve only used as firewood. You can make durable bricks out of clay, which they thought was a “poor people’s” building material. I want people to question the old ways of doing things. That’s the only way that things will ever change.
Everyone can understand the value of building a school in a small village like Gando. But how do you balance essential humanitarian projects like that with something like the Opera Village, your collaboration with the late German theatre and film director Christoph Schlingensief, which calls for a “world-class performance center” in a very remote area of the country?
When I first met Christoph, I was trying to build schools — little schools. And he came to me and said, I want to build an opera in Africa. I thought the idea was just a provocation and that Christoph was this crazy dreamer. But he pushed me, and it was a very moving experience working with him. With time, I began to understand him, that he didn’t want to just replicate a Western-style opera house. He wanted to create a structure that could collect what the country had in terms of art, cinema, theatre and promote and exchange it with the outside world. And that’s what we’re building, but we also have artist housing, a primary school for more than 200 children that’s focussed on art education and a medical center.
You’re involved in the effort to rebuild Burkina Faso’s parliament building, and there have been reports that you’re discouraging the government from constructing a Western-style official building. What do you see in its place?
You have to understand that the economy, the social behavior and the traditions in Burkina Faso are completely different from those in Europe or the United States. The main meeting structure in Burkina Faso is the tree. Even in the city, that is where people meet, sitting under the shade, to discuss things. I want to create a structure that is also an organic meeting point, rather than an isolated structure with high walls, security and
a fence.

Almost immediately after starting your architecture studies, you came back to your native village and started building a school. What made you return so quickly?
I had a really big heart for my community and I was just naïve. I said to myself, “let’s go home and show to the family what you have learned in Germany.” I wanted to go and just do it. In a way, I am happy that I was so naïve. You know, people in Africa are dreaming of America and Europe, to have structures in their country like there are in the Western world. But often, we are missing the knowledge of how to do it. When they can, they import that knowledge and it is very expensive. Gando may be a humble village but it has people and it has clay – and sand, and gravel. I wanted to use them to create something that is so new that my people would be inspired. I was fortunate enough that I was able to do it, and even more so that the outcome was what it was.

Stephen Heyman

About the author / Stephen Heyman

He writes about travel and design for publications such as Dwell, Saveur, Slate, Surface, Travel + Leisure, Vogue.com, Town & Country and W. He was formerly a features editor at T: the New York Times Style Magazine.

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