African architecture has received deserved international attention in the last decade and one of the main responsible for this is, undoubtedly, Diébédo Francis Kéré, 2022 Pritzker Prize Winner. Born in Gando, Burkina Faso, Kéré graduated in architecture at the Technische Universität Berlin, in Germany. Today, he maintains branches of his firm, Kéré Architecture, in both countries, through which he seeks to develop works in the "intersection of utopia and pragmatism", exploring the border between Western architecture and local practice.
Known for involving community in the construction process of its buildings, Kéré and his office have developed works that go beyond the conventional limits of architecture and touch on themes such as local economy, migration, culture and equity. We had the pleasure and privilege of talking with the architect about some of his projects and his broader vision on architecture. Read the full interview below.
Romullo Baratto (ArchDaily): I think your work inspires people so much due to the use of vernacular materials and techniques in innovative ways and forms. In this sense, what can you tell us about your first works in Gando? The school, its extension, and the library…
Francis Kéré: When you have nothing and you want to convince your community to believe in an idea, it may happen that everybody starts working with you, but you need to keep fighting to convince them. As soon as you have your first building, people start to realize then that “we could do that!” The “we”, the sense of “us”, works as an identity catalyst. In this sense, I could see that people have a strong attachment — let’s say identification — with what we build. It has become something that everyone understands and feels proud to be part of. This is one of the strongest experiences I ever had – to understand the common value. That is: “we made it”.
Besides that, we used materials that people knew from before, like clay — a material said to be of poor people. But we transformed it and used it to create a building that was apparently very good. This is what I have learned: to believe in order to innovate, and then people become part of it. I just wanted my community to be part of a process.
RB: You often talk about the use of clay in your works and how difficult it was to convince people from your village in Gando that this ordinary material was the right choice, the way to go in the projects you were developing with them. You just needed to review the methods and the way this material was used – mixed with cement, adobe blocks, cast clay etc.. How did you manage to convince them?
FK: It was not easy. I had to spend time talking, explaining, but this alone was not enough. We needed to make some samples, mockups… We made a brick where we put a bucket of water in its center, and kept it for five days. After this period, we took it out and the material was still solid. This was a convincing result. In parallel, you explain then how it would be even better if we created a basement, a solid foundation with rocks, so that humidity will never get to destroy the building.
The building we created looked new, it was modern, but it was made with the same clay people already knew how to handle, only used in a very different way. We also managed to improve the bricks’ resistance to water and rain by adding cement, but it was a very long way to come to that, to convince my people.
RB: You mentioned problems of humidity coming from the ground and general challenges related to the weather. What kind of strategies did you use to make clay better in resisting the weather? I’ve read about the use of adobe blocks, cast clay… what other solutions did you use to make clay a more resilient material in your projects?
FK: First of all, you need to give the building a “shoe, a very protective shoe for the structure”. This is the basement. You make a great basement with at least 30 centimeters high to avoid the water from reaching the fragile clay walls. And at the end you put a roof, a protective roof so the rain doesn’t directly affect the walls for long periods of time. Constant rains destroy the bricks, the walls, and ultimately the whole building — what I did was just to protect these elements. Therefore, if you do that to the clay, even without adding cement, you will succeed. This is a very fundamental constructive solution. How to protect the building? You design a big roof over the thing you want to protect. This is something that I use to preserve my buildings and their clay walls.
RB: A shelter for the clay…
FK: Yes, a sort of umbrella. Again, you need strong, solid shoes and a big umbrella. Simply put, this is how you protect fragile clay walls against the weather.
RB: This is such a beautiful image: the shoes, the hat, in the middle there’s the building… Besides these technical characteristics, you are known for your concern towards climate aspects, especially thermal comfort due to the environmental conditions in Burkina Faso – which is really hot all over the year. What can you tell us about the ingenious solutions you used to make comfortable spaces for people to linger in? Just like in the schools, for instance, for the children to have a comfortable place to study. What kind of solutions have you used in these projects and how have you developed them?
FK: How do you create comfort inside a classroom? This is key in my work, a fundamental element. Gando is a very poor place, similarly to many other places, and some people cannot afford electricity. Sometimes there’s even no connection to the public grid of energy. What I do is to go passive, and this means basically getting the building to breathe and ventilate itself. You achieve this by creating airflow.
First, you need to make a big roof, the canopy, without laying it directly on the classroom structure. For that you put in place a mediator, a ceiling, a secondary element under which you have the classroom. In that ceiling you place openings. It’s just physics: the heavy, cooler air stays low, on the ground, while the hot air which is lighter, escapes through the little openings on the top. Sometimes I place horizontal windows to allow the heavy, fresh air to enter. But that isn’t enough. You create a natural vent, the air is moving and it cools down your body. There is not a big difference in temperature, but the airflow gives you the feeling of refreshment. I am using this simple physical strategy to create a passive ventilation system into my classrooms.
My solution was to build to scarcity where there’s no resources to pay for electricity, but what I’m doing is not just for poor people or poor regions. Even a wealthy country nowadays cannot afford wasting energy at all. Passive solutions are great. Look at it now, in the West, due to Coronavirus, there’s a concern about creating airflow inside the buildings, so you need to open your windows.
RB: So the secret is to go passive as much as possible, not only in Burkina Faso or Brazil, but also in Germany and everywhere else.
FK: Absolutely! Go passive! It costs nothing and you can use the money that you saved to do something else.
RB: And the world appreciates that! Changing the path of our conversation, for me it’s really inspiring the way you look at your community. You don’t seem to nourish a nostalgic vision about it, but rather you want to inspire people to move forward into the future by innovative use of vernacular elements. In this sense, your architectural works feature a pedagogic side that, in my opinion, overcomes the physical limits of architecture itself. I’d like to hear more about it from you.
FK: When I started, the resources were limited — I didn’t have enough money to build the school. Also, I had to involve the community in order for them to have labour. So, instead of going to the city to recruit people with better construction skills, I was interested in making people from Gando become part of the process, hoping to transfer some knowledge to them.
If you look at it today, you’ll see that people are moving from their places, looking for work elsewhere, and there are people doing the same movement after losing their home: migration from rural zones to cities. By doing what I did, I created opportunities for my people. Nowadays there are more than 200 young people that have work. In addition, the advantage lies in the fact that these people don’t need to go to neighboring countries to work and send money home. This is so powerful, to use a construction process to train people so they can do the job by themselves. And then you realize you have been able to create jobs that can fit families, thus people don’t need to travel.
If you think of it on a global scale, it’s a tiny little contribution. However, when you put it in perspective and realize that people are moving through the desert to adventure in little boats to go to Europe, you finally understand the meaning of this little drop. A little drop in the desert of sand: it’s hope. So I’m really happy that you asked this question, because it is so fundamental to my work. There was no plan, I tried to use what was available, and all my recent work in Africa was done by people that I trained before. It is incredible.
RB: It is, indeed.
FK: You learn and you discover what you are able to do and the value of it for the future of the people. I’m really happy about that.
RB: You should be! It’s really beautiful to see that. I heard from you, in an interview, that when you were younger, still living in your village, you, and the other people around you, perceived “architecture as something far”. Something from the West. After living in Germany and having the opportunity to give back to the community you came from, how challenging is it to resist the western culture?
FK: This is a very important question. The West is glamorous. It knows how to present its culture. Everybody is dominated by the images produced in the West. And it has a lot of great buildings, it’s wonderful. But the question is: how do you get inspired by these buildings to create something that relates to a given climate? This is the key. How do you do that, instead of copying? It’s not easy.
I was lucky to go to Germany and learn how in the past, in the pre-industrial times, bricks were made. This inspired me to learn and to start from zero in Gando, not from glass palaces. This way I managed to go against the flow, but there’s a lot of people that don’t resist the attractivity of the West, and what do they do? They do shitty copies of great architecture. This is what happens.
RB: In a world where architecture remains a luxury for so few, you show us there’s hope — architecture can be universal, democratic, and stir emotions. This calls for the social aspects of your work but also the playful ones — colorful elements, unexpected forms and solutions... I’d like to hear from you what’s the importance of these playful aspects in architecture.
FK: Brazil, Burkina Faso, Europe, United States, China...everywhere in the world, human beings are attracted by beauty, they get inspired by beauty. If I design a classroom that just fits the needs, it’s true the teacher can teach, but this student, sitting there, will be just facing his tutor and then when this same student will go back home, he will experience the same situation: a living room, a bedroom, or a kitchen, the basic needs, nothing more.
But I think a building that relates to elements such as light, openings, and color of materiality, gives more to a little child than a room where you can teach the alphabet. This room is giving these young kids inspiration. And I believe inspired people can be pushed to have a vision, and make their vision a reality. This is why I think a building should be more, no matter what it is. If it’s inspiring, it does a great service to humanity.
RB: I’m seduced by your words and now I’m even more eager to know your buildings in person. It’s really nice to hear you talk about the building going beyond functionality, when you have so many issues to be solved and such a low budget. It’s really inspiring and beautiful to see your concern about the access to beauty. It also makes me wonder about the buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer here in Brazil, that truly go far beyond functionality and explore beauty on a whole new level.
FK: I am happy that you said that. The architecture of Niemeyer knows no limits. The beauty, the power of it has no limits. Inspired by that, by people like him, I try to do the minimum — even with little teams, in scarcity, you can offer beauty to the people.
It’s not because you are limited in resources that you should accept mediocrity. No, I never accept that! I try to do things I feel proud of.
RB: Your website states that you work in the “intersection of utopia and pragmatism”, creating architecture that “feeds the imagination with an afrofuturist vision”. I would like to ask you to talk about it — how is afro-futurism related to your works?
FK: With utopia I’m talking about vision. Do not get stuck with sheer necessity. We have to think big, be a little bit visionary. If you do so, you push people to think further. We know we have to be modest, but when you think big you can go one step further than reality. This is utopia: to do things you didn’t imagine were possible.
Pragmatism is knowing there are no other ways to achieve a commission. With your team you have to come up with the result. It does not mean this result should be banal. It can be simple. Simplicity doesn’t mean banality, it doesn’t mean something is not rich. It can be really rich. And afrofuturism is to show the potential, the capacity to create, to imagine, to refresh, to bring new ideas to the landscape of architecture in Africa. To think positively towards the future and to come with fresh ideas.
RB: And this applies not only to architecture but also to cities at large, which leads us to my next question. In your Masterclass offered by the Norman Foster Foundation, you talk about the growth of African cities due to migration and also organic population growth. How do you think it’s possible to address this global issue — seen also in Latin America, Middle East and Asia — by means of small scale initiatives like the work you are doing in Gando?
FK: First, giving people a tool. Small scale means affordable. Not everyone can afford having big things. But you must give people a chance; this is the way I make it. It's not because we are growing that we should not have properly built classrooms. The size is also decisive — you don’t need a big amount or resources to get things done. You can start by a little project and then you just double it, if you have the resources and if it’s needed. And it goes fast.
Small-scale means you can make it happen faster. It’s realistic. It’s pragmatism. This is how I see it. And this way you also value local capacity and resources, which in turn contributes to the local economy. This is the power we need to seek! It’s small, but it’s strong!
RB: You introduced my next question. You were one of the guests of the 27th World Congress of Architects – UIA2021RIO, that was held in July in Rio de Janeiro. The motto of the event – All the worlds. Just one world. Architecture 21. – calls for a world marked by differences, local specificities, but reminds us we are all part of one big thing. As you said in some interviews, “we breathe the same air”, walk on the same ground, drink the same water: we are indeed one. How do you see this relation between big problems that must be addressed and solved and local issues that have urgent impacts in small communities?
FK: It’s a two-fold strategy, but at the end we are trying to create a service for humanity. With the small interventions you go fast, and there are a lot of urgent things to do. If you just think about the big issues, then you may lose the other half, that is providing an emergent solution. It is like an organism, your body, you need to think about everything. We really need to think globally. I don’t know if I am being clear here, what I want to say is that we have a global problem and we have to gather to act. And not just to consider one part to solve the problem, we have to really think on how to tackle these issues in parallel, but with the same intensity. If not, it won’t work.
RB: It’s pretty clear for me, the message is “we share the same air”, and that should be enough.
KF: Yes! We share the same air. No matter what you do, we share the same air.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Equity. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 24, 2021, and updated on March 15, 2022. Follow ArchDaily’s coverage of the Pritzker Prize.