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  • Issue 41

IN THE STUDIO:
Diébédo Francis Kéré

From a primary school in Burkina Faso, to the world: Nana Biamah-Ofosu meets the architect marrying romance and practicality.
Words by Nana Biamah-Ofosu. Photography by Daniel Farò.

It’s been almost 20 years since Diébédo Francis Kéré’s first building, a primary school for his hometown of Gando, in Burkina Faso, was completed. Since then, Kéré has become one of Africa’s leading architects—his work, steeped in craft, tradition and cultural relevance, celebrates people and communities. 

These qualities earned him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004. Kéré has since built a successful international practice, with his studio based in Berlin and projects around the world, from Burkina Faso to the United States. Besides the primary school in Gando, other notable projects include the Lycée Schorge secondary school, also in Burkina Faso, a campus building comprising nine modules arranged radially around a courtyard, built primarily in local laterite stone with a secondary facade in eucalyptus wood. His 2017 Serpentine Pavilion in London, which included a transparent overhanging roof canopy, was inspired by the great tree, a place for gathering in his hometown. Even within his larger projects like Benin’s National Assembly, which broke ground in spring 2021, Kéré’s concerns for cultural continuity and purity in materiality, construction and craft still hold firm. In addition to his practice, he is also a distinguished educator, currently a professor at the Technical University in Munich, Germany. 

We speak over Zoom, connecting from London to Berlin. Over the course of our wide-ranging conversation, I learn that, for Kéré, architecture always comes back to three things: making, culture and community.

NANA BIAMAH-OFOSU: You have spoken about Gando as “the village that raised you.” What are your earliest memories of architecture?

DIÉBÉDO FRANCIS KÉRÉ: My earliest memory of architecture is as a child in Gando, playing in the central compound space of our house, and how it seemed to come alive through our social interactions—like sitting in a circle around my grandmother in the evenings. There was a great sense of atmosphere, a feeling of enclosure and security created by her voice and our movements as we absorbed the stories she told. I also remember architecture as hard work, repairing buildings after the rainy season. Architecture was equally romantic and practical.

NBO: How did these early memories translate into the direction you took with your education in Germany, especially your final-year project, the primary school in Gando?1 

DFK: I tell students to think about their graduating project simultaneously as their last academic project and their first real project. The thesis project is a defining one for many architects; and I am no different in the sense that many of the questions I am still investigating—like the relationship between contemporary construction methods and traditional building techniques or issues of climate and weather—can be found in that first project. 

NBO: You’re now working at a larger scale and on buildings of national importance. You have said that people need “buildings that enhance their creativity and push them to take their future into their own hands.” Can you elaborate on the role of architecture for community and nation building?

DFK: I am interested in architecture as a collaborative effort. With a project like the National Assembly in Benin, that collaboration involves facing a country and reckoning not only with history but also the future.2 The civic scale of the project demands something more than making shelter, it is a symbol of a democratic future. The form of the building references the history of the democratic process in Africa, where the canopy of a tree or the central compound space provided a place for gathering and governance. It was important in this project to make reference to the country’s precolonial history. 

NBO: I’ve always been fascinated by the colonial legacies embedded in civic buildings of a certain era on the African continent. How do you work with such memories? 

DFK: One of the significant damages of colonial power was its careless extraction of resources on the continent. In architecture, this was in the division between building and intellect—they came with the structures but didn’t engage with the local culture, traditional building techniques or people. Therefore, architecture is still largely viewed as something for corporations, governments and institutions and nothing to do with the ordinary person. Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, which now belongs to a museum, is an example of this problem. Had Prouvé involved the local people in his work, his buildings may have had a lasting legacy and impact on the African continent, an emotional connection beyond the image. I am interested in making architecture that resonates with local people.

( 1 ) Kéré’s motivation to build a school for Gando was an acknowledgment of the relatively privileged position he was in growing up: As the son of the village chief, he was the only child within his cohort to go to school.

( 2 ) Alongside the National Assembly, Kéré designed a large public park: a symbol of democracy that encourages citizens to occupy the same space as politicians.

We are seeing a shift away from the Eurocentric worldview and toward Indigenous building traditions.

NBO: What methods do you use to ensure a collaborative approach, especially when working in a context where “proper” architectural drawings are limiting or poor tools for communication? 

DFK: When working with a community like in Gando, it is about respecting their own specific cultural frame of reference. We also use 1:1 models to communicate on site—they feel more real. I find that drawings have their limitations—they are still fiction. If ideas on paper were the basis of making a better world, Africa, with all the supposedly visionary plans that people have developed for it, would be the most developed place on earth. We have to find other tools. Models are useful; they have a psychical presence, people can see them, touch them and understand them spatially. 

NBO: You work a lot with earth as a building material. What’s your approach to sustainability in your architecture? 

DFK: I don’t waste time talking about sustainability as fashion.3 I am more interested in how it relates to a social economy, climatic conditions and people’s ways of living. Sustainability is also about finding innovative ways of using materials. Take eucalyptus wood, for example, a fast-growing timber native to arid Burkina Faso, commonly used for scaffolding or firewood. We saw the ability to use it differently, as a proper building material, taking advantage of its durability. I am always thinking about sustainability, but as a practice that relates to context. A sustainable building is a durable building. It embraces its users and provides joy and comfort.

NBO: You emphasize the importance of utopianism in architecture, especially in times of crisis when we are implored to imagine beyond our present condition. What does that look like in practice?

DFK: That is a great summary of utopia and its usefulness in architecture; it is about the capacity to dream, to imagine a better and fairer world. Projects like the National Assembly in Benin are a manifestation of our utopian thinking. In our work, we apply this from the outset of a project—we ask how the particular project can push us in search of greater aspirations. You have to embrace a utopian vision to do things that are out of your reach.

NBO: People will often speak about an African architecture—do you think that such a thing exists?

DFK: It is dangerous to be limited. It is important to resist being reduced to pattern and form as an African architect. Pattern and form are of course part of architecture, but is it not the case that these differ from region to region on the continent? Architecture is best judged in place—for how it relates to climate, local resources, building techniques and its socioeconomic context. Of course, I believe in the architecture of the African continent—in an architecture that inspires people and gives a positive sense of our continent. The architecture of the African continent is simple, efficient and centers people.

( 3 ) Kéré’s approach to sustainability isn’t one that prohibits the use of any particular method or material. He believes that factors such as using local materials and ensuring buildings cool themselves are equally important to consider.

( 3 ) Kéré’s approach to sustainability isn’t one that prohibits the use of any particular method or material. He believes that factors such as using local materials and ensuring buildings cool themselves are equally important to consider.

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-One

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