Francis Kéré: Uniting tradition and modernity

December 2013

Diébédo Francis Kéré’s award-winning approach to architecture attracted international acclaim in 2004 when he won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his work in promoting sustainable and community driven architecture.

Mr. Kéré’s work in this area was triggered when his community in Gando, Burkina Faso, asked him to assist them in re-building the local school. Having himself languished in the searing temperatures of the classroom during his school years in Burkina Faso, Mr. Kéré was keen to apply the knowledge he had acquired at architectural school in Germany to create a more comfortable learning environment for the local schoolchildren. Strapped for cash, but determined to support his community, he was forced to think out of the box and to develop solutions using locally available resources – materials, labor and know-how. Transferring a European model to one of the poorest countries on the planet with little or no electricity or clean drinking water, was not an option. So began a journey that is both transforming the lives of communities in Burkina Faso and beyond and inspiring new generations of architects around the world.

Mr. Kéré’s architecture marries high-tech principles of engineering with local traditional knowledge and materials. His pragmatic approach “celebrates the locality”, complementing local resources with new technology to create elegant and durable structures that, among other features, allow for natural, cooling air flow. “I try to deal with what is locally available. We have a lot of people in Africa and we have local materials so I am using these to create buildings.” he said. “Reproducing very expensive models from the Western world, where you need energy to cool the building, in a poor country like Burkina Faso doesn’t work.”

Engaging with the local community

Francis Kéré’s architecture marries hightech principles of engineering with local traditional knowledge and materials to build low-cost, sustainable buildings. (Photo: Diébédo Francis Kéré)

Gaining the support and trust of the local community is central to Mr. Kéré’s approach. “People need to be part of the process. We train local people to use local materials differently to create the buildings. It’s very simple, but effective,” he said. “It is important to inspire people to use architecture to shape their own future. This is the only way to create something that we can call sustainable.”

At first, the community was very skeptical about using local materials to build the school. “It was not easy to convince my people to use clay to build the school, because their experience is that a clay building will not withstand the rainy season,” he said. “When I told them we were going to use clay they were shocked. They didn’t see any innovation with clay, so I had to convince them. Remember the Western model is our dream but we neither have the financial nor the technical means to do it. But that was a good challenge for me. I had to create a modern building to make the project acceptable to my people; one that was cool inside and adapted to the local climate using local materials and traditional techniques.”

Given the high illiteracy rates in Burkina Faso, explaining “engineering and architecture to people who are not able to read and write,” was a challenge. Undeterred, he won their confidence by building a series of prototypes, “so people could see how it works,” he said.

Don’t follow the mainstream. Try to find another way to use your skills to help your community.

Architects can empower communities

By engaging with local people, Mr. Kéré has helped empower and strengthen the local community and generated a renewed sense of pride. “People say, ‘We did it, it’s ours, it’s modern and we love it’”. In this way, he reflected, architects can help reinforce community bonds and identity. The architect’s commitment to training local craftsmen is also creating new local employment opportunities allowing them to earn money on local building sites rather than having to seek work further afield.

(Photo: Diébédo Francis Kéré)

“Architects can play a major role in developing clever and smart ideas for building,” Mr. Kéré said. With one foot in the West – he lives and has his architectural practice in Berlin – and another in Burkina Faso, Mr. Kéré sees his role “as a bridge" between the developed and the developing world. “It is challenging but it’s great work,” he mused.

“My primary focus is to provide these people with the infrastructure they need and to inspire other architects to develop similar ideas,” he said. The international recognition that his work has attracted is very helpful in this respect. “Through my work I have won a lot of awards and have been put in the limelight. Being recognized as the author or creator of something can inspire young people to use architecture to develop their ideas and to help, and can open up many new opportunities,” he said.

There are not many commentators on African architecture, but thanks to Mr. Kéré’s work, there is every chance that this will change. “Young people need references, they need heroes and thanks to the recognition that my work has received, a lot of young Africans have discovered a new approach. When people get inspired they don’t wait around for somebody else to do it, they do it for themselves.”

An emerging movement

Growing numbers of students around the world are recognizing that they can use their skills to make a difference in underserved communities. “There are a lot of young people dealing with similar projects in different parts of the world, there really is a big movement emerging,” he said.

Mr. Kéré’s advice to those embarking on a career in architecture: “Don’t follow the mainstream. Be yourself, Just go! What are you waiting for? Try to find another way to use your skills to help your community. That is how, together, we can make our world better.”

Diébédo Francis Kéré is a game changer because he:

  • found a way to improve local buildings by creating structures with natural ventilation systems that are adapted to the local climate;
  • uses locally available materials to create modern, stylish, low-cost buildings;
  • does not follow the mainstream but seeks adapted solutions that are “embedded in the culture of the people” he is working with.

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