From a Burkina Faso village to this year’s Serpentine Pavilion is quite a trajectory. But Francis Kéré’s architecture remains unshowily faithful to culture, community and climate
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Diebédo Francis Kéré. He has one of those names that people have heard but aren’t quite sure where. In fact he’s the 2004 Aga Khan Award-winning architect from Burkina Faso, a contributor to the Royal Academy’s 2014 Sensing Spaces exhibition – and the architect of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park. True to the project’s intentions, it is the first building he has designed here.
‘You have to keep some things to yourself,’ Kéré says as we sit down in his office in Berlin in a converted warehouse at the back of a courtyard in a typical 19th century city block in Kreuzberg. ‘You have to keep a bit of mystery.’
Kéré explains he doesn’t much like being interviewed, nor filmed or photographed. You get the impression fame has come to him unintentionally as he was going about his daily business, and that as a result he has a fraught relationship with it. He is a private person. Being let in is rare, but once you are, he’s disarmingly open, seeing things as a partnership and seemingly everyone as friends. RIBAJ is speaking to him ahead of the BBC and CNN because, as Kéré puts it: ‘I am a member of the RIBA, I am part of the family, but I am not visible so I wanted to do something.’
This kind of loyalty – to people, places, architecture, the planet – pretty much sums him up. Kéré and I are sitting in the meeting room. I arrived this morning to spend the next two days here before the opening of Kéré Architecture’s the Serpentine Pavilion on 20 June. Seen through the glazed internal wall his studio has a quiet, productive atmosphere. The place has the feel of a student’s bedroom – a simple space where the contents are more important than the high ceilings, wooden floors and metal windows. Materials for experimentation are everywhere, boxes of models from returning exhibitions are stacked up, and work is pinned all over the walls alongside awards and memos. It’s peaceful and casual, with employees working unhurriedly as the hours strike past – 6pm, 7pm, 8pm and everyone is still concentrating in the evening sun.
Kéré flutters supportively between his 11 employees, dipping in and out of what is going on. He has a more hurried air than the rest, simultaneously keeping up conversations all over the world via a stream of WhatsApp pictures, voice recordings and calls. Everything channels through him, a filter for quality, but also for the stresses of a busy practice.
All architects face a long journey to make it in their profession, but Francis Kéré’s must be one of the longest and most determined. He was born in Gando, a village in the land-locked country Burkina Faso in West Africa, in a flat landscape where vegetation is short and everything is heavily influenced by season. At a time when there were ‘no more than 20 architects in the whole country’, Kéré was sitting in classrooms that were too hot and too dark, contemplating light and shadow, and what could be done differently.
‘I decided to become an architect because I grew up in an environment where the buildings were, according to me at the time, not the best,’ he says. ‘I was thinking why should we make walls that can’t withstand the rain, why should we rebuild them every year? Inside me something was growing.’
Aged 13, he moved alone to Fado N’Gourma in the east of the country, where alongside general school classes he specialised in carpentry, because it was vocational, for four years. At 17, his move to study carpentry in a country with few trees paid off in the form of a scholarship from BMZ Deutschland to become a woodwork development activist in Germany. He arrived in Berlin – his intellectual home ever since – in 1985, completed the training, and five years later enrolled at night school to earn his Abitur, Germany’s equivalent of A Levels, as the only way to progress to university. Finally, in 1995, Kéré was accepted to study architecture at TU Berlin.
While Kéré considered Berlin ‘wonderful’, his childhood dreams of ‘making things better’ never left him. ‘I have this connection, an umbilical tie that is so strong. I wanted to contribute to my community. The idea came to put these ideas into a school, giving a structure to the kids of my village, allowing them to stay at home and have an education’ – as he had been unable to do.
That project was the Gando primary school for which he won the Aga Khan Award. He started it in his second year of university and funded it by setting up what is now the Kéré Foundation, and raising money in German schools.
‘I considered my architecture studies as what I had to do in order to do that,’ he explains. ‘But at the same time as I was studying architecture as an art, I developed other ideas in parallel for Burkina Faso where you need different solutions – even the simple window.’ That also meant stabilising the local unfired clay blocks with 10% cement, and raising the sheet metal roofing on trusses above a ceiling punched with holes to create air circulation, instead of putting the metal sheeting straight on top.
‘I am curious in terms of trying to create quality and make things better,’ says Kéré. ‘On this I am a purist, but in terms of material, I am flexible and adapting, I see what is available and study how to use it in the best way.
‘The other thing is, I didn’t just design, I built it myself with the community in Gando. It was not a philosophy, I just built it up with things that exist already in the village. Communities come together to build a house, I didn’t invent it, I just used it. I wanted people to feel like it is their building.’
All this means Kéré’s architecture speaks a language that people understand. Where some architects are about revolutions, wanting to sweep away everything that has gone before and plant spaceships on the landscape, Kéré is about evolution. He puts himself in the background, and his buildings look similar to what people are used to, built as they are with local materials and means. He is the vehicle making modifications to quality, performance and feel, and mobilising as many as 150 people to build them.
Since his early success in Gando, Kéré has added teachers’ housing, an extension and library to the school there. It now has 1500 pupils and he is working on a secondary school and women’s centre for the village, which is fast becoming a town.
He is also in demand beyond Gando, having completed two high schools, clinics, an opera village and an orphanage in Burkina Faso, as well as a centre for architecture and a huge public leisure park in Mali. Now, NGOs, private clients and national governments from across the world approach him. He is working the Obama Legacy Campus in Kenya and the Benga Riverside Residential Community in Mozambique as well as a huge educational campus in Togo. He has a public park in Mannheim, Germany, too.
So if success is measured in influence, it seems that in little more than 10 years Francis Kéré’s architecture has acquired it – and that this is just the beginning. His architecture has the potential to transform the whole of Africa, as indeed it is doing from Burkina Faso to Uganda, Sudan and beyond. His schemes are highly replicable and buildable. Above all, they seek to improve building types that have the capacity to improve society for the long term, starting as they did with schools, and continuing as they are with clinics, business centres and museums and now even Burkina Faso’s new National Assembly.
What’s more, the quantity of projects so far, and the way the buildings engage and train the local community, suggest that he is hastening architectural development across the continent – as for the moment that’s where his work is most prolific. Like other pioneers, he has a devoted following, with endless letters coming in, most noticeably from Africa, from people who would like to work for him or from children saying that they want to study architecture because of him. The power of that is yet to be realised, but the work that materialises out of enthusiasts will necessarily be bedded in a mentality that is prepared for the climatic and environmental times ahead. It’s a realism that has largely been lost on global architects dumping buildings in Africa, recently or in the past, that have not always endured well. Gando, Kéré tells me, is already far drier than it used to be.
What seems fundamental though is that Kéré has done all this from Europe with a kind of ‘designed in Germany, refined in Burkina Faso’ slogan, and because of that has had the weight behind him to make international influence possible, with the global press too. The technical nature of the scholarship that took him there makes one wonder whether he could have ended up anywhere else. Would Britain have offered such a scholarship?
As for Kéré’s architectural pursuits in the western world, here will be his challenge. The worry is that his focus on material scarcity, climate conditions and local engagement means he will not be taken as seriously. But, as is evident at this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Kéré is a torch bearer for community, and seems like one of the only architects left who can persuade clients of its importance – a little piece of Africa, communities gathering around the shade of a tree. In that, he could be no less influential than in Africa.
In the end Kéré won’t be able to retain his mystery much longer. Back in Burkina Faso, everyone – politicians, strangers, relatives and friends alike – is asking ‘what about our big house?’ (national assembly), and here he is speaking at the RIBA International Conference. He is set to become, if he hasn’t already, the welcome architectural icon for the whole of Africa, on behalf of the people who have stayed. His charitable foundation will be part of that. The most exciting times are coming.
Francis Kéré is presenting in London at the RIBA International Conference Change in the city: opportunities for architects. He will explore the expertise that architects can offer in the creation of 21st century cities. The conference is the centrepiece of RIBA International Week, 3-7 July 2017