Diébédo Francis Kéré grew up in a small village in Burkina Faso without electricity, without drinking water, without public transport and without an educational establishment. So when he returned home after studying architecture in Berlin, the first thing he did was build a school.
This week, the 56-year-old architect received the Pritzker Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for architects. Known for building schools and medical centers with the help of local communities using locally available materials, he is the first black architect to receive the industry’s most coveted award. He joins the ranks of other esteemed architectural icons like Philip Johnson, Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando.
Kéré studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, where he graduated in 2004. He was still studying when he returned to his native Gando and built the village’s first school, his very first building. “Being part of a community, you have a duty to that community,” he says in a video call from his Berlin office. Kéré knew he wanted to build a school in his village but he didn’t want to wait until he graduated and was further along in his career. “I don’t like that word give back,he says. “‘Giving back’ means you have to wait and get very rich. Why should we wait? Why don’t we use our talent to start over from the beginning?”
Gando Primary School opened in 2001. The simple yet highly efficient clay brick building won Kéré the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Since then, he has designed half a dozen schools across Africa, from a nursery and primary school in Tete, Mozambique, to the Burkina Institute of Technology in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. In his hometown, he built a series of adobe houses to attract more qualified teachers to the area, and he is now working on a library with a concrete roof punctuated by dozens of locally made clay pots, which have been sawed off in half to allow light to filter into the building.
Kéré says his interest in schools comes from pure necessity. “If you come from a place where schools are non-existent, you start there.” Not surprisingly, its initial construction boosted education in the village. So many children enrolled in Gando Primary School that he returned two years later to design an extension. The two buildings now form an L-shape, with four additional classrooms. Nearby, he is working on a school complex of buildings arranged around a central courtyard. “It shows you that there is a great need,” he says of the weak network of schools in Boulgou province, where Gando is located.
In the three schools of Gando, Kéré chose clay as the main material because it is abundantly available and traditionally used to build houses in the region. For Gando Elementary School, he used a third of his budget to buy a $20,000 machine that makes compressed clay bricks. (He started what is now known as the Kéré Foundation to raise the remaining funds.)”[The machine] still works today,” he says, adding that it was also used to build the school extension, which opened in 2008.
For the soon-to-be-completed high school, poured earthen walls were mixed with cement and aggregates. “The advantage of this technique is that you can build a classroom in a week,” says Kéré, compared to around three months for brick construction.
In response to Africa’s arid landscape and harsh climate, Kéré designs its buildings to promote ventilation, shade and comfort. At Gando Primary School, he covered the building with an overhanging tin roof to cool it and protect it from the rain. For his Startup Lions campus in Kenya, he was inspired by the region’s towering termite mounds to design tall ventilation towers that help cool the interior and keep dust from damaging IT equipment. And at the Schorge high school on the outskirts of Koudougou, he has wrapped the classrooms in a wooden screen that shades them and creates a buffer space between the rooms and the courtyard.
Kéré has designed several buildings outside of Africa, but he never strays too far from his roots. In 2017 he was selected to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London, considered one of the most prestigious architectural commissions in the world. Its pavilion was crowned with a slatted roof inspired by a Gando tree, and a central funnel to collect rainwater that could irrigate the surrounding park. And in 2019, he designed a wooden pavilion for the Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana. Crafted from locally sourced pine logs tied together with steel ties, its roof is inspired by the tugunaa space for gathering wood and straw that protects many small towns in Burkina Faso from the sun.
Kéré is currently building the Parliament of Benin, a spectacular structure resting on slender pillars and wrapped around a generous courtyard. It is also completing a 17,000 square foot playground and community center in Kampala, Uganda, which is raised on a platform with a drainage system to protect it from recurring flooding.
To cut costs, he embraced modular construction, building mostly with pre-made modules that are put together “to create a holistic whole.” Its pavilion at Tippet Rise is modular, as are many of its school buildings across Africa. But Kéré’s greatest asset to reduce costs is the training of the local community. “You need competent people,” he says. “If you build a bridge, that’s good and people can use the bridge, but if you build engineers. . . He pauses, waiting for me to finish his sentence. They can build a bridge themselves.