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[Herald Design Forum 2023] African architect Diébédo Francis Kéré values communal approach in architecture

By Park Yuna

Published : Aug. 27, 2023 - 17:48

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Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, built by Diébédo Francis Kéré and locals (Enrico Cano) Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, built by Diébédo Francis Kéré and locals (Enrico Cano)

When it comes to building a public space, the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré does not consider people as “passive receivers,” but as owners of the building.

“In public buildings in Africa, it is often the case that no one feels responsible for the building. Things are broken, and no one takes (the time) to fix it. You have the feeling it’s owned by the government -- but who is the government? It will be different if people feel it is their building, if people have a feeling of ownership,” Kéré said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

Kéré won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2022 in recognition of his communal approach to design and his commitment to using sustainable materials. The first architect from the African continent to win the prize, Kéré was born in Burkina Faso, a country with a population of 22 million that has suffered from recurrent droughts and political instability.

Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré (Urban Zintel) Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré (Urban Zintel)

Gando Primary School is Kéré’s project in his hometown of Gando. Founded in 2001, the school was made possible through collaboration with local residents. Locals contributed labor, building the school by hand with clay under the guidance of the architect. Kéré employed a combination of indigenous materials and modern engineering.

“Architecture can be well intended, but if people do not have a sense of ownership, these buildings will fall into disrepair. When people feel that the structure belongs to them, then they take care of the building. ... It is not just about taking care of the building, but being proud of owning something,” Kéré said.

Kéré was born into the village chief's family but left when he turned 7 to attend school elsewhere, since there was no school in his hometown. His childhood was spent in a small classroom which lacked light and ventilation in Tenkodogo.

When he was studying architecture in Technische University in Berlin, having originally been trained as a carpenter both in his hometown and Germany, he thought of the people in his homeland, wishing to provide a school for local kids.

Gando Primary School is not the only project that embodies the architect’s philosophy. His upbringing informs his approach to architectural practices in general with a belief that “architecture is to serve people.” It is also an idea that empowers him as an architect.

“I (come) from a community where the survival of the entire community depends on how you hold together. The way we build is often passed down, like (a) craft from generation to generation, and it is a lot more communal and not quite so top-down. It is not about the vision of one, but the need of many. This informs the way I work today,” he said.

The Startup Lions Campus in Kenya, designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré (Kinan Deep for Kéré Architecture) The Startup Lions Campus in Kenya, designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré (Kinan Deep for Kéré Architecture)

Kéré sees himself as a “material opportunist,” who makes the most of the resources in the region where the architecture will stand -- whether it be clay or concrete. What helps as well is to find a counterpart in the local community. He is collaborating with architect Hermann Kaufmann on projects using wood in the south of Germany, as that is his collaborator's expertise.

“No matter where I am, I ask the same questions: Who is this for? Who will look after it when my part is done? What is available and abundant in terms of material and knowledge? I may not come with these facts ready when I arrive somewhere that I have not spent a lot of time in, but the process is the same,” he said.

The 58-year-old architect said he dreams of an "Afrofuturism" architecture that does not deplete the environment, providing shelter and comfort for one of the fastest growing populations in the world.

A concept drawing by Diébédo Francis Kéré (courtesy of the architect) A concept drawing by Diébédo Francis Kéré (courtesy of the architect)

According to the United Nations, Africa has the highest rate of population growth among major areas and more than half of the global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa.

“To me, Afrofuturism is something positive, inspiring, but also built on an expectation -- a dream of African youths seeking high quality and something that reflects their culture and fits people’s needs. It can be small, but it should be comfortable. It should be pleasing for you to see, pleasing for the soul and the brain at the same time. This is something African-inspired,” he said.

Kéré will speak at The Herald Design Forum 2023 on Sept. 19 at the Shilla Hotel. The 13th edition of The Herald Design Forum will be held under the theme of “Design for Coexistence, Exploring New Perspectives on Coexistence.”