It’s the ultimate honour. On 15 March 2022, Diébédo Francis Kéré of Burkina Faso was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the highest distinction in the world of architecture, which in the past has been offered to renowned creators such as Oscar Niemeyer and Jean Nouvel.
This is the first time an African has won the prize, which is funded by the Hyatt Foundation. Born in Burkina Faso but based in Berlin (Germany), Kéré, 57, is known for his ecological architecture: prize organisers highlight his “intelligent use of local materials to connect and respond to the natural climate”.
Although he moved to Germany to study at the Technical University of Berlin, he remains an architect rooted in his home continent. Many of his buildings have been erected on African soil, notably in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Kenya and Mozambique.
It is not because you are rich that you should waste material. It is not because you are poor that you should not try to create quality.
Despite his success and number of commissions, Kéré remains an architect who “works in marginalised countries, laden with constraints and adversity, where architecture and infrastructure are absent,” says the Pritzker Prize announcement.
“Building contemporary school institutions, health facilities, professional housing, civic buildings and public spaces, oftentimes in lands where resources are fragile and fellowship is vital, the expression of his works exceeds the value of a building itself.”
The organisers were particularly sensitive to this architect’s creations because he “emancipates and transforms communities through architecture”. His art is revealed in his desire to link ecological issues and access to comfort, even for the poorest. “Everyone deserves quality, everyone deserves luxury, and everyone deserves comfort,” Kéré has said. “It is not because you are rich that you should waste material. It is not because you are poor that you should not try to create quality.”
We take a look at some of his most striking creations:
Primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso, 2001
Gando is the village where Kéré grew up. It is also where he designed his first project. And not just any project: a primary school. He was still a student at the Technical University of Berlin when he embarked on this somewhat crazy adventure.
He succeeded in raising the necessary funds to build “his” school, which aimed to offer students a bit of comfort, meaning a tolerable ambient temperature – in a village with neither electricity nor running water. To accomplish this, he used local, and therefore inexpensive, materials (such as earth, transformed into bricks), and added a double-raised tin roof, allowing air to circulate and cool the ceiling, as well as large canopies to provide shelter from rain or the sun.
To carry out this project, Kéré invited local residents to join his teams and collaborate in the school’s construction. His objective was for them to make the place their own while acquiring skills that they could use later. All these major principles would become the source of Kéré’s varied future creations.
As for the school, it has been a great success that earned him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009. In 2003, Kéré undertook an extension of the property in order to accommodate 120 additional students.
National Park of Mali, 2010
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mali’s independence, Kéré designed a series of buildings for Mali’s National Park in Bamako: the park’s entrance pavilion as well as a sports centre and a restaurant on a rock formation, with a spectacular panorama of the park and the lake.
Each of these structures was built in local stone “in order to strengthen local cultural heritage while reducing construction costs”, explains Kéré.
Once again, the Burkinabé architect’s designs take into account the climatic challenges of each site. He chose solid stone walls to balance out the indoor temperature of the rooms as much as possible. In addition, he wanted overhanging roofs to offer visitors the maximum number of shady areas and to facilitate natural ventilation. The buildings are designed to rely solely on these passive cooling systems, without the need for air conditioning.
Health centre in Léo, Burkina Faso, 2014
This building, a health facility in the middle of Burkina Faso, is typical of Kéré’s architecture as it has had a huge impact on the local community. He designed another one in Laongo. There are surgical buildings, a maternity ward, and accommodation for the nursing staff. This clinic offers care and general health to a local population of more than 50,000 people who were previously largely deprived of it.
The clinic’s walls are made of a double layer of compressed earth bricks and concrete blocks to maintain maximum coolness. There are also many overhanging roofs, providing much needed shade in the hot environment, and a rainwater harvesting system to irrigate the surrounding plantations, in a region where it rains only three months a year.
Serpentine Pavilion, UK, 2017
The Serpentine Pavilion in London is a temporary structure that has been constructed annually since 2000. The Serpentine commission invites a renowned and emerging architect who has never built in England to design a summer pavilion.
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The world’s greatest architects have put their genius on display here, including many Pritzker Prize winners: Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Oscar Niemeyer…It was therefore a great honour for Diébédo Francis Kéré to be invited to design the 2017 pavilion. He chose a streamlined structure reminiscent of the mango trees of the Sahel.
Start up Lions Campus, Kenya, 2021
Inspired by the structure of termite nests, the Startup Lions Campus is a facility dedicated to information and communication technologies. It offers high-level courses to 200 young entrepreneurs, providing them the option to learn and prosper without having to move to the West.
Located on the shores of Lake Turkana in the Great Rift Valley, the project celebrates the site’s unique morphology and natural beauty. Built on two levels on a hillside, it follows the hill’s natural contours, with thick walls made of clay.
This ancient technique helps to maintain a cool indoor climate in a part of Africa where temperatures regularly exceed 37°C (98°F). The campus cost the Mama Sarah Foundation, named after the grandmother of former US president Barack Obama, $12m.
National Assemblies of Burkina Faso and Benin
This is Kéré’s flagship project: the future Parliament in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. He imagined a pyramidal (and semi-transparent) structure at the top of which citizens could perch.
The project, beautiful on paper, has been stalled for several years. “It’s a shame. I don’t know if it will ever happen. […] There were the terrorist attacks, and all this political deadlock linked to terrorism, and I understand that today there are other priorities aside from building a National Assembly…” he told French daily Le Monde the day after the Pritzker Prize announcement.
The good thing is that it has led to another National Assembly project, in Porto-Novo, Benin. And this one is under construction!
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