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Francis Kéré becomes first African architect to win Pritzker Prize - Energy And Water Development Corp

Francis Kéré becomes first African architect to win Pritzker Prize


It has taken more than 40 years but the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel, has finally alighted on an architect from Africa, its first black laureate since the prize was established in 1979. The choice of Francis Kéré is an illustration of how far the prize has moved from its beginnings: its first recipient was Philip Johnson, a one-time fascist and a dedicated corporate architect who once said of himself: “I am a whore.” The world has changed and even the architectural establishment has now directed its gaze to where it can make the most difference.

Kéré’s story is astonishing. Born in the village of Gando, Burkina Faso, in 1965, the eldest son of the village chieftain, he was sent to a nearby city to school aged seven, the first in his village to go. He sat in a sweltering, badly lit, poorly ventilated concrete-block classroom and vowed to build better schools when he grew up. He became a carpenter and received a scholarship to further his craft in Germany, where he began with roofing and joinery and went on to study architecture in Berlin. With that knowledge he returned home and built the public infrastructure the villages were lacking: the parks and the playgrounds, the community buildings and, of course, the schools. And now he has won architecture’s ultimate accolade.

Kéré is an intriguing figure, so much more than his back-story. His success points to how many of the big issues facing the world, from climate change and scarcity to energy use and community, are being felt most intensely by those outside the cities of the global north, where the architectural discourse coagulates into academic jargon and easy platitudes.

A small one-storey brick building with a large “floating” metal roof
Kéré raised the roof at his Gando school to allow better ventilation . . . 

Children stand outside the brick building, which has brightly coloured shutters
. . . and large side windows promote circulation © Erik-Jan Owerkerk (2)

He has juggled a career of teaching at Harvard, Yale and Munich and building community projects in villages in Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mozambique and Mali, leavened with pavilions and installations in high-profile locations including, in 2017, London’s Serpentine pavilion. These projects become tokens of visibility, used to raise the profile of what his practice is doing in less-trafficked places.

His breakthrough project in 2001 was the very school he had dreamt of designing in Gando. A long, elegant, barrel-vaulted clay/cement-brick building with a roof elevated above its walls, it allows for the circulation of air and a shaded playground and outdoor learning space. Built using simple materials and engineering, it was designed to be constructed by local builders and to be simple to maintain, using low-cost, standard components. The building was recognised with an Aga Khan Award (for architecture in Islamic countries or of Islamic origin) in 2004 and won international acclaim.

In subsequent years and by establishing the Kéré Foundation, he has slowly built an entire infrastructure of public space and amenity in the village, which lacked both running water and electricity. He built housing for the teachers, followed by a library with a perforated roof, casting remarkable shadows on to its floor, a garden, a well and gathering place and then a secondary school. The practice has developed a specialism in schools adapted carefully to their local material and cultural context, transformative buildings that should prove easy to care for and maintain.

A low building seen through a shady forest
For Mali’s National Park, Kéré designed ‘interventions’ including a youth and sports centre, a restaurant, public toilets and kiosks © Francis Kéré

Subsequent work has included landscapes, such as his designs for the Centre for Earth Architecture in Mopti and the National Park in Bamako (both Mali) and even for a Fitzcarraldo-like “Opera Village”, intended to have an opera house within it, with German director Christoph Schlingensief as a response to nationwide floods on a site outside Ouagadougou.

More recently, Kéré has designed representational buildings at a mega-scale, notably the Benin National Assembly (it resembles a palaver tree, the traditional gathering place for discussion and debate) and Burkina Faso’s mountain-like National Assembly. But the two buildings, both bold schemes rooted in large, open, public landscapes, are still in the design phase.

A three-storey building with a large square gallery around the top, set in greenery
Kéré’s Benin National Assembly design resembles the palaver tree . . . 

A building like a flat white pyramid sits at the heart of the city
. . . while his Burkina Faso National Assembly is more like a mountain © Kéré Architecture (2)

Kéré himself is modest and rooted, a realistic designer who looks to local knowledge, materials and custom rather than to a codified language of personal expression. Fluent in five languages and with traces on his face of the scarification he was given as a boy, he is both rooted in Burkinabè culture and a global figure who has shown the transformational impact of even the simplest of well-considered structures.

There is, and should be, a certain nervousness in talking about “architecture in Africa”, as if ignoring the differences between Algiers and Accra. But it is also true that this fast-growing continent is beginning to assert itself in art and architecture in the global north. It is emblematic, unfortunately, that like many successful African architects, Kéré has located his main office in Europe, but perhaps from here he is able to effect a more global impact.

In an interview in 2017, when I asked about whether he was optimistic for the future of architecture in Africa, Kéré responded: “People now know that architecture can make a difference . . . It’s a way of becoming visible.” With this prize he will, deservedly, become a lot more visible.

kerearchitecture.com



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