OF CLAY AND COMMUNITY
“Architecture is a collective endeavour.”
The small room where I wait for the architect Francis Kéréin his Berlin office is filled with models, representations of his work spilling from the shelves onto the table. When Kéré arrives, he takes one look at the setup and decides that it is wrong. We’ll go instead to a nearby restaurant, where he is greeted warmly, but before that he insists on showing me through a space in the process of renovation, just across the courtyard from Kéré Architecture. His office will shortly expand into this space, he explains with breathless, infectious enthusiasm.
This whirlwind of a welcome – the zeal, the readiness to adapt, the emphasis on the social – might also describe Kéré’s particularly grounded approach to architecture and life in general. The trajectory that led him from Gando, a village in his native Burkina Faso, to Germany is an extraordinary one; and yet, while not denying its importance and singularity, the architect prefers to view it as the result of luck, hard graft, and his own stubbornly-held brand of optimism.
Born in 1965 in Gando as the son of the village chief, Kéré had the rare opportunity to receive a primary education in the nearby city of Tenkodogo – there was no school in Gando. At the age of 13, he began an apprenticeship in carpentry, and in 1985, the first plane that Kéré ever boarded would be the one that brought him to Germany for a carpentry training programme. Afterwards, instead of returning home, Kéré decided to attend night classes so he would qualify for the renowned architecture and engineering course at Berlin’s Technische Universität. His graduation project was the school Gando never had – built in 2001 with the help of the people it was designed for, a manifestation of his understanding of architecture as a fundamentally social act that should, in its most primary function, seek to improve the lives of the people who inhabit it.
This thread has run through his work ever since, resulting in architecture that is continually innovative and responds as much to the demands of a landscape as to its inhabitants. Kéré’s structures emanate an efficient simplicity through their employment of locally available materials, and yet never feel sparse or austere. Instead, they are full of light and welcoming. Their technical accomplishments are all the more remarkable for this; from entire facades made from eucalyptus wood, to clay ceiling systems developed to provide natural cooling and ventilation. This approach neatly underscores why Kéré often questions the need to wait until conditions are ‘perfect’ in order to build, preferring to let his decisions be guided by what is at hand.
In 2004, during the infancy of his career, the Gando School won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture and attracted the attention of many in the field. Since then, Kéré has steadily grown his practice, building numerous schools, cultural institutions, medical clinics, student housing, and temporary installations, both in Africa and beyond. Fourteen years later, the architect appears to be on the precipice of another shift in terms of international renown: in 2017 he was commissioned to design the Serpentine Pavilion as the first African architect to do so, and is gaining traction further afield, with projects such as the ongoing development of the Visitor Center for Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, USA.
That first building in Gando was, in many ways, the launchpad for an exceptional career. But the project can also be read as an anchor; the means through which Kéré has maintained a relationship with the country he has not lived in for more than 30 years. This has not been without its difficulties; at times this commitment has tied him not just to Burkina Faso, but also to an expectation to speak on behalf of an entire continent, thus flattening the complex challenges he has responded to through his practice.
However, although acutely mindful of the differences, Kéré has never seen himself as forcibly bridging the gap between the world he came from and the one in which he arrived, instead regarding it as a productive space to work from. He does not switch between contexts in isolation; they are allowed to run alongside each other simultaneously. His architecture is testament to his ability not just to maintain a connection with his remarkable background, but to draw from it continually, with zeal, adaptability, and sociability.